Education Project Update

New Education and Outreach Opportunities for Scientists

The National Earth Science Teachers Association connects scientists with educators, students, and the public.

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A scientist works late to finish up yet another proposal for research funding. Time is short—the proposal is due in only a week. The research description is well in hand, compelling and at the forefront of the field. But the scientist is less confident of what to propose for a “broader impacts” component that will actually be meaningful. What does it mean to have a broader impact? What can be proposed that will make a difference but will not divert too much time from conducting research, searching for funding, or writing papers?

For many scientists, particularly those who rely on soft money for research funding, the above scenario is a familiar story. These days, research solicitations from funding agencies consistently require that in addition to proposing innovative and cutting-edge research, scientists must also include elements in their proposals that provide meaningful broader impacts to their research programs—in essence, they must show how their research will benefit society and spread knowledge.

To help scientists, research programs, and organizations tackle this part of their grant proposals, the National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA; http://www.nestanet.org) is offering a number of opportunities that can help bring new research to teachers, students, and the public. Through these opportunities, new and dynamic science can reach a broad population without forcing researchers to build outreach programs from scratch.

Maximizing Outreach Efforts Through NESTA

Grant requirements vary in the types of activities that qualify for outreach elements, and they can range from providing undergraduate research opportunities to working with K–12 teachers or reaching out to the community through informal educational organizations or events. The challenge for many scientists seeking to undertake K–12 or public outreach activities is finding a way to provide meaningful broader impacts that actually reach significant numbers of people. While developing a new Web site to share science can be creative and enjoyable, experience proves that it is very difficult to draw attention to Web-based resources in the vast maze that is the Internet today unless the resources are linked to or made available on a Web site already heavily used by the audience the scientist is trying to reach. Likewise, while visiting a classroom in a local primary or secondary school can be very rewarding for all involved, many scientists would like to have opportunities to have an effect on larger numbers of teachers and students.

Scientists naturally have limited amounts of time they can devote to outreach elements while also pursuing their demanding research and other professional responsibilities. Reaching a large audience, though, requires substantial effort, and the scientist does not want to waste his or her time. Considering the small amount of funding from grants that scientists can typically apply to these activities, coupled with the critical importance of science to society, it is imperative that scientists find effective and efficient approaches for public outreach through research projects that magnify the effects of their efforts.

Through NESTA, scientists do not have to look far to maximize their outreach efforts. As a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt professional society, founded in 1983 with a mission to facilitate and advance excellence in Earth and space science education, NESTA directly serves the K–12 Earth and space science educator community nationally as well as through affiliate organizations working at the state level.

NESTA recently became the host of Windows to the Universe (W2U; http://www.windows2universe.org), an Earth and space science education outreach Web site with more than 14 million visits annually from students, teachers, and the public (it averages 50,000–60,000 visits per day on school days). W2U has been under development since 1995, with funding through dozens of awards from federal agencies and university collaborations. The Web site contains more than 9000 pages of content available at upper elementary, middle, and high school levels, in English and Spanish, and spans the Earth and space sciences and related humanities disciplines. NESTA offers monthly newsletters that reach its membership of about 1200 teachers nationwide as well as 15,000 educator subscribers to the W2U Earth and Space Science Educator Newsletter in more than 170 countries, including roughly 9000 Earth and space science educators in the United States.

NESTA Programs

With support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the American Geological Institute, and AGU, NESTA has developed programs that now make it possible for scientists, programs, and organizations to use W2U as a community education and outreach platform, leveraging its unique combination of large audience, extensive existing content and site infrastructure, and direct access to teachers. Opportunities include becoming a W2U contributing, institutional, or affiliate partner.

For example, suppose a scientist is developing a proposal to continue his or her research on the Earth system’s sensitivity to radiative forcing. He or she needs to address broader impacts in the proposal and would like to do something that a significant number of teachers and students will actually see. The scientist usually does not have a lot of time to do this work or strong connections in education and outreach. By contacting NESTA, the scientist will discover a range of opportunities that exist for leveraging the organization’s successful programs into part of the research proposal. The scientist also decides to become a contributing partner and develop new content on the W2U Web site, building on existing radiative forcing content and providing more detail on the individual components of radiative balance. W2U staff will provide assistance to help flesh out the broader impacts component of the research proposal, if needed. Once the scientist’s grant is funded, staff will also provide the scientist training on W2U’s Web site content management system and assist in developing content, with review of submissions, editing, and translation into Spanish. The scientist periodically posts updates on the new content in the W2U newsletter, and thousands of teachers around the world are made aware of the work. Because of the large audience of students, teachers, and the public who use the Web site, the scientist is assured that the target audience will see the results of his or her efforts.

Perhaps a scientist planning a research expedition to study methane release in the Arctic is looking for a way to share his or her activities with teachers and students around the world, to showcase the different environments and landscapes Earth scientists encounter. The scientist decides to become a contributing partner and submit electronic “postcards from the field” while on an expedition (see Figure 1). After a short online training session, the scientist is ready to begin sharing research progress using a simple online interface that allows him or her to upload pictures and lively anecdotes as the trip progresses, connecting researchers with a significant audience of teachers, students, and the public.

The new opportunities also allow research groups, which often have a number of geoscience projects under way, to pool their outreach efforts rather than creating multiple independent education and outreach platforms. The group can become an institutional partner with the W2U program. This “pooled effort” approach saves time—two representatives from the group, rather than every individual, are trained to use W2U’s interfaces.

For organizations and programs that would like to spread the word about their existing resources and programs without engaging in extensive Web development on the W2U site itself, the W2U affiliate partnership is a time-saving option. Affiliates are given a Web page they can edit and update with information about their programs and opportunities for the public, students, and teachers. Their page is akin to a constantly evolving flyer that they can link to their institution’s site; affiliates also have the opportunity to provide highlights about their programs in W2U’s monthly online newsletter.

See http://www.windows2universe.org/partnership_opportunities.html for more details on partnership opportunities, or contact the author of this brief report.

—Roberta Johnson, Executive Director, NESTA, Boulder, Colo.; E-mail: [email protected]

Citation: Johnson, R., (2011), New education and outreach opportunities for scientists, Eos Trans. AGU, 92(32), 266, doi:10.1029/2011EO320002.

© 2011. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.