Eating Our Own


Last week, an article was published in STAT magazine about how scientists need to do more outreach. A few exasperated tweets complaining about the article’s tone and content soon morphed into a full-on hate-fest, with buckets of vitriol raining down on an innocent graduate student who had dared to try and expand on the article’s premise. The attacks, led by a parade of well-known science communication personalities, went way beyond the bounds of civil debate. As someone who uses Twitter to engage in these types of academic discussions all the time, I was angry with the entire situation but I wasn’t sure how to respond.

Now that I’ve had some time to think about things, I’m still angry. I’m angry with the “venerable” online science community. MY supposed community. My community of peers who are actively involved in doing and promoting science outreach and communication. Is this the way to draw more people into doing outreach and communication? By shutting them down when they try to engage? By using their naiveté and inexperience as weapons against them?

I find this entire course of action by those who chose to denigrate and shame a person who was genuinely looking for information and guidance disgusting. Even worse, it is entirely antithetical to the goals of this movement around public engagement with science that we are all, collectively, trying to engender and support and promote.

We in the science outreach community already have a hard enough time getting scientists to spend some of their scant free time out of the lab doing outreach and communicating about their research. Not when their adviser is demanding to see experimental results. Not when their department chair is expecting them to be securing a steady stream of research funding. Not when their dean is holding a tenure decision precipitously over their head. Now we have to overcome the barrier of having those who are already “in the know” telling them they are doing it wrong? Telling them that they need to get a Ph.D. in outreach before they even start? When did this become a situation of us versus them, where some communicators and outreachers are more equal than others?

Full disclosure- I happen to know this graduate student. She’s taken our online training course, “The Art of Science Communication.” She now volunteers her precious time (as a junior graduate student) to help teach the course. She does outreach and wants to do more. She’s walking the walk, and I want to help her do it. Because that’s my job — getting scientists involved with outreach.

I want every scientist to communicate. To engage. To throw off the stigma and tradition and stereotype of the loner scientist locked away in the lab. To put themselves out there in public. I’ve heard over and over that not every scientist should be a communicator. I could not disagree more. Every scientist should be a communicator. Communication and outreach should be compulsory for a scientific career. I’ve dedicated myself to help every scientist to communicate. I work every day to help pave that way. I want the entire world to see who scientists are and what they do.

In two months, we are all going to march for science. Are we going to start deciding who can attend that event, who is allowed to speak for science? Or are we going to use this opportunity, this incredible platform, to engage with everyone we can, gain support and show what science is and how it’s used?

Let’s stop the pointless bickering and online yelling and start facing the same direction. Because if we don’t all stand together, we’ll fall apart.

Sign up for “The Art of Science Communication”


The next round of our online training course Course logo“The Art of Science Communication” starts in early June. If you are interested in improving your communication skills or getting advice and instruction on how to effectively present your science for a non-expert audience, all from the comfort of your home (or lab), then this is the course for you. But don’t just take my word for it. Here are what some of our previous course participants have had to say:

“I wanted to have a better idea of good communication principles that apply specifically to science. I enjoyed the course and learned a lot; I am glad I took the course.”

“I hoped to learn to communicate science better. The course exceeded my expectations.”

“It was great to get advice from people who actually value science communication and have experience with it.”

“As someone educated with very limited formal instruction in science communication this was something that was long overdue. Even with a vast experience of presenting my research, this class has immediately helped me improve my presentations to a science audience. It was also very effective in helping me develop skill and a talk to give to a lay audience. In addition, I think that this course has helped focus my message when writing grants.”

Want more proof of the effectiveness of the course? 85% of our past participants would recommend the course to a friend or colleague, and 90% say they feel better prepared to give a presentation to a non-expert audience.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up today to reserve your spot! Applications are being accepted through Friday May 20.

Questions? Email us at

The Art of the Elevator Pitch


Giving a talk? Presenting a poster? Networking with potential collaborators or future employers? Communication will be everywhere at EB2016. That means it is vitally important to be prepared to talk, at any moment, about who you are and what you do. And with so much happening at the meeting, you have to be engaging before whoever you are talking to runs off to the next event.

But how can you do all that while still being accurate about your science? This is a challenge for any scientist who wants to communicate, especially in situations when time is limited. So to help prepare EB attendees, the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee has put together an in-depth training workshop that focuses on a specific type of communication interaction: the elevator pitch.

An elevator pitch is exactly what it says: introduce yourself and describe your work in the time it takes to ride an elevator down from your hotel room. This type of pressure-cooker situation forces you to focus on what is really important in terms of content and delivery, and realize what can be discarded. Importantly, these lessons can then be applied to any type of communication venue, whether it be a professional presentation or a casual conversation with friends.

For our highly interactive training session on Saturday April 2, we will give you everything you need to pull off a successful elevator pitch by providing insight into all of the key elements, including:

  • What makes a good elevator pitch
  • Things you should NOT do
  • How to know if you made a good impression
  • Ways to follow up

Leading the workshop will be several expert communicators, including members of the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee, so you know you’ll be getting quality advice. The best part of the workshop is that you will get a chance to try these techniques out for yourself before you set off for the meeting proper.

This workshop is a spin-off from our online course, “The Art of Science Communication,” which provides in-depth training on presenting scientific topics to non-expert audiences. If you like what you see during the workshop, we hope that you’ll consider signing up for the full “Art of Science Communication” course to learn how to apply these (and additional) lessons to a whole variety of situations. The next version of “The Art of Science Communication” will run this summer and there are a limited number of slots available, so as an added bonus, attendees of this workshop will get priority when applying!

See you in San Diego!


Date and time: Saturday April 2 from 12:30 – 4:30 PM

Location: San Diego Ballroom C of the San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina.

Registration: Sign-up is required for this workshop. Click here to register.

SciTrek- Helping students learn “How Science Works”


Mealworms are ~1 inch long larva with a slightly hardened exterior to help them burrow underneath rocks, logs, or in stored grains, but how do mealworms find food and a comfortable environment? To find the answer, 3rd graders at numerous elementary schools in the Santa Barbara, California area worked with staff and volunteers from the UCSB SciTrek program, a K-12 science outreach venture created by Dr. Norbert Reich to improve science education in 2nd-8th grade classrooms by bringing the resources, people, and modules in order to help teachers.

SciTrek_1 The members of SciTrek have created modules that combine a fun activity and test subject (in this case worms!) with learning how to be a scientist.  Each module balances the need for efficient classroom management and meeting specific Next Generation Science Standards with the freedom for students to reason and think critically about each aspect of doing science.

For the mealworm module, SciTrek members worked with a number of local area teachers to develop an interactive, 6 lesson module to test what factors affect the direction a mealworm travels, in order to explore the role of food, moisture, light, and surface texture on mealworm habitat and health.

After learning about and making observations on the mealworms, students were guided through developing testable hypotheses with controllable variables. Many hypothSciTrek_2eses were different from each other, with no “plug and chug” protocol stifling scientific inquiry. For example, “If there are more than 6 mealworms in one pill container slot at time point 0, then the mealworms will travel away from each other until there are 3 mealworms per container slot at time point 5 minutes.” Students formulated an experimental plan and ran the experiment, making sure they conducted each trial multiple times so that they could calculate elementary statistics and gauge confidence in their results. Finally, students analyzed their data and presented their findings at a classroom poster session. Students were encouraged to make statements on what makes a mealworm travel based upon their data, with the understanding that there wasn’t necessarily one correct answer.

This type of module is typical of the SciTrek approach. Besides providing equipment and materials, SciTrek’s roll during the actual module is to create an environment that encourages students to think like scientists, meaning students learn to make observations and then try to objectively figure out why those observations are true and what they mean. This process requires patience, and breaking bad habits that limit exploration by discouraging experiments that don’t always work or by following experimental plans instead of creating them.

SciTrek offers a comprehensive online resource containing numerous modules (including mealworms), along with teacher instructions and student lab notebooks for nonlocal educators teaching 2nd-8th graders. To learn more about SciTrek, read our interview with Dr. Reich to learn about aspects of SciTrek’s creation, maintenance, and future plans, or visit SciTrek’s website.

Science Outreach Events at the 2015 ASBMB Annual Meeting


If you have ever struggled to explain your research to a family member, you know how difficult it can be to effectively explain science to the lay public. Communicating clearly about your work can be tricky even when you’re talking to another scientist. The ability to communicate effectively is also a critical skill when applying for grant funding. Figuring out how to make a meaningful connection between your outreach and your research can be particularly difficult when crafting a Broader Impacts statement as part of the application for NSF funding. Luckily for those planning to attend the 2015 ASBMB Annual Meeting, the Public Outreach Committee has organized several events to address all of these issues.

The first outreach event of this year’s meeting is the “How to Incorporate Science Outreach into Your Portfolio – Best Practices and Broader Impacts” session, running from 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM on Saturday, March 28th, in room 252B. This session will start with talks from previous HOPES, Outreach Seed Grant, and UAN Student Chapter Grant winners, showcasing ASBMB’s various funding mechanisms. An informal poster networking session will be held from 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM, followed by lunch and a group discussion until 1:00 PM. Please join us! Register here so we know how many people to expect and how much food to order.

Our next event is the Science Outreach Poster Session, held during the ASBMB opening reception on Saturday evening, March 28th from 7:30 – 9:00 PM in the third level foyer. Come see all the great outreach efforts our members (and others!) are leading across the country, and learn more about how you can get involved in your own community. More information on this session can be found here.

If you have been working on a Broader Impacts Statement, bring a draft to one of our Broader Impacts Workshops. These will be held Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday from 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM outside room 252. Mentors who have successfully won NSF funding have volunteered to help you improve your drafts and show you how to distinguish yourself from other applicants. More information on these workshops can be found here.

Our last two outreach events showcase the fun side of science. The first is the unique and highly interactive session “Improv for STEM Professionals: Creating Engaging Conversations.” Dr. Raquell Holmes, founder of improvscienceTM, will lead this session on Monday, March 30th from 12:30 – 2:00 PM in room 253B. Performed interviews, collaborative storytelling, and other exercises will help attendees learn how to create rapport with and to listen to an audience, making them more engaging speakers both in outreach activities and in professional talks.

Our final outreach event is, appropriately, open to the public. Dr. Raquell Holmes will lead “LIvE: the Living Improv Experiment” at Ned Devine’s Irish Pub, 1 Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Quincy Market Building, at 6:30 PM on Monday, March 30th. This living experiment is focused on defining how exactly improv can help science? Can it help everyone communicate more clearly? Can it be useful for starting public discussions? Come find out! Please invite your friends and colleagues, both in and outside the laboratory, to join us. This event is going to be a lot of fun, and to get the most of out it you should prepare to be very actively involved. We’ll start with group exercises and then move on to small groups, so that everyone gets a chance to practice and learn! Use this link to register.

For more information about all of our outreach events, please click here. We hope to see you in Boston!

Outreach Posters at Experimental Biology 2015


One of the biggest challenges in the field of science outreach is to facilitate opportunities that bring scientists and informal science education experts together. Often, each group has several members in the same local community who are interested, even willing to engage with the other, but have no way to do so. On occasion, there are individuals able to bridge this divide. Yet if the broader push to enhance science outreach as an endeavor is to succeed, it will be necessary for even more willing participants to come together and join forces.

For the past two years, ASBMB has featured a poster session at our annual meeting dedicated exclusively to showcasing outreach activities and programs, thereby providing an opportunity for our 2015-AnnualMeeting-signaturemember scientists to get a sense of all that informal science education entails. This year, we are happy to again offer this poster session on the first night of our meeting, directly following the Herbert Tabor Research Award Plenary Lecture on the evening of March 28. However, as an added bonus, this year we have made registration for the outreach poster session completely FREE OF CHARGE. That means if you have a program or activity that you want to show off to the entire ASBMB membership, all you have to do is submit an abstract. No registration fee, no abstract fee, nothing. Just fill out our online form and show up.

For those involved with outreach and informal science education, this poster session is a great opportunity to showcase your pet project and start recruiting scientists for your effort. ASBMB Annual Meeting 2014- Outreach Poster SessionMeanwhile, for scientists, this event is the perfect chance to see what outreach actually is, to meet some of the people who are doing it, and find out how you can get involved.

So if you have an outreach project, informal science education activity or community program, come join us in Boston area next spring and show off what you do to a captive scientific audience. There’s no cost, but the benefit could be priceless.

To submit your poster abstract for the outreach poster session, visit:

A Community of Practice


Last week, dozens of informal science education stakeholders met in Washington D.C. for the biennial Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) Primary Investigator meeting, organized by the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE). The meeting provided a platform for outreach professionals to show off their National Science Foundation-supported programs, share insights and best practices, and confer with researchers and evaluators about future directions in the field.

The 2014 AISL PI Meeting ProgramThe first day featured technical assistance sessions for PIs, provided by NSF program officers and CAISE leadership. One session focused on evaluation in informal learning, one of the major themes for the conference. Attendees noted confusion about whether the intent of evaluation was to determine the effectiveness of projects for enhancing learning, or to simply determine whether the projects had met their goals. There was also a call for clarifying the distinction between evaluation of, and research on, informal learning.

On the second day, conference attendees were addressed by Joan Ferrini-Mundy, Assistant Director of the Education and Human Resources Directorate at the National Science Foundation. At the last PI meeting in 2012, Ferrini-Mundy stunned attendees with her decision to rebrand the NSF Informal Science Education (ISE) program as AISL, redirecting the program’s focus towards supporting research about learning in informal environments. This year, her remarks were much less controversial, instead touching upon on strategies for improving the visibility of informal education programs.

Attendees then split up into multiple breakout sessions:

  • Broadening Participation in Informal STEM Education
  • Connecting with Scientists: What are the Needs & Unexplored Opportunities?
  • How is Technology Building New Audiences for ISE?
  • ISE Contributions to the STEM Workforce
  • ISE Networks, Infrastructure & Resource Centers
  • Learning & Learning Environments: Research, Design & Implementation
  • Measuring Learning Across ISE Projects
  • Mining the Field: What Are We Learning?

Discussions ranged widely, though a common motif was how the lessons learned from current effective approaches can be applied more broadly to grow the field. Attendees also felt it important that the field include stakeholders beyond those supported by NSF, a point that was emphasized during a lunch panel that featured staff from several different federal agencies (including NASA, NOAA and the National Endowment for the Arts) talking about how their organizations supported informal STEM education programs.

PIs showed off their individual programs during an afternoon poster session. The diversity of programs ranged from small-scale programs at individual institutions to larger efforts like media projects and national outreach networks, covering the entire breadth of STEM fields.

For the conference’s final day, attendees got to choose from a series of open sessions nominated by their fellow PIs:

  • Cultural Competency And Cultural Relevancy Strategies For Broader Engagement And Impact
  • The Intersection Of Art As Science: Arts/Science Connection
  • STEM And Public Libraries
  • How Do You Measure Success?
  • ISE and Scientists: Helping Each Other Cross the Divide
  • What Are The “Big” Research Questions We Should Focus On Regarding Broader Participation In The Field?
  • Broadening Participation Through Media
  • Informal STEM Media/Tech/Social Media
  • Place-Based Education And Community Involvement
  • Learning In Public Places

One of the collective take-aways from these sessions was that the community needs to come up with strategies to ensure that the informal science infrastructure be set up so that existing programs and individuals can support each other. Such infrastructure should include clearly defined terms and goals, identification both of successful and unsuccessful approaches to doing informal education, making resources widely available and establishment of platforms for collaboration and interaction amongst stakeholders.

Given this infrastructure, the conference attendees determined that a logical next step is to demonstrate the importance and value of informal STEM education to those who are not currently engaged or involved. Attendees felt that both top-down and ground-up approaches could be used to build support for the informal education field and expand its reach and effectiveness. Potential ideas that were mentioned included a landscape study of existing informal education programs, a separate conference to discuss these themes, and drafting of a white paper to be shared with top administrators. Certainly laudable goals to aim for by the time the meeting returns in 2016.

A Storify of tweets from the conference can be found here.

Information about the conference can be found on the CAISE website.

Sci-Com in the Classroom


Raise your hand if you took a communications class in school. Probably not too many palms in the air. Formal training on how to be a good communicator, especially for those studying a scientific discipline, is rare. However, as the science communication movement continues to gain momentum, examples of such ventures are becoming increasingly common.

The July issue of ASBMB Today highlights one particular science communication course taught at the University of California, Riverside by Dr. Tom Baldwin (who also happens to chair the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee). The article lays out Dr. Baldwin’s blueprint for training his students in the art of science communication, distinguishing ways to connect with both professional and non-expert audiences. In addition, Dr. Baldwin describes how he breaks down communication into some of its most basic components, such as storytelling and presentation style.

Students from the course also present their perspectives, describing their motivations for taking the class and highlighting what they learned. While the students came into the course with different interests and expectations, they all left with an understanding of the importance of being an effective communicator. Several mention a meeting with Congressman Mark Takano (D-CA) as being particularly insightful as to how good communication can impact real-world outcomes.

Thankfully, Dr. Baldwin’s course is not unique. Institutions around the country are increasingly offering formalized communication training for scientists, either incorporated into regular science courses (such as that taught by Professor Ricky Cox in his biochemistry course at Murray State University) or as stand-alone courses (for example, the “Science and Me” course at the University of Missouri organized by Hannah Alexander).

While such courses are great for current and future students, what kind of training is available for scientists who are at more advanced stages of their careers? To serve as broad an audience as possible, the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee is developing an online science communication training course for ASBMB members of all ages that will be available come 2015. Even better, Dr. Baldwin has lent his expertise to help develop the course. So if you like what you read about his course, you’ll soon be able to experience it for yourself. That’s something that will make you throw your hands in the air.

Read the article here.

Click here to learn more about the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee

Away From the Numbers


The public wants what the public gets/But I don’t get what this society wants

-The Jam, “Going Underground”


Science and Engineering Indicators 2014Earlier this year, the National Science Board released the 2014 version of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report, detailing trends within the STEM community. In addition to data about STEM degrees, patents, and research budgets, the Indicators include a chapter on public attitudes and understanding of science and technology, providing an intriguing look at how the scientific community and its efforts are viewed by the general public.

First, the good news: people generally have positive views of scientists. 41 percent of Americans surveyed expressed “a great deal of confidence” in scientific leaders, ranking them second only to military leadership, ahead of members of the Supreme Court and (not surprisingly) politicians. Four of five of those surveyed would be happy if their child became a scientist, and over 80 percent indicated some level of interest in science.

Less encouraging are the statistics showing what the public understands about science. Fewer than half of those surveyed feel that they have a solid understanding of what scientists actually do, and 50 percent of respondents “strongly agree” or “agree” with the idea that scientific work is dangerous. Furthermore, in spite of the increase in both formal and informal efforts focusing on enhancing science education, knowledge about scientific concepts seems not to have increased very much over the past few decades, with respondents answering fewer than six out of nine questions about science correctly.

Science and Engineering Indicators: Figure 7-6

These data echo an oft-heard complaint from those within the scientific community that the public doesn’t “get” science. Countless hours have been spent, and volumes of words have been spilled, pondering what can be done to increase public understanding of science. Perhaps a better question for the scientific community to ask instead is, what does the public actually want from scientists? Should we assume that they want to hear what scientists have to say, or that they want to know more about science?

Maybe, instead of dogmatically telling the public what they should know, the scientific community should spend some time figuring what the public wants to know. As several recent discussions have emphasized, effective science communication, on which successful outreach relies, necessarily requires a two-way dialogue. Maybe, instead of trying to make sure that everyone everywhere knows everything about science, we should listen to those who have argued that instead of striving for universal public scientific literacy, science outreach efforts should focus their energy on generating public appreciation for, and awareness of, science.

Maybe then, the next version of the Science and Engineering Indicators will provoke less angst about what the numbers say, and more introspection about what people actually say.