8. Science Outreach

We do research only by the grace of public support.  Yet the scientific community often neglects the importance of the general public is assessing the value of science to society.   There are too few concerned scientists involved in educating the general public about the importance of science for improving our collective future. In addition, there is a tendency to “preach to the converted”. It is always the same people attending typical science outreach events, as they are interested and are plugged into various information channels to learn about such activities. (This is an exceedingly small number of individuals.)  In this case, much of the effort is wasted in terms of increasing science literacy and recruiting future generations of scientists.  For those involved, the development/preparation for science outreach activities often takes up an enormous fraction of their creative energy and time.  How do we optimally engage the general public?  How can we make the general public become more scientifically literate?  This last question is important to everyone as there are increasingly complex issues regarding the environment, health, and energy policies that require an informed public. Information only goes so far if the public is not capable of critically evaluating the information. Here is where a rudimentary understanding of the scientific process can have an enormous benefit but we need to keep people interested in science to reinforce critical thinking skills.  We need to keep people interested in being life-long learners of science … so it must be fun.

R. J. Dwayne Miller has spent his entire research career trying to come up with better, more inventive ways to make science accessible, fun, and to have some amplification factor to truly make impact.  To this objective, he was involved in developing summer research projects for talented high school science teachers so they could get first hand knowledge on how science is done and where the frontiers are.  The teachers get a feel for the excitement in doing research (and frustration) to help rejuvenate their teaching of science.  The teachers can speak more knowledgably about science.  Each teacher will impact on over 1000 students in a typical teaching career.  (Here is the amplification factor.)  It is also noteworthy that in many instances some our top scientists in history tend to come from the same area  -- same teacher.  Teachers play an undeniably important role in shaping minds. However, science has moved far ahead of teacher training.  This summer research experience is considered ( by RJDM anyway) to be the most effective means to secure the scientific talent for the next generation.  In addition, RJDM developed a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) that could be loaned to schools (and keen high school teachers as a means to find the top teaching talent) to enable students to see atoms first hand and experience modern means of scientific experimentation.  In addition, a laboratory manual with suggested experiments and samples was provided.  This STM loaner library is a good model for all kinds of experiments that are outside the means of high school budgets or expertise.  This program was initiated in 1989 when RJDM was still in Rochester and ran for 10 years.  It is estimated that over 10,000 students across the USA and Canada had first had experiences with observing atoms, measuring bond angles and distance, and getting a much better sense of what frontier science must be like.

In 2005, R. J. Dwayne Miller initiated Science Rendezvous as a means to bring the entire scientific community together to show the general public the frontier science going on in Canada – to open their doors and engage the public.  The challenge to the scientific community was to make science accessible …and fun.  It took 3 years of work to get all the universities and research institutions within the Greater Toronto Area to agree to this concept and to work collectively in promoting the importance of science.  Basically, all institutions do some form of outreach.  The general idea is to not ask research institutions to do more but to do it together to reach the critical size to gain media attention – to amplify the message so it can be heard by the general public to reach the second tier.  There was an unprecedented degree of cooperation to promote science for the common good that included all institutions and across all disciplines from chemistry, physics, life sciences, pharmacy, all engineering, geology, etc.  The very first event drew out over 8000 attendees at the University of Toronto alone.  The event has grown and now extends across the country to become the largest event of its kind (geographically at least).  In 2013, there were over 158,000 attendees (and over 4000 volunteers) with growth of 20% per year (amplification/gain).  In addition, Science Rendezvous is actively involved in training scientists how to be better communicate science to the general public, by consulting with those in the media, holding webinars on how get public interest and not lose the science, videoconferences to share best practices etc etc.  (We will all become better teachers for it).  Please see www.sciencerendezvous.ca for more details on the event/concept – AND how you can become involved.

In addition to the above, R. J. Dwayne Miller is co-Director and was lead PI on the DFG funded Centre of Excellence, The Hamburg Centre for Ultrafast Imaging".  There are a number of important science outreach initiatives from a girls science program, summer science camps, to scientists in schools programs. Please see www.cui.uni-hamburg.de/en/schools/ for all the details.