Science Outreach: Get Started


If you are currently a graduate student, the chances are very good that your department (or wider division) already has a STEM outreach program in place. Sometimes these are formally recognized by the university as graduate or undergraduate student groups, and sometimes they are much more informal (1-3 students irregularly visiting schools). If such a program does not already exist at your school, start one!

Start an outreach group (it's not as hard as you might think)

You need very little to begin doing outreach in your community. First, you have to decide if you want to do K12 outreach (partnering with local teachers), or general public outreach (creating education opportunities for a larger adult audience). 

K12 Outreach

Find the Schools: Middle schools and elementary schools are hungry for STEM outreach. It should not be a problem to find schools who want you to come to their classrooms. You can start by asking your faculty if they would let you do outreach at the schools their children attend. The schools will likely be close to campus, and the faculty member might even get involved. You can also contact someone in the Education Department at your school. Pre-service teachers usually have to shadow a teacher at a local school, so someone in this department should have a contact list of local teachers. Another option is just to post an application for outreach online and let the teachers come to you. An example of such an application (used by UCLA's Astronomy Live! group) can be found here. If you can, try to focus on Title I schools. A school gets Title I classification if a certain percentage of the parents of the students fall below a certain threshold for gross household income. Find out more here

Develop the Presentation: Once you have the contacts, you'll want to decide exactly what you will do when you get to the classroom. The easiest thing to do is to create fun, interactive presentations on a variety of topics, and make the topic list available to teachers (so that they can choose the topic that fits into their curriculum). These usually take the form of Powerpoint presentations, but they don't have to. If you have interactive demonstrations or activities available to you, that's even better! Usually there will be a department (or room, or closet) at your school with equipment used in undergraduate labs. You might be able to borrow some of this equipment for your outreach event. Not all demonstrations require complex equipment. In fact, demos that use materials the students encounter in every-day life tend to be more impactful. For example, you can use toilet paper, torn into the appropriate lengths, to represent a scale model of the Solar System. If possible, it's always better to use a demonstration or activity that requires student involvement, rather than one where the presenter is the only one touching the equipment. High schools tend to prefer college-prep activities, such as a lab visit, or a presentation about science careers. Be sure to keep an open line of communication with the teachers to determine exactly what they are looking for, and what you are willing to provide.

Solicit Volunteers: If you have trouble finding volunteers, you can remind faculty, post-docs, and grads that outreach benefits the volunteer as well as the school. Alumni like to see that the researchers funded in part by their donations are giving back to the community. A strong outreach program is also eligible for outside funding from private or federal foundations. Finally, if a grad students wants funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), they need to show that their research has "broader impacts." Participation and leadership in an outreach program is perfect for NSF proposals.

Plan the Visit: Some schools will have enough funding to visit your campus, but some will not. If you can apply for funding to rent buses or vans to transport the students to campus, that can be a very fulfilling for the students (especially if they have never been to a college campus). If you will be bringing students to campus, make sure to communicate with the teachers about how many students will be coming and how many chaperones will be provided (sometimes parents attend as chaperones). Also, check with your college/university to see if there are any rules about bringing large groups of students to campus. In some cases, you might be required to provide water, or even lunch, depending on how long the students will be on campus. In most scenarios, however, you will need to transport your volunteer(s) and demo materials to the school itself. You'll usually be taking over some portion of the teacher's classroom, but you may also be asked to participate in a "Family Science Night" - a sort of science fair for students, teachers, and families.

Find partners: Outreach is more impactful if you can find a way to create lasting relationships with a few schools, rather than doing one-off visits to a large number of schools. But the students won't always need outreach presentations in your field. Try partnering with people in other departments to form a network of outreach volunteers. You can even organize a large campus event with outreach activities presented by multiple departments on campus. For an example, see UCLA's Exploring Your Universe event.

General Public Outreach

Plan - Outreach events can take many forms. The most common are public lectures (usually on a weekly or monthly schedule) or lab tours. You can also piggy-back on other outreach events that take place at museums, schools, and other institutions in your area. You can also try some out-of-the-box outreach events. Some examples include star-gazing nights, the "Science Train", or any event where you encounter the public without requiring them to come to campus. You could even set up a booth at a local mall or airport! People would love to learn science while they're waiting around for a plane anyway!

Promote - Social media is an EXCELLENT way to promote your event. Also consider working with your Development Office to promote the event to alumni and donors. Finally, you can join local science meet-up groups and post your event to their list-serv.

Curiosity Machine is a large-scale, revolutionary, online project-based learning and mentoring platform. Our mission is to reimagine the way children learn and we'd like to invite you on this adventure. We provide the training; you inspire learners in your local community. The process is simple yet powerful: children post projects online, mentors provide suggestions for improvement, and together you discover solutions to exciting real-world challenges.