A lot of my outreach activities have been done in person: public talks, school visits and the like. I also do media interviews too, but there’s nothing like speaking in front of a group of people to keep you on your toes. (Actually, live radio also gives you a similar level of intensity!)
Recently though, I’ve been doing some outreach online, specifically with I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! which is a chance for school students to interact with working scientists from various fields. It’s been heaps of fun, and it’s really opened my eyes to the possibilities of cyberoutreach (I don’t know if I’ve coined that term or not, but I’m running with it).
We’ve been discussing science with students in a few 30 minute chat sessions per day, plus answering their questions in an online forum-style interface. The chat sessions have ranged from full-on question-every-few-seconds-type affairs to slower more measured discussions. They’ve all been very enjoyable and I hope that the students get something out of it. I know that I’ve really enjoyed it so far, and I think the other scientists have too. The sessions often have a quasi-anarchic feel about them, and we don’t always get to answer every question. (This happens with in-person presentations though as well.) I actually like the intensity of the chats, so overall, it’s been a very positive experience so far!
In a very different form of cyberoutreach, a friend of mine (Amanda over at astropixie) has been visiting a whole lot of schools at the same time… virtually. It’s part of a program called CAASTRO in the Classroom, and I’m really intrigued how it goes. I’m wondering how you measure the impact of a presentation done online and whether the students interact differently with the presenter compared with a situation where they’re there in person. I know that when giving presentations, I prefer being there, even now that I’ve started I’m a Scientist (it runs another week). I should ask the co-ordinator of CAASTRO in the Classroom to see what the feedback has been.
So what are the pros and cons of cyberoutreach then? Well, an obvious pro is that you can reach out to a lot more students, and they can be anywhere that has an internet connection. You can have many scientists/presenters in different places as well. I do feel that the personal touch is lost somewhat though. I’ve watched a few TED videos for example, and while the subjects have been fascinating, I haven’t felt any connection with the speaker. In a public talk where the speaker is available for a Q&A session afterwards, you really get a more intimate connection.
You could definitely argue that a virtual presence is more efficient, and you’d be right, but then again perhaps we need more than just efficiency gains. Part of me thinks that students – especially the younger ones – get more out of being able to approach someone directly to ask them questions. I get the feeling that cyberoutreach is the Way Of The Future™. Perhaps I should stop being so old-fashioned.