In this day-and-age with flat-lined funding and increasingly smaller funding rates, you have to do more than just ‘good science’ to get $$$ (not that this isn’t important – doing good science is the first step!). In the competitive funding world, there seems to be more and more interest in funding science (that is not only solid, novel science), but science that also seek to engage and educate the general public. AKA: outreach is A MUST.
For those of you who have looked at the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) (or similar graduate fellowships/grants), you know these two words all too well: BROADER IMPACTS. For those of you not familiar with this term, see here and scroll to bottom. Essentially, broader impacts seek to see how your research would benefit society as a whole (that’s not vague at all, is it?). What I take it to mean is: how does your research improve the lives of the wider public, either through direct results (i.e., cleaner water, safer energy, etc.), through enhancing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, and/or increasing diversity in the STEM fields (plus many other, ‘tangible’ benefits). And while it’s relatively easy to answer these questions in equally vague terms (my research helps to enhance the sustainability of our waterways; I will teach students about the importance of water quality; I will recruit under-represented undergraduates to help me with research), in practice, incorporating these broader impacts into your daily research, is a little more tricky (what the heck does ‘sustainability’ really mean anyway?; what kind of lesson plan are you really going to write about water quality and for what age group?; do you really have enough funding to hire an undergrad or enough time to train them?).
But, thankfully, there are resources available to help you with some of these ‘broader impact’ goals. I’m currently involved with one of these said resources: The Scientific Research and Education Network (SciREN) which is an organization that helps scientists write lesson plans for the classroom and then helps connect scientists (with lesson plans) to science educators (and their classrooms) through networking events. And while (so far) networking events are localized to the North Carolina region, the idea of generating a lesson plan (there are several resources online) that meet local education standards, can be applied anywhere. There are really only a few basic steps:
1) Think about your research and look up the state-wide guidelines for student curriculum. How can your research fit into one of these curriculum guidelines? This will help you decide what age group to target (i.e., high school? Middle school? Elementary school?) and help guide what aspect of your research you’d like to focus the lesson plan on.
2) Think about how to translate the research you do in the laboratory (or field or wherever) into something that can educate and engage students. What kinds of research activities could you translate into the classroom? Are there cool, mini-experiments you could perform to illustrate a point?
3) Think about ways the educator can then evaluate the students understanding of the topic. Maybe students have to communicate the information they just learned to a ‘stakeholder’ or use the techniques they learned to figure out another problem (something other than just a ‘test’ is key).
4) Go talk with an educator! Get their feedback! Ask if they would be willing to use your lesson plan in the classroom and see how it goes! Maybe you could even be the one to give the lesson?
And, yes, this ‘activity’ will take time, effort and maybe a few tears, some blood, and sweat, but in the end, it’s all worth it. Not only have you now translated your science into a tangible result that can be disseminated to the wider society, but you’ve totally nailed the ‘broader impacts’ thing on the head (or at least are headed in the right direction!).
For more information on SciREN (and to sign up for their upcoming lesson plan workshop and networking event), see their website.
And if you do make a lesson plan (or are an educator looking for lesson plans), you can sign-up for the SciREN Portal, which allows you to upload your lesson plan to the website where it can then be viewed (and used!) by educators from all over. Just a little extra something to put on your resume….