The why and how of outreach: why you should do it, and how you can turn it into a career

By Liz Mahood

Featuring Free Science Workshop co-founder Claire Fox

In all probability, most Cornell graduate students don’t spend any of their Friday evenings cleaning up chocolate sauce that had been exploded out of a concrete volcano. Over my years here at Cornell, however, I’ve found that this happens to me on a fairly regular basis.

Fortunately, this exploding-chocolate-sauce phenomenon isn’t something associated with my thesis research, or any class I’m taking. Instead, it’s the highlight of the evening at Ithaca’s Free Science Workshop – a non-profit organization that brings exciting, exploratory science and maker activities to the afternoons of Ithaca’s children, for free. Although weekly volunteers like me are essential to keep these activities running (and to keep all the children’s fingers attached), one of the powerhouses who co-founded the program is Claire Fox: STEM outreach extraordinaire, mother, snake whisperer, drill whisperer, and Ph.D. candidate in the College of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology (check out some of her research here).

An adult and child creating a maker project
Claire, right, with a Free Science Workshop participant. Image courtesy of the Ithaca Free Science Workshop

Claire’s path to graduate school can be summarized as, unsurprisingly, “nontraditional”. As a self-described “latchkey kid”, Claire grew up spending countless hours exploring the natural world. She was unimpressed with the traditional science courses she took in school, however, and she didn’t pursue STEM education any further than she needed – until she found that she wanted to become a STEM educator. Claire has extensive experience in a field of non-academic STEM careers that is often overlooked: outreach. It’s because of this experience, and because of her inspiring path to Ph.D. candidacy, that I decided to sit down with her, and tell her story.

Claire’s inspiring story, and insight into STEM outreach careers, is below. However, I also wanted to highlight several reasons why anyone, no matter what their career paths are, should engage in STEM outreach (and although I’ve refrained from using the clappy-hands emoji here, you should be forewarned that I’m currently stepping onto a soapbox). These reasons were partially conceived through talking with Claire, but also come from my own experiences volunteering, and giving and receiving STEM education. The first reason: you will impact the lives of other people. Taking education as an example – much research has been conducted about how public-school students underperform in STEM fields, especially if they are from a low-income or under-represented minority background1,2. As I received my primary education from the St. Louis City Public School District, my experience is that this underperformance might stem from a general disinterest. My schools did not have the funds for science materials, and no scientists ever visited our classrooms. For my classmates and me, science was just something to read from a textbook. Thus, in my view, there’s an urgent need to connect with underserved children so that they may “appreciate, enjoy, and identify with science,” said Claire. Second, engaging in STEM outreach activities can introduce you to people with similar interests but different career trajectories. This can be especially helpful for anyone who is unsure about what career paths to take, as outreach environments can attract STEM professionals from many fields. Additionally, you might find yourself filling leadership, communication, or other non-traditional roles for STEM graduate students, which can give you an opportunity to test-drive anything you are interested in for a career. Third, for anyone firmly-rooted in academia, pursuing STEM outreach gives you avenues to create and implement the Broader Impacts statements required in grant proposals. Finally, in almost any STEM outreach setting, you will be required to communicate your science, or the science of others’, to a lay audience. This will force you to hone-in on why your science matters, so that others may understand the value of your work.

Below are Claire’s answers – read on if you are interested in a career in outreach, and/or you want some STEM outreach organizations to participate in.

Liz: How did your career in outreach begin?

Children making a maker project
Participants at the Free Science Workshop. Image courtesy of the Ithaca Free Science Workshop

Claire: Before I was doing science outreach, I was actually doing art and cultural outreach with regional schools for the education department of the Johnson Museum of Art. My undergraduate degree from Cornell is an independent major in Visual Studies. It’s funny in retrospect because I was always working science into my discussions with students, even in the art museum – geeking out about chemical compounds discovered in ancient China, or wondering about the morphology of a bird’s beak used in an African mask… In 2012, I got involved in the maker movement which was a wonderful confluence of art, science and engineering in an atmosphere that was very welcoming to beginners. It was great to be in an environment where my different interests could come out and play together. It reinforced my conviction that people learn best hands-on, in ways that engage their curiosity and personal interests. Learning is not confined to school. It can be life-long and community-based. I ran a STEM-focused Teen program in Ovid, NY and taught STEM classes at the local makerspace for underserved youth. Eventually I met like-minded folks, including Erik Herman, who at the time was a science outreach specialist at CLASSE. We collaborated on the Physics Bus outreach program, and a few years later, were co-founders of the Free Science Workshop program in Ithaca.

Liz: What motivated you to pursue a PhD?

Claire: I think a lot about what gets scientists interested in being scientists in the first place. For me, it was direct early childhood experiences with nature. I was a latchkey kid in a rural town without a TV or a computer, just running around in the woods and streams catching all kinds of creatures, collecting specimens, and reading any book I could get my hands on. Science in school failed to capture that feeling of discovery and I lost interest in pursuing it academically. It was a decade later when I started teaching science in afterschool and enrichment programs that my enthusiasm was rekindled. There is nothing I love more than sharing the joys and fascination of science with kids. In order to advance professionally as an informal science educator, I needed a degree in a science field. I started taking classes at Cornell in EEB, found a lab I liked, and just got sucked in! Honestly, I don’t need a PhD or even a Masters to have a rewarding career in community science engagement. I ended up in grad school because I love learning and don’t do things by halves. The opportunity to contribute to a science field that I find fascinating, and be challenged intellectually, was too great to pass up.

Liz: If someone wants to do a career in outreach, are there any skills/experiences they should work on getting?

Claire: It depends on what types of jobs you are interested in. “Science outreach” is part of the broader fields of Informal Science Education, Public Science Engagement, and Science Communication. From what I have seen, science outreach jobs through universities and research institutions are relatively few and far between. They are often specific to a particular science field and are sometimes dependent on grant funding. Informal Science Education more broadly encompasses any science engagement opportunities that occur outside of a formal classroom. In addition to outreach programs at universities and research institutions, this includes science museums, nature centers, aquariums and zoos, afterschool and enrichment programs, summer programs, and any type of science media produced for lay audiences. People hiring for museum educator jobs and school or afterschool enrichment programs will be looking at how many years of experience you have working with children/families/the general public, with what age groups, and in what context. If you haven’t already done so, seek out opportunities for science engagement with early childhood, pre-teen and teen, and adult audiences – preferably from diverse backgrounds – to broaden your experience and discover what age group is the best fit for you. Many employers will expect you to have experience designing and implementing activities that are aligned with current K-12 science standards. A bachelor’s degree in a science field and experience working with youth is often all that is needed to meet minimum requirements for an entry-level informal STEM education or outreach job. For more advanced positions you will likely be competing with people who have multiple years of relevant full-time work experience or graduate degrees specifically in STEM Education, Museum Education, Science Communication, and related fields. In my opinion experience is more important than degrees or certificates. Get in at whatever level you can and work your way up.

If this post has at all inspired you to check out STEM outreach opportunities, then you are in the good place! Cornell, and the Greater Ithaca area, have many organizations to join, or you could make your own outreach program or event. For starters in STEM education, check out the Cornell-led programs EYH and GRASSHOPR. If you’re instead looking for opportunities in communication, Cornell departments host a variety of podcasts (a couple: Science Blender, Speaking of Language). To conclude, there are many opportunities available for careers in STEM outreach, and – whether you’re considering a career in this field or not – outreach can be a wonderful way to get new skills, and de-stress from the trials of graduate or postdoc research.

1. Bohrnstedt, G., Kitmitto, S., Ogut, B., Sherman, D. & Chan, D. School Composition and the Black-White Achievement Gap. NCES 2015-018. (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015).

2. Knopf, J. A. et al. Out-of-School-Time Academic Programs to Improve School Achievement: A Community Guide Health Equity Systematic Review. J Public Health Manag Pract 21, 594–608 (2015).