Entomology Outreach: Tips for Making an Impact and Sharing Your Science
By Carolyn Trietsch
Outreach is a great way to get your work in entomology out the public. While outreach has become an important component of resumes, CVs, cover letters, and grants—think “Broader Impacts”—it is so much more than that. Outreach is a skill that takes passion and practice to get right, and it is just as important as the technical skills you learn in your courses and research.
Entomologists have a responsibility to share what they learn and discover with those who would benefit from it, as well as those who support it with their tax dollars. What is the purpose of gathering knowledge and making discoveries if no one knows about it?
Entomologists have an advantage in that insects are universal—they’re everywhere, and everyone knows what they are, even if they don’t know the proper scientific names for them. Because insects are so widespread and relatable, you can start a conversation with anyone about the roles insects play in agriculture, public health, ecosystems, technology, and more. Insects are already a part of so many people’s lives, whether they realize it or not, and entomologists can help people understand more about their own lives by teaching them about the insects around them.
There are many ways entomologists can interact with the public, such as by visiting classrooms, renting a booth at community events, giving tours of their labs or museum collections, being interviewed for a magazine or TV show, designing an app, making videos, starting a blog, writing songs (like John Acorn has!), drawing comics, crocheting insects, creating a citizen science project, or participating in established programs like “Skype a Scientist” or “Letters to a PreScientist.”
Whatever your outreach method might be, here are some helpful tips for doing outreach effectively and communicating with the public in engaging ways:
- Do something new. Kids tend to hear about the same things over and over again, but what they want to hear is something new. Tell them about surprising discoveries you’ve made or learned about. Tell them stories about your work and unexpected findings. What captures people’s attention is the unexpected, not the predictable.
- Don’t “dumb it down”—instead, simplify. People can understand complex methods and concepts; what they lose interest in is jargon, acronyms, and excessive detail. Keep it brief and simple, and make sure your language and outreach activities are appropriate for the age group you are interacting with. Adjust your outreach for your audience; you can’t talk to elementary-school students the same way you would talk to middle-school or high-school students.
- Be prepared. Things won’t always go the way you plan—sometimes people might react or interpret things in a way you don’t expect. Maybe that live tarantula you brought in to teach about ecosystems isn’t as popular as you thought. Be flexible, and have backup plans. After doing outreach, take some time to think about what went well and what could be improved in the future.
- Get schooled. For outreach done in schools, teachers may ask how your outreach activities relate to the Common Core standards for education. Teachers may also ask you for the learning objectives of your outreach. You can find Common Core standards for different states and resources for writing learning objectives online.
- Tweet it out! Social media is a great tool for science communication and outreach, and, with so many entomologists and entomological organizations already using social media to advocate for insects, there is no shortage of good role models to show you how it’s done. Put updates of your work on your Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, or create your own personal blog or website. You can also volunteer to write blog posts or manage social media for universities and other professional organizations.
- Say cheese! Take pictures of the outreach you do, or ask a friend to take pictures for you. This is great for social media, professional websites and job portfolios. However, be sure to ask for permission before posting pictures of other people or organizations, and get parental permission before posting any pictures of children.
- Act professionally. Remember that, when you do outreach, your actions don’t just represent yourself but also represent your institution and even your field of study. Be careful of what you say, especially if you are being interviewed or filmed. Get in touch with the research communications and media office at your university or institution for more help.
Don’t be afraid to go above and beyond what is expected. Design your own outreach activities and try new things. The more you put into outreach, the more you will get out of it!
Carolyn Trietsch is a Ph.D. student in entomology at Penn State University, working at the Frost Entomological Museum on parasitic wasps of the family Megaspilidae. Twitter: @CarolynTrietsch. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.