Bringing Science to the Public

Evolution. Vaccines. Climate change. Science skepticism. 

Education. Community engagement. Science celebrities. Citizen science.

These concepts bring a lot to mind. Science has long been challenged or misunderstood, particularly nowadays. With a more engaged citizenry comes a more engaged science enterprise. We wrote about Science & Technology Policy Fellows who have launched initiatives to boost community involvement among scientists and engineers. Here, we highlight stories about fellows who are busy educating and conducting outreach with the public. 

“Science helps us understand the world, and I hope in turn informs how we can best care for it. I would like to promote this understanding as much as possible to the general public,” said Jonathan Trinastic, 2016-18 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of Energy. This passion is what led to Trinastic’s invitation to become a regular contributor for GotScience, a science nonfiction magazine designed to increase public understanding of science. The editor-in-chief had seen his blog about renewable energy that is geared toward a lay audience. 

“My fellowship work has opened my eyes to the critical role that government plays in supporting critical research infrastructure, like academic research programs, that maintain U.S. leadership in scientific R&D,” Trinastic said. To help bring the science and government interplay to the public, he helped launch the “science policy” topic for the magazine and wrote a four-part series on some of the most important societal issues where government and scientists can come together for public benefit

His relationship with the magazine helped lead the way to his joining the board of directors for its parent organization, Science Connected, a nonprofit aimed at creating equal access to science education and providing resources to science teachers. Of the organization’s projects, he said, “This could be one of the best ways to show students why science matters in their world.”

Another way to bring science to students is to launch a nonprofit like Christopher Williams, 2016-18 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Science Foundation, did in his spare time. “Now, FiLS is a second job, that doesn't pay (yet),” said Williams. 

The First Life Science (FiLS) program works with community centers and schools to provide educational and meaningful STEM activities for students in Washington. Williams launched the organization in 2015 while in grad school at Georgetown University. Having volunteered with several other similar programs, the need for one focused on elementary age kids became clear. 

I think of FiLS as something that I must do, because I know that it has the potential to change some students' lives.

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Some of Williams’ fellow STPF fellows have stepped up to become volunteer educators, and two fellows are on the board of directors. The fellowship has been instrumental in other ways as well. “I am learning the art and skill of evaluation as a fellow, and am using those skills to improve FiLS as the program becomes more well known. I am also using my time as a fellow to learn how all of STEM education is connected from K-12 through graduate school.” 

At the global level, citizen science initiatives help to expand our understanding of and appreciation for science. Everyday people are making contributions to scientific research in partnership with the scientific community. Funded by the National Science Foundation, “The Crowd & The Cloud” is the first public TV series to focus on citizen science and crowdsourcing. Lea Shanley, 2008-09 Legislative Branch Fellow sponsored by ASA/CSSA/SSA and a champion of citizen science, served as an adviser to the program over the past four years, offering ideas, providing feedback and connecting the producers with exemplary citizen science projects.

While serving as director of the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Shanley met the show’s producers at a citizen science conference in 2012. Shanley's early guidance, background knowledge and letter of support helped strengthen their NSF proposal to create the series.

As a kid, I was inspired to become a scientist by watching the original COSMOS on PBS. So I was thrilled to meet Geoff Haines-Stiles who produced the original COSMOS, and to be asked to contribute to his PBS series. The show, which has reached nearly five million people, will inspire the next generation of scientists as well as members of the public to address scientific and environmental challenges in their communities.

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In reviewing videos, Shanley “learned that a focus on the personal stories of the citizen science volunteers themselves, and what motivated them to contribute to scientific research, made for a much more compelling story than a strict focus on the science.”

The show premiered in April and is freely accessible at CrowdAndCloud.org along with web specials and other information. It will be available on DVD in the fall.