GeoScience Outreach: teaching science communication ‘beyond the programme’ and outside of the ‘Ivory Tower’

We sometimes like to describe academia as an ‘Ivory Tower’ – an analogy that suggests that universities are inaccessible strongholds where students and Profs are locked away from the rest of society.  But the goal of many of us in the university setting is to break down these barriers taking knowledge outside of the university walls, inviting the public in and building bridges between students, university staff and the public.  This is the idea behind outreach, engagement and science communication, three of the concepts that we teach in the GeoScience Outreach course.

The quad of Old College, University of Edinburgh
The Ivory walls and tower of the Old College building of the University of Edinburgh campus.

Teaching beyond the curriculum is at the core of the Geoscience Outreach course – an innovative course at the School of Geosciences, through which students have the opportunity to design and lead an outreach project of their choice. Students pick scientific concepts they are passionate about and build an exciting project through which they communicate their ideas to the public. These outreach projects often go beyond science communication and instead actively engage communities from the city of Edinburgh and beyond.

Students on the GeoScience Outreach course have collaborated with schools, elderly care homes, conservation groups, community garden groups and other public groups across the UK. A particular emphasis of the course is to involve schools and community groups through the University of Edinburgh’s widening participation goals. Students have produced videos, lesson plans, information boards, leaflets, board games, websites, smartphone apps, community dinners, workshops and more. Project deliverables can have a long and sustained impact as clients  will use the materials students have created for years to come. Some of the science communication materials created through the course are publicly available through the University of Edinburgh Open Educational Resources website and on the Geoscience Outreach course website.

The six elements of effective outreach: cross-disiplinary; hands-on experience; widenining participation; science communication; diverse audiences; active engagement
The many elements of effective outreach that we teach on the course.

There are many paths to effective outreach and science engagement, and it is this diversity and multidisciplinarity of work that the GeoScience Outreach course wants to encourage. Students can link their academic knowledge with their interests from outside of academia – art, website development, videography, gardening, teaching, hands-on community activities, etc. The opportunities are endless, because it is students that come up with their own project based on their own interests – students decide the subject, audience and client with whom they will work.

Students are encouraged to tap into other skills sets not traditionally taught in academic courses through workshops on topics such as science communication skills, visual design concepts and social media engagement. By combining these skills with scientific rigour and a passion for their discipline, students create unique outreach products and earn valuable experience in community engagement and project management. This is how the Geoscience Outreach course is enriching the attributes with which students graduate from their university programmes to enter into the professional world – allowing them to explore a diverse range of future career paths. GeoScience Alumni students have gone on to careers in scientific communication, media and education – some getting jobs directly out of their outreach projects!

Outreach alumnus Archie Crofton first got excited about how videos could be used as a media to communicate science during his outreach project ‘In-tree-gue’ where he produced a series of videos about trees and deforestation.  Archie has since gone on to co-found a motion design company Riverbank and he is also the Digital Communications Officer for the OPERAs project ‘helping to put cutting edge ecosystem science into practice’!

Outreach almuna Roseanne Smith used a timeline to explore the concept of sea level rise with high school students in ‘The Sea-level Story’. This hands-on experience working to communicate scientific concepts to school-aged children inspired Roseanne to help to establish Scotland’s own Children’s University.  She now works day-to-day to increase access for children to ‘voluntary learning opportunities outside of normal school hours’.

For my own Geoscience Outreach project, I started Trinity Gardening Club – an interdisciplinary learning initiative aimed to engage secondary schools pupils with agroecology, sustainable agriculture, and farmland conservation. We grew a bountiful harvest of lettuce, peas, potatoes and herbs of many flavours and aromas, but most importantly, pupils gained practical skills, ecological knowledge, and collaborated with a local farm. Teachers at Trinity Academy are now using the materials I created to further my work, and Trinity Gardening Club continues to grow to this day.

Six pupils from Trinity Gardening Club at the allotment.
Joyful work at the allotment with Trinity Gardening Club.

To find out more about course alumni check out the GeoScience Outreach website and read Isla Simmons’ Teaching Matters blog post: ‘Teaching volcanoes: the Geoscience Outreach and Engagement course’’.

This year on the course we have students participating from diverse programmes including ecology, geology, geography, psychology, archaeology and landscape architecture.

Profiles of a few current projects

Eleanor Walker’s project, ‘Food for thought’, is a series of educational workshops, aiming to engage children with issues surrounding food sustainability – from the science behind germination to food waste. The project consists of a series of three workshops, each accompanied by a detailed lesson plan. In order to make these resources accessible to teachers and other organisations, Eleanor is collaborating with a fellow student Georgie Walker to make a webpage called ‘The Learned Environment’, which will contain their lesson plans as open resources, with the hope that future students will expand this resource.

Joe Boyle’s project, ‘Diversifying the Meadows’, aims to engage the Edinburgh community with urban ecology, in particular invertebrates. Often overlooked in urban landscapes, insects and other invertebrates are vital for our green spaces—they’re the invisible workers who pollinate plants, feed animals, and clean up whatever’s left. However, our bugs are under threat as the green spaces which provide them with food and shelter are engulfed by growing cities. Joe has been working with Friend of the Meadows and Bruntsfield links and you can read more about his project on his blog.

Rachel Nicholson is an archaeology student who is working in collaboration with the Learning and Programmes department at the National Museum of Scotland. In 2018, a new Ancient Egypt gallery will be launched alongside new workshops and activities for school pupils, expanding the museum’s resources on this popular topic. To assist with this, Rachel is creating an exciting workshop that will engage primary school pupils to learn the truth about Ancient Egypt in a practical and multidisciplinary approach in-line with the Curriculum for Excellence.

Rebecca Shannon’s project, ‘A Geographical Introduction to Statistics’, is a set of workshops that aims to get students in their final year of secondary school up to date with statistical methods used within geographical research, in a fun way! The project is made up of two workshops, ‘How to be a geographer’ and ‘Pokecology’, which both involve many interactive activities and also introduce the students to new technologies such as computer coding and geographic information systems (GIS). These workshops have raised a lot of interest from teachers in Edinburgh, and even as far as Norfolk via the power of Twitter! Rebecca is hoping to upload her lessons as open resources for teachers to use in the future and you can see updates on her project via her blog.

To find out more about the course, student projects and opportunities to get involved, check out our Geosciences Outreach website and Twitter feed.

Isla Myers-Smith

Isla Myers-Smith is a chancellor’s fellow in the School of GeoSciences. She teaches Conservation Science, GeoScience Outreach, Critical Thinking and other courses in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences Programme. She studies global change impacts and biodiversity change in tundra ecosystems and is the leader of ‘TeamShrub’ or the Tundra Ecology Lab.

Gergana Daskalova

Gergana is a recent graduate of the BSc Ecological and Environmental Sciences programme and her research interests focus on biodiversity change and conservation in the face of human-driven land use change. She is currently leading Coding Club – a peer-to-peer learning initiative promoting quantitative skills. Gergana is also very passionate about outreach, science communication and teaching – you can find out more about her work on her website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *