We're a little crazy, about science!

What is good outreach?

Yet another outreach event in the books! I have two more events this week and I believe that’s the last for my skype a scientist commitment. Since this term I was assigned classes practically all at once, I may re-volunteer to get a few extra classes in this term. Normally requests for my specific field don’t happen, but they’ve become more frequent, which is interesting to see because biomedical engineering, or my subset neuroengineering, isn’t a widely known field, but it is growing. All this recent outreach has gotten me thinking about what makes a good presentation, so let’s talk about it.

If you’re new around here, then welcome aboard. This is my daily blog about my PhD journey. I’m a third year PhD candidate in neuroengineering. My BS and MS are in mechanical engineering, so it was a leap to neuroengineering, one with a huge learning curve, but it has been an amazing journey. I’m pioneering a “super secret” technique that I hope will help people and my studies are on how neural communication changes after spinal cord injury, specifically signals between the spinal cord and brain. I do a lot of other stuff too, woodworking (on occasion), mental health and disability advocacy (like this), and a whole lot of teaching (like my know your spinal cord series). Today we’re going to discuss my favorite thing about PhD life, outreach.

Yesterday I — once again — talked about how much I love doing outreach. Outreach isn’t just talking about the science you’re doing, it’s about storytelling, about engaging people well outside your field, getting people excited about possibilities. It’s about getting people to imagine taking the path you took, or at least one similar. It’s also a skill that takes a lot of practice and thinking outside of the box. It definitely isn’t something that comes naturally to me, but it’s something I’ve got a lot of practice in and something I’m still learning how to do better.

The difference between good outreach and bad outreach is subtle because I really don’t think there’s a lot of “bad” outreach. Any outreach is good because it gets people to think, but good outreach engages people. It makes them interested in hearing about the journey you took and what you’re doing. Good outreach isn’t about your work, it makes people think what their life would be like if they were in your shoes. It gets people to dream things they never even thought about before.

I’m still learning how to do this well, there isn’t a formula, and it definitely isn’t one size fits all. Yesterday the instructor asked me for my slide deck, which I couldn’t provide. I don’t use slides, I use photos. I do that because I want to tell a story, not give a presentation. I don’t want to tell elementary school (grades 1-5 here in the US) students the same story I would tell seniors in high school or people just starting college, I want to tailor my story to the audience. I (try to) keep my photos organized by what I was doing when they were taken, different projects, different events, different times. Some are funny, some are for showing failure is okay, and others are for inspiration.

I tell stories about building prosthetics for kids, or about the time someone in my school almost burned down part of the engineering building because the laser cutter they were using caught fire (thankfully it wasn’t me, I’ve already got plenty of embarrassing stories of my own). It all depends on the audience and sometimes it’s a hit, sometimes I could’ve done better. I gauge how I did by how many questions I get or how excited people look.

Usually it is a lot of fun, sometimes I’m left wondering if I even made a mark. Once I tried to explain brain machine interfaces to kindergarteners because I accidentally agreed to work with any grade level that term. I tried really, really hard to make it fun and exciting. I gave some robot demos, I showed off some of the robot pieces I got to keep from my Masters, I even attempted to explain how the brain uses electricity to “talk” to the body. I really, really tried and I am pretty sure all I got were some blank stares and a teacher who was wondering what the heck I was even doing talking to them. Now that may not be the case, I may have inspired some of them, there were some hilarious questions about why the robots were so loud, but I was definitely out of my element.

Really after doing outreach regularly for the past 6 or 7 years (wow, time flies) I’m still trying to find the best way to tell my story. I don’t know that I’ll ever find the “ideal” way to do it, but that doesn’t keep me from trying. I think the secret here is the best kind of outreach is the kind you do. It doesn’t matter if you prefer structure or storytelling, in the end you’re still giving people an experience that they will remember and hopefully take with them, frankly that is amazing.


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