Last week, on Monday, July 9, Darlene Cavalier, the founder of SciStarter and Science Cheerleader and a Professor of Practice at Arizona State University, presented on a panel at a American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) event. The panel was part of a larger two-day conference hosted by ASEE for engineering communicators.
The panel was moderated by Pamela Phetphongsy, Assistant Dean for Communications at the Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland. Sitting on the panel with Cavalier were Randy Atkins, Senior Program Officer for Media/Public Relations at the National Academy of Engineering, and Ann Merchant, Deputy Executive Director, Office of Communications, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The purpose of the panel was to shed light on the business of science and engineering communications, a unique specialty, as well as to give insight into how the field has changed and offer advice about best practices. The panel itself was lively and fun, with the panelists speaking candidly about how to address shifting perceptions of STEM in the media.
One topic addressed by the panelists was the idea of “seeing yourself as a scientist,” something that underrepresented groups in science and engineering, especially women and people of color, may struggle to do due to a perceived lack of role models or representation. Merchant, through her work in the Science & Entertainment Exchange, seeks to connect entertainment industry professionals with scientists and engineers to facilitate better science communication in mass media. She pointed to the hopeful example of Shuri, a character in the recent blockbuster Black Panther. This young woman of color is portrayed as an engineering expert, thus increasing representation. Merchant emphasized the importance of media role models, as they allow similar groups to envision themselves as scientists and engineers, making the general perception of who can be a STEM professional more inclusive.
Cavalier also advocated for broadening the perception of STEM professions beyond the archetypical and often inaccessible image of just being for older white men, pointing to her work with Science Cheerleader as this type of outreach. Founded by Cavalier, the Science Cheerleaders are a nonprofit organization of more than 300 current and former NFL, NBA, and college cheerleaders pursuing STEM careers. The Science Cheerleaders, at conferences and other STEM events, playfully challenge stereotypes about scientists, engineers, and cheerleaders, as well as encourage citizen science, which entails participation in a scientific research project by members of the general public. The Science Cheerleaders inspire young women to potentially pursue careers in STEM, but more importantly, they strive to encourage young people to pursue their dreams, no matter what they are. Among other activities, at conferences the Science Cheerleaders lead science cheers and explain the science of cheerleading. Cavalier was proud that the Science Cheerleaders were the principal investigators on Space Microbes.
As the founder of both Science Cheerleader and SciStarter, Cavalier points to citizen science as a rapidly growing way of engaging people from all walks of life in scientific inquiry and research. While working at Discover Magazine, Cavalier realized that the majority of subscribers were not scientists, but were nonetheless fascinated by science and nature. She views SciStarter as a pivotal way of engaging these people who might otherwise be left out of the conversation, connecting them to scientists who need their help and facilitating real, meaningful scientific work, as well as acting as a coordinated place for people to record contributions and access tools and instruments that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
Many of the conference attendees who asked questions of the panelists were representatives from universities and academic departments, and their questions centered on how to best portray scientific research and STEM efforts to the public. Atkins, with his award-winning weekly reporting on “Engineering Innovation” stories on WTOP (FM), Washington, D.C.’s most listened-to radio station, and WFED (AM), Federal News Radio, recommended op-eds in the newspaper or on online news websites as a key way of getting scientific knowledge out there. Atkins believes that the audience for general interest science stories exists, and that it is important to leverage different media platforms, including radio and print, in an engaging way. He and Merchant bantered a bit about a successful podcast that they had worked on together.
All of the panelists, passionate and experienced STEM communicators, believed that the importance of educating the general public about STEM was self-evident: by portraying aspirational scientists of all backgrounds on television and in film, by telling engaging stories about actual science on the radio and in the newspaper, and by promoting the opportunity to participate in citizen science projects, STEM communicators make it more likely that people will engage in the process of seeking scientific solutions for a better world.
The panel ended with a lightning round, in which Phetphongsy peppered the panelists with final questions that they were supposed to answer succinctly, in two sentences or less. When asked what words of wisdom she had for STEM communicators, Cavalier advised the audience to be “persistent and authentic.”
Check out more citizen science projects through the SciStarter Project Finder!