Co-written by Dr. Irene Grimberg, Affiliate Associate Research Professor at Montana State University.
Science may seem like an exclusive club, what with the complicated technical jargon, quirky inside jokes that only seem funny to science people, daunting entrance and exit exams, and years of study and self-improvement. And it doesn’t help that many scientists would rather hole up in their lab than give a public presentation or figure that “social media thing” out. But we scientists get coffee stains on our lab coats and use spell-check just like everyone else. And as with ice cream, science comes in a tremendous variety of flavors and sizes of commitment. So, let’s talk about some ways that you can involved today!
Getting acquainted with the vast field of science seems daunting, but it’s actually easy and fun. There are hundreds of museums out there that are eagerly waiting to broaden your perspective on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and will let you give it a try with hands-on activities. Wikipedia has conveniently made some lists on science museums in the US and around the world. In fact, there are organizations like the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Science-Technology Centers that can help to get you connected to the museum that catches your eye. Many US National Parks also have strong science education programs and information in the visitor centers or around the park (at least, as of January 19th, 2017 they did).
All colleges and universities host daily talks (seminars) on current research and they are open to the public, they just aren’t advertised widely in local media. If you search online for your local university and “seminar”, you can find public presentations for nearly every department or subject, not just the STEM ones. Some presentations are available as webinars and can be found online to watch remotely in real-time so that you can ask questions, or can be replayed later at your leisure. There are many outreach STEM programs sponsored by non-profit organizations, sometimes in collaboration with universities. For example, Farm Days or Field Days are public presentations at university research facilities on issues related to local and national agriculture, food production, and food safety. In fact, most university farms and greenhouses are open to the public and offer free tours and other events on a regular basis. There are also “ask an expert” shows on local public radio and TV in which viewers can call in and ask questions to university researchers. Or you can simply email your questions and get connected to someone in a relevant field. Even NASA has a program in which you can ask questions to an astrophysicist!
Other educational options include science festivals, robotic competitions and shows, Science Olympiads, The National Chemistry Week, and programs that specifically aim to recruit girls to science, such as Expanding Your Horizons and Girls for a Change. As an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, I participated in a service-learning course in spring of 2008 in which we designed a public presentation at the ECHO Center in Burlington, VT. The purpose of the all-day workshop was to educate kids and adults on wolf ecology and potential reintroduction into New England. Our Wolfwise presentation was incredibly fun to host, and it was a huge hit: we were invited to come back and present again the next weekend!
If leaving the house isn’t your thing, there are an overwhelming amount of resources available online. An increasing number of scientific and research journals are available free of charge online, known as open access. Over 26 million journal articles are available through PubMed, a database for medically-relevant research studies which is curated by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Science News hosts a huge variety of STEM articles compiled from the most prestigious science journals, as well. And any subject under the sun (or inside the sun) has an educational video out there somewhere. There are science shows on TV, a dedicated cable channel, and documentaries including several outstanding educational series with high-definition video footage from around the globe (Plant Earth, Life, and The Blue Planet). There are podcasts, such as Science, Star Talk Radio, and many others that allow you to listen to recorded audio shows on your own time. You can find interactive websites to learn a variety of things, both academic and practical. Or teach yourself computer coding in C++, Java, Ruby, Python, or Perl.
Just be sure that you are getting your information from a credible source. Many online bloggers or websites sound great, but they often have no formal training in what they peddle, or are heavily sponsored by companies to promote an unsubstantiated lifestyle or discredit scientific work. A good rule of thumb is to look for qualifications, citations, and motivations. Does this person or organization have formal education or training? Do they cite their sources for information? And what is their reason for doing this? Here are my qualifications, you’ve seen how much I enjoy citing sources, and since I am (and have always been thus far) federally-funded through different grants, I consider it part of my job to share my work and my experiences free of charge.