What is the purpose of outreach?

Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in several outreach events around Bristol. With Cotham School Science Club, I made baking soda volcanoes and played risk with party poppers; I gave an interview on the Love & Science BCfm Radio show (May 15th podcast); I  prepared for Bristol Doctoral College’s “Research without Borders” Showcase exhibition. Unfortunately, due to work conflict I wasn’t able to participate in that final event – but my disappointment made me reflect on why I really enjoy outreach. It’s not an essential part of a PhD by any means. Nevertheless, I would strongly encourage other students to do it, as a fantastic way to talk about one’s work outside their academic circle.

My first answer to “What’s the purpose of outreach?” would probably be: to inform and inspire others. Scientific magazines and Twitter are both excellent avenues by which to share progress and discoveries in our research. The people they reach, however, are likely already attuned: you’re preaching to the converted. Outreach, on the other hand, has the power to fascinate people who were previously unaware they had an interest in your subject. That’s a tantalising power to have.

I do also believe in the use of outreach to educate. Hopefully, by presenting a subject in an interesting and interactive way, you make a difficult concept more simple to understand.

An outreach project might not provide directly useful information. Although I discussed with the students of Cotham School how bubble eruptions from a baking soda volcano could mimic the behaviour of lava flows, will any of them have to use that knowledge in the future? Does it matter? Outreach can be worthwhile, purely because it’s fun.

Which is where I think I would change my answer to that original question. Outreach isn’t purely for that high-minded ideal of informing and inspiring others. In a large part, I do it for myself. I just enjoy myself so much when sharing my research with others! Mostly, because my project is narrow and deep in focus, I’ve become accustomed to “reigning it in” a little when describing it to others. Which is fair: there are other things to talk about. I’ve become fairly good at spotting the point where people’s interest wanes and their eyes glaze over, and it’s usually just before I get to the good bit. By pursuing outreach projects, I can make both myself and my audience happy, by waxing lyrical about a subject that I love, to people that genuinely want to learn about it right then. I have also enjoyed learning to express myself in a way that is clear and straightforward, without being patronising. In the end, outreach is plain good fun. I don’t remember anyone shouting louder than me during the risk game, when the party popper exploded unexpectedly! (You can probably guess the analogy we were going for.) I’m very lucky. I do outreach events to inform and inspire others, but the one to benefit most is me.

 

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