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.


About drsimmo

I'm an astronomer and science communicator, these are my adventures. Views posted are my own.
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3 Responses to Cyberoutreach

  1. Hello. Great to hear your take on the IAS event. I’m the project director on the UK version and was interested in the “personal touch is lost somewhat” comment. One of the things we’ve found in feedback is that many students find it more personal because they get to interact with you over a longer period than a face-to-face session can manage. It allows follow up questions and comments and in some cases a second chat session.
    I can understand that for the scientist it can be less personable. You can’t see the kids, but they do get to learn a fair bit about you!

  2. Hi Shane – thanks for your comment! It’s really great to hear some of the feedback that you’ve received. Impact is one of the things that I think is hard to quantify, so comments from students are really valuable!

    I find it interesting – and pleasing – that students feel a personal connection with the scientists in IAS; I wonder if that’s because in the chats (in particular) they refer to us by name… it really is a chat in that informal sense. In a classroom setting by contrast, you are always referred to as Dr/Mr/Ms, etc, so that type of connection is never made.

    I guess for the scientists, we don’t see faces or get real names – and doing it differently would make things much more complicated in terms of paperwork I imagine – so we’re somewhat removed from the situation. I’d certainly be interested in other scientists’ points of view.

    In the end, what really matters is how the students view the process. After all, they’re the ones we’re trying to inspire! The scientists are already sold. 😉

  3. Pingback: When will the world end? | I Wouldn't Normally Call

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