I had the pleasure to sit on a panel last week for Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence that focused on science and the media. I went with a local approach to talk about outreach efforts in North Carolina. The following is a summary of my remarks:

For a couple forthcoming projects, I’ve been interviewing directors of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Student Science Enrichment Program to gain insight on what makes a successful informal science education program. These programs take place outside of the traditional classroom time and setting and involve a very hands-on science experience for students. One of the most reiterated comments I’ve heard is that a relationship with a working scientist is often a key component for a program’s success.

I speculated that working with an actual scientist gives students an insight into the world of research. The scientist allows the student to have a more authentic experience, especially in cases where the research projects are being incorporated into a large research scope like being presented at a conference or published in a paper. It’s not just education for education’s sake.

Another element the scientist provides is access to the wide range of career choices. This is something that resonates with me because I think it is important for students to be exposed to a wide range of career opportunities, especially those in low-income families.

For scientists looking to make connections with classroom teachers, or vice versa, the connection sometimes becomes an obstacle. It’s like dating. A match may look good on paper but long term is questionable. In many cases, great connections have been made serendipitously. Perhaps a teacher and a scientist met at a conference and over coffee shared their beliefs about education.

In North Carolina there are a few organizations that can help. The Teacher Link Program, which is administered by the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center (SMT Center) serves at the matchmaker by connecting working and retired researchers and scientists to teachers.

Another good place to get out there and connected is the science competition scene. These range from the hyper-local science fair to the colossus of Science Olympiad. Judging, organizing, mentoring—these organizations are always in need of help, and it can be a great place to learn about other opportunities.

Connecting with the local science writing community can also be fruitful for outreach efforts. The Science Communicators of North Carolina (SCONC) is a network of public information officers, journalists, writers, editors, teachers, and students. The focus is on good science communication and networking. The organization partners with other venues to promote science cafes and activities related to science communication. The organization also hosts events, professional development workshops, and informal gatherings. This year, SCONC will take over as the organizer of the American Scientist Pizza Lunch series.

North Carolina is a large center of science communications and ground zero for science communication online. For the second year, ScienceOnline will take place in Raleigh. It has grown from less than 100 at the NC Science Blogging Conference in 2007 to pushing 500 international participants and some of the biggest names in online science communications. Even if you’re a beginner in social media, this “unconference” will provide you with enough information and inspiration to determine whether or not you’d like to create a blog, a Youtube channel, or a twitter feed.

If you’re a scientist working at a university, talk to your news office. Find out what they need. Many news offices are doing less pitching of news stories and more production of original material. They are always looking for new voices and new story ideas.

Working with your news office can also help hone your communication skills by helping you get out of the peer-to-peer communication habit. Speaking with a broad audience can be difficult but it is a skill that can improve. Postdoc offices or other centers that help in the career development of scientists will often provide communication workshops for their constituents. And if not, start one yourself. You’ll be amazed at the interest you receive.

Outreach can be very rewarding whether you’re working with students or the general public. Find a model and copy it for a while. After a bit, you’ll discover your own voice and find that it’s a voice worth listening to.

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