Not The Usual Outreach
What is a science or mathematics education good for?
One way to answer that question would be to say that teaching is a good use of such a degree. The idea makes sense, since a degree should give you a lot of knowledge in the subject. And, once you’ve gone through the challenges of completing the courses necessary for your degree, wouldn’t teaching the material be the next natural step?
Another route is to do research. That’s the objective that most students in graduate school are shooting for. They’ve not only enjoyed learning about a specific area of knowledge, but they also want to push the boundaries of it. This isn’t a path for everyone, but it does present some interesting opportunities in terms of working for either a university, a private company, or a government institution.
For the most part, I would say that these are the two ideas that pop into mind when thinking about what a science or mathematics degree can be used for. Teaching and doing research. However, while these are both rewarding endeavours in their own way, I want to push back against these as being the default options. In fact, I want to discuss something a bit different.
That’s the area of outreach.
Traditionally, outreach has been thought of as an extension of teaching. It might not be the usual classroom variety, but it’s still teaching in some way. That means giving explanations and helping more people learn about (in this case) science or mathematics. The end goal is to get more people learning about science through actually teaching them.
In this sense, we usually see outreach in the form of writing and video. Journalists interview scientists and investigate various issues around science, and video producers craft documentaries and other shows that communicate the wonders of science or mathematics. Here, I’m thinking of either publications such as Quanta Magazine, or shows such as PBS Spacetime, Eons, 3Blue1Brown, Kurzgesagt, and many others. All try to explain science or mathematics to (often) a broader audience, and this comes in the form of teaching the reader or viewer.
However, the point I want to get across in this piece is that science and mathematics outreach doesn’t have to go through the usual routes of journalism or documentary production. There are so many other ways to do outreach, and I think we do a disservice to students in these fields by not presenting them these other options.
Before I go into the options specifically, I want to lay out my philosophy regarding what outreach should be. In my eyes, outreach isn’t merely teaching. Sure, teaching is great, but it’s not the only important thing. Rather, I believe that the goal of outreach should be about getting science and mathematics into the public conversation. It’s not just about getting people to understand the issues and latest research (though that too is great). It’s also about communicating what it means to do science and mathematics. It’s to get people thinking like scientists and mathematicians. Simply put, scientists and mathematicians are people too.
When viewed in this way, there are many more options that open in terms of what outreach could mean. If you don’t fancy yourself as a teacher who wants to go through a specific idea like you would find in a class, you don’t have to!. That’s the great thing about taking this broader view of outreach. The goal isn’t to make people learn. It’s to make people aware.
By doing this, the side effect is that people will become more invested in what science is, which will hopefully motivate them to learn more. As such, outreach can be seen as a motivating force for getting people to learn more about science and mathematics, even if the learning isn’t happening through the outreach itself.
With that out of the way, here are some different forms of outreach that I would argue do just as well of a job as traditional teaching to spread the love for science and mathematics.
This should come as no surprise. Blogs are fantastic at communicating science to the public. There are many reasons for this. First, a blog is a “living” entity. What I mean by this is that it’s updated regularly, which means things don’t go out of date. Sure, a post could be a few years old, but the author can then write a new post, or even update the old one. The result is that, unlike a book, blogs are never “finished”. This means someone who reads a blog can keep on being apprised of the latest information within a certain field.
Second, a blog gives readers a unique perspective. Unlike a book which presents a topic, a blog can also give the reader information on the writer. For example, a blog might discuss issues about mathematics, but also on what it means to do research in mathematics. This wouldn’t often be considered topical in a book, but in a blog it feels more natural. The result is that a reader gets to also have insights into the work itself, not just the products of research.
Third, blogging comes in a lot of varieties, which lends itself well to discussing a bunch of different issues around mathematics and science. For example, there are many blogs I follow which focus on academia and navigating that world as either a student or a young researcher. This gives readers an inside look into what it means to go on this journey. Since I’m planning on following the academia route, these kinds of blogs are very interesting to me, and allow me to understand the inner workings of science and mathematics research that I otherwise would have trouble finding.
This seems like a good place to point out that outreach isn’t just to the general public. I know we all have this mythical idea of a “general public”, but the truth is that everyone is somewhere along their own path with regards to science and mathematics. Some might be further along than others, but you don’t have to do outreach just to the public. In fact, it can be as useful to write and share knowledge to those that are only a bit behind you in their journey. This absolutely counts as outreach.
Fourth, blogs can vary in size while still maintaining a cohesive whole. Whereas a book has a minimum length (you don’t see to many 500-word books unless you’re looking at a children’s book), blog posts can have whatever length the author wants. The advantage here is that they can go in whatever depth they wish. If the author only has enough ideas to write a 1000-word post, they don’t have to agonize about how to turn it into a book. Instead, they can write up their thoughts and publish it as is. This means it’s easier for authors to share what they know, and removes the need for artificial constraints.
Fifth, blogs can be a place for various scientists and mathematicians to comment on the work of others. This might not seem important, but it allows for those not in that specific field to see what various people think of certain work. One blog in particular comes to mind: Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. This blog is written by several authors, and most posts are short and involve studies that have problems in them or suggestions for how to make them better. The purpose of these posts isn’t for me to “learn” like I would in a traditional class. However, I still get a lot of value out of these small posts, and they have made me think more about statistics than I would have just from a regular class (which I’ve also taken).
Taken together, blogs are a very important part of scientific and mathematical outreach. I follow blogs that are about specific themes (like quantum mechanics, cosmology, etc.), but I also follow blogs which discuss the lives of specific researchers. This means I can get different types of posts, and what I read depends on what I’m looking for on a specific day.
The next category is video. Of course, just like in the case of writing a blog, you can absolutely use video to present a concept in detail like in a traditional lecture. In fact, this is probably preferable to a text, since the viewer can follow along as the person goes through a derivation or problem.
However, there are many other opportunities to show parts of science and mathematics which aren’t just teaching. In particular, video is good for showing “behind the scenes” of what’s it’s like to do research. You can use video to show an experiment, to show what it’s like to work at a specific place, or many other aspects of being a researcher. The idea here is to show the viewer what it means to be a scientist or mathematician. Instead of having the public view researchers as people who produce papers, they get to see what goes on in the background. I think it’s silly to let the perception of researchers shine through only a stack of papers. The job itself is plenty interesting, and video allows one to capture this in a nice way.
Video is also good for interviewing. Just because you in particular aren’t a researcher doesn’t mean you can’t speak to those who are. In this way, you’re still doing outreach, and the interviews can shed light both on certain concepts and the process behind the research. Interviewing is also good for the audio format (such as podcasts).
Finally, we have illustrations. In particular, I’m thinking about what we would classify as science and mathematics webcomics, but “traditional” science illustrators are invaluable as well. These tend to be drawings and cartoons that discuss mathematical and scientific topics to a broader audience using pictures and humour. Often, the illustrations will employ analogies and metaphors to get a subject across.
With webcomics, the idea (at least to me when I draw my comics) is to get people interested in the ideas of science and mathematics. It’s not that they should necessarily get every single joke and reference. Instead, it’s about making them curious about these fields through good (or bad) illustrations. When I make my comics, I try to link it to some concept within the two fields, and my hope is that this will get people to dig deeper or to at least reflect on the mathematical ideas.
The nice thing about webcomics is that they don’t have to be pretty. My webcomic Handwaving is made using a simple app on iOS and employs stick figures as the main characters. There’s nothing artistic about my drawings, but that’s not the point. The point is to give the reader of taste of science and mathematics, and I think my webcomic accomplishes that.
Of course, there’s also traditional illustration that you see being done for magazines and online publications. That kind of illustration is definitely nicer-looking than my webcomic, and it’s an important area as well. It’s fine to say that science and mathematics allows us to see the beauty of the universe, but if we go around and never make nice visualizations or illustrations, how can we expect others who don’t have the necessary background to get that feeling? We can’t, and so I would argue that illustration also serves the purpose of drawing people into these two fields.
I just mentioned three specific media above, but my point applies more generally. My goal here isn’t to say that you should start a blog, make videos, or create a webcomic. Instead, my point is to argue that outreach in science and mathematics doesn’t have to be limited to teaching. It should be about transmitting the joy of these subjects to your audience. Do you really like science? Are you passionate about analysis or topology? If so, finding any way to communicate that joy is what matters. Maybe that means meeting with younger students to tell them about your experience in the field. Maybe it is starting blog. It’s up to you, just don’t feel like you need to teach.
If we could move away from focusing on teaching, we would see that there are so many options for outreach. And the most important point is that they are all valuable. There isn’t necessarily a hierarchy that has teaching at the top and everything else further down. Instead, each different aspect of outreach plays a role in getting people interested about science and mathematics.
For myself, I do this through writing a blog and a webcomic. My blog posts tend to not be about teaching particular bits of science and mathematics. It’s just not as interesting to me. Rather, I enjoy writing essays about my experience around the two subjects and the connections I’ve seen between them. My hope with each piece is that the reader will see that mathematics and science are interwoven and are bursting with connections once you dig a little deeper.
For my webcomic, the goal is to bring a lighter side to science and mathematics. I want to put a smile on the reader’s face, or perhaps get a laugh out of them. I want to show how there are humourous aspects to these two subjects and that they aren’t just serious all the time. More than anything, I think the webcomic format is a very good way at transmitting information in a compressed form.
So those are the ways I do outreach. As you can see, neither of them really counts as “teaching”. Sure, I might sneak in a bit of learning here or there, but that’s not the focus. And that’s alright. I don’t feel the pressure to teach in my work because I know there are many other resources who do focus on this kind of work.
Outreach is a multifaceted beast. Thinking about it as synonymous with teaching is limiting yourself in what you can do. Don’t think of outreach as teaching. Instead, think of it as spreading awareness of science and mathematics. If you do that, I’m confident you will find a variety of ways to share your passion for these subjects.
There’s room for so many different formats. Don’t worry about doing the “usual” thing. Do what’s interesting to you.