Motivational factors for researchers

What motivates science and engineering researchers to go out of their way to work with science museums? Why would the principal investigators of university-based research centers be interested in forming collaborative partnerships for education outreach? Why do science-funding agencies encourage such activities? These are obvious, yet important questions, and, the answers range from the realm of deeply personal to the macroeconomic realm of national competitiveness. We’ll travel the discussion from the inside out, beginning with the personal.

It’s fun and rewarding. Science museums are cool places. A surprising number of scientists have memories of moments of inspiration that occurred in science museums, which helped lead them into their careers. They are enthusiastic about science, and they enjoy sharing that enthusiasm with others. Here, far from the classroom and the pressure of teaching and research, away from the sober protocol of professional meetings, researchers relish contact with young people and adults eager to be engaged and open to learning. Here, they can sketch out the big picture of their research, re-living moments of inspiration and breakthroughs, and they can emerge re-energized, reconnected in ways they might not have experienced for years. They recognize how far they have come, what an extraordinary road they have been on, and how much they have to offer to others.

Working with science museums has been a fairly recent thing [for me]. And fun; on a scale of one to ten, it’s easily a twenty or a thirty.

– Andrew Maynard, Wilson Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

I really enjoyed giving my presentation … the moments when the audience caught my enthusiasm were exhilarating.

– Dan Recht, graduate student, Harvard University

It’s a way of “giving back.” Perhaps there was an individual – a teacher, a science museum educator, a camp counselor, a visiting scientist – who took the time to engage with them at an earlier time in their life and sparked their scientific imagination, their fascination with building things, or their thirst for exploration. Perhaps without that person or that experience or set of experiences, they might never have found the doorway to their vocation, might never have had the opportunity to open that door and step out to pursue their dream. Now they may feel inspired to reach out to others who, like themselves, may be waiting for just such a spark, just such an invitation to step into a wider world of play. Or, perhaps they want to provide to some lucky youngsters something that was not available to them when they most could have used it – respect for their youthful imagination, support for their sense of inquiry, encouragement to tackle a subject eschewed perhaps by peers and family members. Women and minority scientists, in particular, may feel a little extra motivation to provide encouragement, by engaging as proactive role models.

I am a scientist because I fell in love with science at a young age, when I was exposed to it with my chemistry set and with television shows like 3-2-1 Contact. There weren’t any scientists in my neighborhood, so there was no way for science to find me otherwise. I was lucky. The reason why I do science outreach is to reduce our reliance on luck.

– Ainissa Ramirez, faculty, Yale University

It provides an opportunity to sharpen one’s communication skills.
Communication skills are important to the success of researchers. They have to work with people from other disciplines, write articles and research grants, speak with journalists, administrators, prospective investors and funders, and yes, do outreach. Scientists enjoy the opportunity to work with science museum staff to sharpen their communication skill-sets and to get practical experience in front of diverse audiences.

It is a rare and valuable experience to get the chance to talk to people about my work. Mostly I just talk science to the people in my lab, and since we all have the same background, communication is pretty easy. But it can be quite difficult to explain to others, and I think the only way to get better at it is through practice. Additionally, it made me be more self-reflective of my own research, trying to see it from other people’s perspectives.
– Lauren Zarzar, graduate student, Harvard University

Another key component of communication, listening, is also encouraged by the face-to-face interactions scientists can engage in at science museums. Here they can hear the kinds of questions that non-scientists may have about their research and the kinds of concerns other members of the community may have about the larger societal implications of that research. Some science museums facilitate forums or science cafes where such conversations can be more easily pursued.

It’s prestigious. Science museums are recognized centers of culture in our community and being invited to speak at one or to participate in or co-host special events there is not only a treat; it is something to take pride in. Surveys show that science museums are among the most respected and trusted of public/private institutions. Science funding agencies value the partnerships researchers make with science museums, because they know the education outreach activities are likely to be of higher quality and reach greater numbers of children and adults. And some researchers get a real kick out of speaking at an institution that once enthralled them as a youngster.

It’s a responsibility. Some researchers feel a sense of civic responsibility to contribute to science literacy in the community and to advance science education in the schools. They may feel keenly the power of science to transform and better our lives and want very much to assist in inspiring the next generation to carry on the work. U.S. scientists, for instance, are most likely aware that international measures show that American students have fallen far behind many other industrialized countries in math and science aptitude and that experts project a serious shortage of U.S. candidates for advanced training and jobs in science and engineering. They could be worried about challenges the next generation may have trouble facing without a strong research infrastructure and a science literate public. They may be motivated to counteract negative images of science and scientists that are sometimes promulgated in popular culture. In addition, many scientists who received taxpayer support for their graduate student training and continue to receive federal funding for their research, feel a responsibility to continue to leverage that investment by attracting others to the field.

Science is what is changing the world now: the internet, mobile broadband, Google, genomics, climate change, stem cells, energy, carbon dioxide, water, all the rest. Science and technology have done wonders in creating jobs in the last hundred years; with public support and understanding, they should continue to do so; certainly there is no shortage of problems to solve. We need young people to create the science and then to use it to solve real world problems.

– George Whitesides, faculty, Harvard University

On a civic note, George Whitesides adds, “A democracy can only work if the people who vote understand the issues on which they are voting.”

There are also many external sources of encouragement for researchers considering participation in education and outreach activities…

Scientific communities often cultivate a notion of service among their ranks. The notion of service is embedded in university culture and is a factor in evaluating candidates for faculty positions. The broad spectrum of service-oriented activities for university researchers includes undergraduate teaching and mentoring, active participation on faculty committees, involvement with professional societies, and engagement in the broader community. Faculty outreach through public lectures, involvement in local schools, and participation in municipal activities helps to nourish and strengthen ties between the university and the community. While it is true that some senior faculty still advise their students to “avoid the distraction” of outreach activities and to focus instead on building a research and publication portfolio for tenure, the trend seems to be changing. More and more, faculty see advantages for their students and for the advancement of science in participating in service activities.

First, it is a chance for students to work with the public to promote a broader understanding of science and technology. Second it is an excellent way for graduate students to learn how to communicate their work to people who aren’t experts in their field (including policymakers and scientists in different disciplines).

– Jameson Wetmore, Faculty, University of Arizona

Professional societies encourage it. Some science and engineering professional societies encourage their members to participate in education and outreach activities and these organizations sometimes also organize and sponsor their own. This is particularly true with minority and women-serving professional science and engineering organizations, like the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Association of Women in Science.

The Materials Research Society is a large professional organization with two big annual meetings a year. It has its own education and outreach office and partnered with the Ontario Science Museum to build a successful traveling exhibit, Strange Matter, funded by NSF and industry donors. MRS organizes a database of volunteers to help at exhibit sites and maintains another database of volunteers interested in helping out the community of science museums associated with the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network. Says MRS past-president Shefford Baker,

MRS focuses on education and outreach for two reasons: First, since most of our members participate in basic research, and since basic research is funded by public funding, it is very important that we are able to demonstrate to the public what value they get from their investment. Second, since we always need new and better talent to drive the field forward, we hope to improve the knowledge base by interesting a wide range of students in STEM fields in general following the principle that growing the whole pie will grow our materials research slice.

Outreach activities organized by professional societies provide welcome infrastructural and social support for individual researchers who are motivated to participate in education and outreach, but who do not have ready means to initiate such activities on their own, or who simply prefer to be a part of a larger effort. Many private research and technology companies also share an interest in creating goodwill in the community through educational outreach. Larger companies, especially those aware of their dependence on the future availability of a well-trained science and technology workforce, are especially likely to provide grants and to encourage their employees to contribute to science and engineering education efforts through volunteer activities.

It satisfies a funding requirement. Most science research funding agencies and foundations encourage researchers to integrate teaching and mentoring roles into their research activities and to participate in outreach and service activities. Evidence of previous participation and plans for future participation in such activities can help a potential grantee’s application. Many funders are also particularly interested in seeing that grantees make efforts to recruit women and minority researchers to the field. One very significant funder, the National Science Foundation (NSF), requires grant proposals to include plans to address what is called “Broader Impacts.”

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