No Wakalixes*, please: thoughts on doing outreach

Apr 27 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

*Brownie points if the name 'Wakalixes' sounds familiar--do you know who coined the term?  I'll mention it later on...


Outreach is more and more on scientists' minds.  Or maybe I should say it's on their to-do lists.  Adding an outreach component to a grant proposal makes your Broader Impacts section look great, after all.  And, let's face it, if you go talk to a bunch of kids about what you do, there's no way you can feel guilty about being stuck in your ivory tower.  Right?

Now I've  talked to some of my fellow grad students about the outreach they've done in conjunction with their advisors--and I've also done outreach myself (on my own, with a school club, and with my advisor).  So I like to think I have an idea of the general sorts of outreach scientists like to do.

On the flip side, it's easy to put myself in the shoes of the people on the other end of the outreach: the kids.  I'm not a kid any more, but I do have kids and I used to spend a lot of time tutoring struggling students.  So I think I have some idea of how the kids react to different sorts of outreach.

After considering both the kids' and scientists points of view, here are my thoughts on different approaches to doing outreach.

(1) Talking about your research.  This generally does not work unless you're doing something that kids would consider cool, like astrobiology or something.  And even then you have to be careful that they will understand what you're talking about.  You don't want them to think that science is something that only a brave and gifted few can understand.

(2) Talking about simple science concepts.  This may be good, but sometimes it's taken to an extreme and made too simple.  Kids aren't stupid.  They may be ignorant (though even this is rare, in today's world of technology) but they definitely aren't stupid.  Also, you have to be careful that you don't make it boring.

(3) Making big booms (or other things that make the kids pay attention).   The goal of this approach seems to be, "let's show kids how cool science is":  a worthy goal.  But often people make the "big boom" the majority of the show, which defeats the purpose.  Ideally, it's supposed  to get the kids' attention, after which you explain what made the thing go boom in the first place.  If you get them excited about something, they're more likely to want to understand the underlying science.  Right?

But what I frequently see when I watch others doing 'big boom' outreach is the Wakalixes effect: using buzzwords without ever properly explaining what those buzzwords mean.

('Wakalixes' comes from Richard Feynman's book, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman.  When he was on California's science textbook evaluation committee, he saw a book that had pictures:  "What makes it go?  Energy makes it go."  But it never once talked about what energy is.  As Feynman said, they could have substituted some sort of nonsense word--like Wakalixes--for energy, and it would have made just as much sense to a kid who didn't understand the concept of energy.)

 So what do I like to do when I do outreach?

(1) If at all possible, I try to find out what the kids have been studying in their regular science class and use that as a springboard for what I'm going to talk about.  (For example, once I heard that the homeschool group I was going to speak at had been learning electrochemistry.  So I talked about the redox chemistry of acid mine drainage.)  Alas, this isn't always possible, but when you can do it things work out much better.

(2) I start out by asking them to think about something particular in their everyday life and what they've observed about that thing.  I ask lots of questions. The sooner I can get kids jumping up and down and waving their hands, the better.

(3) I give them a little bit of scientific background.

(4) Now I do my 'big boom' experiment related to what I'm talking about.

(5) I explain some more.

(6) I do another demonstration (usually a bit less flashy) to help illustrate the concepts.

(7) Repeat steps 5 and 6 as needed.

(8) Play time.  I ask the kids a question about the topic that we're studying that can be answered after doing an experiment.  Then I let them mess around individually or in small groups.

(9) I pull everyone back together and we discuss until the time is up.

This formula has to be tweaked slightly depending on what I'm talking about, but overall it works pretty well.  I love seeing kids walk out of the room, talking to each other (or their parents) about something related to my outreach.


One response so far

  • gerty-z says:

    great tips. i really enjoy interacting with students, especially from elementary school and middle school. You are right, it is not easy to talk about science in a useful, not boring way. But it can be super fun!