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Kristy Hopfensperger is Getting People Talking About Public Engagement

Tree planting events provide opportunities for engagement. | Credit: Northern KY Urban and Community Forestry Council.

This year’s Society for Freshwater Science annual meeting, May 19-23 in Salt Lake City, includes a “Public Engagement Station” in the exhibit hall. Each day visitors to the booth will find new offerings that connect to the plenary speaker’s topic and provide opportunities to try public engagement. Activities at the booth will include live podcasting, on-camera interview practice, and social media planning. Scientists passing by can discuss what they think is important for the public to know about freshwater science, draw their research on posters, and share their thoughts on opportunities and barriers to engaging with the public.

This public engagement extravaganza is the brain child of AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow Kristy Hopfensperger and colleagues. The president of the society enthusiastically supported them, and they received a mini-grant for the programming, in addition to using seed money from her fellowship. Hopfensperger, associate professor and director of the environmental science program at Northern Kentucky University, is also co-leading a session at the annual meeting about incorporating public engagement into existing workloads, which had to be split into two because so many people signed up.

Until recently, Hopfensperger was not actively involved at a leadership level in her society, though she has been a member for years. To implement the institutional change component of her AAAS fellowship, which involves creating better support for scientists in her community to participate in public engagement, she decided to join a committee. Public engagement is not formalized in the society’s structure, so it was not initially clear which committee to join, but eventually she found her way to the Public Information and Publicity Committee. She discovered that many people in the society were already doing public engagement and were eager to collaborate. They are conducting a survey of the membership to learn about their public engagement activities and interests. Hopfensperger will also be collecting more information at the Public Engagement Station about how the society could better support public engagement by its scientists. Working with colleagues at the society has been one of the most exciting and rewarding elements of her year. She says one of the main successes of the AAAS fellowship was that it caused her to take on the role of being “the person to get everyone talking about it.”

One of the biggest reasons Hopfensperger herself has been active in public engagement is that Northern Kentucky University is a teaching-focused university, and it requires faculty to involve undergraduate students in research. She has found one of the best ways to do this is through community-engaged research. Each year in her environmental science capstone course, Hopfensperger oversees teams of students collaborating with multiple community partners. The research provides useful data to the community, such as monitoring the long-term success of reforestation efforts that were previously unmonitored, and it provides hands-on experience with both science and public engagement to the students.

During her AAAS fellowship year, Hopfensperger’s plan for increasing her own engagement was to work with the Northern Kentucky Urban and Community Forestry Council to develop ideas for citizen science projects that the community was interested in, and then implement them with a broader public. Although she already knew many people on the council (several are her former students), she was surprised to find that she did not have a good understanding of how to best collaborate with the group. She says she did not fully grasp the function of the group, who attends various events, and how they prefer to receive and respond to information (for example, email surveys resulted in low response rates). She had the opportunity to share her research at the council’s annual fundraiser, but until she was there, she didn’t realize that the people attending were not the same people who attend their tree planting events, so the activities to gather feedback on a citizen science effort she had planned did not go as expected. “It was really eye-opening,” said Hopfensperger.

One of Hopfensperger’s main takeaways from working with community groups is to avoid specific expectations, especially about timelines, given that everyone involved is working more than full-time. However, she is gradually making progress in gathering feedback. Recently she participated in a tree planting event, a chili cook-off, and a “tree pub crawl” organized by the council, where she talked with participants and handed out surveys. She has found a lot of interest in topics like pests, invasive species, and survivorship of the trees they plant, and many people have different kinds of skillsets they want to offer to a citizen science effort. Whatever project comes out of this, Hopfensperger wants it to be deeply connected to the community, rather than to her.


In addition to all her other activities, Hopfensperger is also looking forward to speaking at an Inspire session at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in August, organized by her NKU and AAAS Leshner Fellow colleague Kirsten Schwarz and featuring several other current and former AAAS Leshner Fellows.

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.