Scientific topics and experiments can appear overwhelming to someone without a scientific background. A team consisting of a K-State scientist (Michi Tobler, Assistant Professor in the Division of Biology) and educators at Sunset Zoo (Jared Bixby, Curator of Education, and Nicole Wade, Education Specialist) is trying to change that.
Their engagement incentive grant “Developing Capacities in Science Communication and Community Engagement” is aiming to improve community engagement with the scientific community. Tobler acknowledges that scientists often receive no formal training on how to present their work to the public, contributing to this disconnect.
The team’s first objective was making science easily accessible. Bixby said that Sunset Zoo was able to launch their “Behind the Science Initiative,” which incorporates the Science Communication Fellowship program, Science Saturdays and other activities that continued throughout the fall semester.
Each month, for example, The Tallgrass Tap House hosted “Science on Tap.” This event features a graduate student or post-doc presenting their research in a casual, conversational setting to the general public. The public’s response has been immediate and positive. Tobler reported that over 80 people attended the September event.
“This is not an easy thing to do for scientists,” said Tobler. “Scientists like to have control, and once you step out into an open forum, you give away a lot of control because you never know what kind of interactions you will have.”
According to Tobler, the “Science on Tap” events have been the most rewarding part of the project so far. “Seeing these young scientists stepping out of their comfort zone, and then engaging fairly large groups of the general community … that has been really fun to see,” said Tobler. “Just experiencing the positive receptions that aspiring scientists are getting, and the enthusiasm the community brings along. That has been really great to watch.”
“Sunset Zoo, through this program and others, has a goal of engaging audiences around science to increase science literacy throughout the community,” said Bixby. “While our mission is focused on conservation, our Education Department works on the premise that appropriate and sustained action requires a level of science literacy.”
In addition to working with the general public, the team also hopes to expand into the classrooms of K-12 schools. Oftentimes, Tobler said, teachers and scientists want to collaborate but have trouble finding each other. This partnership would not only bring a new level of scientific discussion to the classroom, but would also engage kids in thinking about a future in a scientific discipline before they have to make decisions about attending college.
Tobler believes that scientists have a responsibility to communicate their work with the general public. “Most scientist see our primary responsibility as research and teaching,” said Tobler. “I’m hoping that we can move towards scientists – and universities – also recognizing a responsibility to interact with the community beyond the immediate university. I hope what we will move to is that scientists at K-State see this as part of their job, just as they see teaching as part of their job, so that we can have a more informed and engaged community. But to achieve this, we need to foster communication skills that are not currently part of science education.”
“Ultimately, we really look forward to working with more faculty through this project,” said Bixby. “We feel this is a vital step in the growth and success of these efforts.”
Tobler also hopes to instill a sense of leadership in scientists, educators, and administrators at K-State. “If we were to organize ourselves, I think we could, as a collective group, really emerge as leaders in making world-class research interesting and relevant to the local communities that contribute to the success of our institution.”
For more information on upcoming “Science on Tap” events, please visit http://sunsetzoo.com/Calendar.aspx?EID=542.
The engagement incentive grant proposal can be found here.