SciFund Challenge: Why Do Outreach?


A little while back, I got an email from my friend Kelly Weinersmith, a biologist who has a bizarre attachment (ha! Haha!) to parasites. She is part of a group called the SciFund Challenge, and they are trying to increase and strengthen the connection between science and society, as well as raise money for scientific research.

Kelly contacted me because she was asking scientists who do outreach to make a short video answering some questions about how and why they do what they do. I’ve been outreaching (reaching out? Reach outing?) for a long time, and oddly enough I have some opinions about it. So I was happy to help her. I recorded it assuming I was talking to people considering doing outreach, but I suspect there are things in my short video readers of this blog will appreciate.

SciFund Challenge has a lot more videos from other scientists, too. I’ve watched several, and it’s fascinating to see the different takes people have on the work they do. I apparently have cornered the market on smartassery.

Written By: Phil Plait
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  1. In my own very small way, I have done some outreach. I offered to come into the senior public school our son attended years ago, and give a lecture on anything the science teacher would like. She said how about the solar system, as we are covering that tomorrow. Whoa, I said, it will take me a few days to prepare the material. She agreed I could come back in a week or two. I ordered the set of solar system slides from The Planetary Society, went through them, and told her I would need an hour to cover them. She was not sure Grade 5 students would sit still for an hour, but I convinced her I was a pretty good public speaker, and could always cut it short if we felt I was losing them.

    Anyway, we did it. I ran through the slides, which work in a different order that the usual Sun-Mercury-Venus progression. It started with some Scientific Method stuff, where a curious semi-circle was observed ‘behind’ one of the moons of Saturn, I think it was. After all other possible explanations were ruled out, it became obvious that what the camera had captured was the very first active volcano outside Earth. AND it was a woman who made that discovery. I emphasized that there were lots of things still to discover in science, and women can be the first to discover them. After I ran through all the other slides (and it took the entire hour) I asked if there were any questions. One young girl asked “How do you know all this stuff ?” Oooooohhhh. You live your whole life hoping to get questions like that. Hearing Phil say the same thing made me write this comment. My answer ? “Because I read. I read everything I can get my hands on. Anything that looks interesting, I read about it.”

    I even made for a few of them, a day or two later, a model of a black hole. I took a wooden frame from an old window screen maybe a foot square, removed the screening, and replaced it with a piece of panty hose. I used a series of balls, from a golf ball to a tennis ball to a lacrosse ball, to show the more massive the ball, the deeper the depression in the panty hose. I then said if the ball is heavy enough, anything that falls into the gravity well of the black hole can’t climb back out. It seemed to fascinate them. One boy asked if he could keep it. Of course.

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