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Making your scientific outreach go further

1009103_10151717293838265_589812446_oCatherine Macdonald is the Executive Director of Field School, an interdisciplinary field science training programShe is also a fifth year PhD student at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami, and the Intern Coordinator for the Shark Research and Conservation Program (SRC).

Like a lot of the scientists I know, teaching (outside the classroom) and outreach are a key part of the work I do, and one of the things I love most about my job. This isn’t because scientists accrue big rewards for prioritizing outreach (in the academic tenure system, we can actually pay a pretty high price for spending time on anything other than research/required teaching/publication) but because we want to get people excited about science and care a lot about the subjects we study.

Unfortunately, we aren’t always maximizing our positive impacts on students or citizen scientists who engage with our research—maybe because we aren’t familiar enough with the vast and labyrinthine social science literature on what works in education.* (I wish I had a dollar for every time a natural scientist, in talking to me about education or outreach, has said “if only someone would study this…” without being aware that education researchers have been studying it, in some cases for decades.)

This list is in no way comprehensive, but distills some key points I’ve come across that have influenced the way I teach and interact with students. My thinking here is geared towards programs like those I work with, which take students into the field and involve them in science or outreach in a direct, hands-on way. Although I think it’s great for scientists to go into classrooms and give talks, this advice is only partially applicable to that kind of outreach, and is really geared towards out-of-classroom folks.

Let’s also note that a variety of good potential outcomes have been shown to result from experiential education programs, including increased academic success, improved self-esteem and “self-concept” (i.e., how kids see themselves), increased personal and social responsibility, and better attitudes towards and relationships with adults. There’s no question that those of us who work with students above and beyond what is required or expected of us are doing a good thing. The question becomes: how do we do that good thing better?

* In this list, I am not attempting to differentiate between environmental education, experiential education, service education, scientific outreach, adventure education or any of the other various terms which can be used to describe similar programs. Although there can be important differences in approaches and goals among these categories, it is key elements that the most effective programs have in common that I am interested in.


The program’s duration is an important predictor of the effect it has on students. We have a greater influence on students who spend a week in the field with us than those who are out for a day. However, few of us have the resources to run week-long research trips as part of our outreach. Fortunately, as little as one hour per week of experiential learning significantly predicts lower levels of risk behavior among students, provided the program lasts more than a few weeks, and participating students were found to have more “thriving indicators”—good grades, regular attendance, and academic success—than control students. Creating a program that interacts with students briefly but regularly may be a more effective approach than one which provides an intensive one-time experience.

If you study birds, consider a bird feeder or two outside of your participating school. Throughout the week, students can use a camera dedicated to the project to photograph the birds that come to the feeder. During your weekly visit, you can ID them as a group, then submit your findings to the amazing citizen science project at the Cornell Lab for Ornithology, Project FeederWatch

Or, if you’re a herpetologist here in South Florida consider doing something similar with frog houses, and using it as an opportunity to educate students about native frogs and the invasive Cuban treefrog. Developing a project with a longer duration doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot more money or time, it just tends to mean spending it slightly differently.

2. Clear goals

There is good evidence that students will retain at most a fraction of the factual information you teach them over the course of their time with you. So it’s worth thinking about what you are trying to accomplish through outreach and education. Most likely, your students are not going to become experts on pluff mud, dolphin skeletons, or coral reproduction (a personal favorite of mine!) no matter how much you love the subject or how well you teach it. Setting goals for your program that are realistic and manageable—like trying to get students excited about and engaged with science, or improving their teamwork or interpersonal skills—is probably (big-picture-wise) more helpful than conveying masses of information about your esoteric academic interests.

3. Student age

A meta-analysis of 47 studies of these types of educational programs suggests that they have a slightly greater impact on younger adolescents (around middle school age). Targeting students who are likely to see more benefit from the experience can potentially increase program effectiveness without requiring more resources.

I know from my own experience teaching that older students can think they are “too cool” for science—and, in fact, I’ve had students texting instead of paying attention while our staff work up an enormous lemon shark. (Managing student use of technology is a whole different, additional challenge).

4. Curricular Integration

Integration into the normal curriculum is important to maintain benefits to students. Field experiences can be a catalyst for change, but our ability to make a difference is dependent on the extent to which student school experience reinforces (or fails to reinforce) what they have learned—not just about science, but about teamwork and interpersonal skills. It is worth the effort of working closely with teachers to ensure our outreach is relevant to every-day student experience.

One simple way to approach this is to ensure that they work in groups in the field that are relevant to their every-day experience—so, in consultation with the teacher, create research teams in the field that will also be their groups for a final project and presentation in the classroom. It can also be helpful to work with the teacher to find tie-ins to their curricular work, if possible. If they’re learning about food webs, it’s an opportunity to teach them about apex predation, the ecological importance of sharks, and trophic cascades. This sort of integration not only builds knowledge, but can help students draw connections between “school” and “the real world” that can make school seem more relevant to their lives.

5. Processing

Students need to be given a chance to process or make sense of their experience in order to maximize benefits. Without this opportunity, studies show that students will tend to assimilate a new experience into their existing worldviews. However, when given a structured opportunity to reflect, describe, discuss and construct meaning though journaling and group discussion, cognitive and attitudinal benefits can be greatly increased. This is an incredibly simple way to dramatically increase your impact.

I know that this probably sounds touchy-feely to some of you, but honestly, showing how vulnerable the natural world is can help kids develop an environmental ethic that is true to themselves and their experience. I’ve had younger kids tell me that they feel sorry for sharks, because they know what it feels like to not be understood, or to have their actions misinterpreted. Caring for nature can help students learn empathy that will carry over into their interactions with other people and the natural world for the rest of their lives—but only if they do the intellectual and emotional work to make those feelings and experiences part of their worldview. Besides which, talking about these things with the kids you teach can be incredibly rewarding for you, too.

6. Differential Impacts

Research suggests that experiential field education benefits students across genders and socioeconomic classes. That said, one study suggests that the students who can benefit the most from experiential learning programs are those who are considered “underachievers” in a traditional classroom environment. Many of these students will perform brilliantly in an experiential setting, with two important benefits. Their chaperones and teachers, especially with a little prompting, may begin to see “underachievement” as being distributed across person, location and activity—and not as a fixed, immutable characteristic of an individual child (clearly, a shift of that sort can’t be anything but good for student learning). Secondly, these experiences may give student participants the opportunity to see themselves as successful, competent learners. Teachers tend to seek out experiential learning opportunities for high-achieving students in AP or elective classes. However, these are not necessarily the students who will benefit most from (or contribute the most to) the learning opportunities we as scientists can offer.

One particular student I remember told me that the careers he was considering for his future were NFL player and professional rapper; those were honestly the only real options he saw, other than low-paying service jobs, which he knew he didn’t want. On the third shark of the day, he looked up and said “I could see myself doing this.” One of our goals should always be helping to expand student ideas about what is possible for their lives.


The effects of participation in experiential learning programs are difficult to quantify and to generalize about—some studies of wilderness programs have even shown that they can negatively impact students when they immerse them for several days in an outdoor experience they are poorly prepared for. One meta-analysis demonstrated a correlation between the rigor of a study’s experimental design and the likelihood that it would find a significant impact on students (the more poorly designed a study, the more likely it was to report positive impacts). The data suggested this was mostly the result of “wishful thinking”—that these poorly designed studies were more able to interpret questionable results in a positive way.

Although the published results are mixed, it is clear from surveys and interviews that students and teachers feel that they benefit from these experiences. While I care about providing measurable, concrete benefits to students, I also don’t discount intangible benefits that aren’t easy to capture with the tools most educational researchers have available. For me, all of the extra time and work, and all of the drive to continually improve our educational programs, is fueled by one student who saw a shark, and found that life afterwards was never quite the same.