Julia Kamenetzky is an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her research focuses on extragalactic submillimeter spectroscopy with Z-Spec and Herschel. She is active in CU’s Women in Astronomy group and is the recent winner of the CU Boulder Graduate School’s Dorothy Martin Doctoral Student Award for a student active in women’s issues.
Role models are critically important for encouraging young people to pursue science and math careers, especially young girls. Astronomy is in a unique position because space is an incredibly interesting and awe-inspiring topic for the general public, yet most people don’t have a good understanding of what astronomers do. As I mentioned in a previous guest blog post, I recently started working with an afterschool STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) program for elementary school girls.
For this guest blog post, I wanted to share some tips for conducting astronomy outreach, based on what I’ve learned:
- Make it easy for yourself. Finding an established outreach group is ideal because you can volunteer your time but not have to worry about finding space or advertising to get participants. Use established curriculum from sources such as NASA (http://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/index.html); if you’re not worried about strict classroom standards, feel free to pick and choose the portions you want to use and the ones that are not necessary for the outreach environment. Utilize equipment from your department, local planetariums and science museums instead of reinventing the wheel. If you have money to spend, utilize websites and catalogues for science teachers (such as http://www.teachersource.com, I found the ultraviolet detecting beads to be a big hit).
- Make it easy for your volunteers My goal was to establish a bridge between our Women in Astronomy group and the school group, so that those who recognize the importance of volunteering can just sign-up and spend a few hours of their time volunteering without advanced preparation. Utilize online services such as Doodle or Google Forms to determine availability or sign-up volunteers electronically. Send volunteers the plan of activities so that they can know what to expect and ask questions ahead of time in order to feel more comfortable when they arrive. If possible, offering carpooling may be useful. We are all busy so don’t make extra work for yourself or others.
- Focus on inquiry-based activities. We are very used to being in “lecture mode,” but outreach is usually not the right place for lecture, even when we are sharing facts/images/movies that are mind-blowing and admittedly very cool. Think instead about your goals and the group’s goals. If your goal is to inspire a younger generation to have the confidence to be able to be scientists, then let them DO science, not just hear about it. This can sometimes be tricky in astronomy since we study things so far away and intangible, so try to focus on topics that can easily be experimented with, such as light and motion, whose principles can then be applied to astronomy.
- Understand time usage and be flexible. If working with an established program, make sure you clearly communicate with the organizer how much time you have for activities and how much will be taken up by other things such as: pre- or post-evaluations, reflection/writing, snacks, or recess/break time. Additionally, be flexible, especially if you are unfamiliar with working with children in the age group you’ve chosen. It may be difficult to predict how much time activities will take, but more importantly, sometimes unexpected questions will spark a great learning opportunity, so don’t be afraid to go with the flow. Have a few extra activities/questions that can be added if there is extra time or subtracted if there is not enough time.
- You don’t have to be an expert in the content matter or in education. You don’t need to be a solar astronomer to be able to talk with kids or the public about the sun, you know enough already, and it’s fine to say “I don’t know” to some questions. Yes, having a great understanding of science education will help, but don’t let that deter you from volunteering your time because your role as an astronomer volunteer is different from being a professional educator. Your presence and enthusiasm is valuable in itself, especially if a group of kids can “see themselves” as you one day, for example, if you have the same background as those students. Many kids do not have the opportunity to see and talk to a real astronomer, or any kind of scientist. Being able to ask you their one question and hear your answer can make a real impact on a kid’s mind, even if that was only a five minute interaction in an hour long activity.
- Remember that you are working with non-scientists. Most people who are not scientists don’t really know what scientists do, and that may include the organizers, teachers, parents, and kids. They might not know that astronomers don’t study constellations, or that a star still just looks like boring dot of light even if you look at it through a telescope. It’s important to be aware of this ahead of time, but don’t let the potential disconnect deter you from outreach. This is why we do outreach. People will never “get” what scientists do if we aren’t out there communicating it with them! For each “disappointment” you fear from your outreach audience, you would be surprised how much excitement you can generate when you teach them about other things in astronomy, even if it’s not what they had expected from you at first.
Working with this group has been a very valuable experience for me. I do not want to focus on outreach for my career, though there are so many paths to take for those astronomers who do want to commit their full effort to outreach. However, I still value the role of science outreach to our society, so I feel it is important that we all do our part as scientists. I am personally not used to working with children so this was very new to me and I couldn’t always gauge if it was “worth it” or not. Were the girls really getting something out of this? As soon as I would be asking myself that question, one of the girls would ask a wonderful question, or I’d see that “spark” in one of their eyes when they suddenly “get it,” or I’d hear from a parent how the girls couldn’t stop talking about an activity they did. It’s those little things that are reassuring.
I would like to challenge the readers of this blog to participate in just a couple of hours of outreach this fall. Feel free to use the comments to share your ideas and experiences as well!