UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As rows of tents dotted the countryside, the Grange Fair offered a chance to get back to more simple times. But for members of the group WE ARE for Science, it was a chance to shape the future of science policy, education and public outreach.
About 40 members of the group recently spent a day at the fair fielding questions from kids and parents alike, in areas such as astronomy, entomology and geosciences at the “Ask a Scientist” event.
The goal was to bring scientists to the public so that they can interact, talk about research and answer questions about scientific issues. Since forming last year, the group has been focused on promoting relations with the public as well as improving diversity within science fields.
Virginia Marcon, a doctoral candidate in geosciences and co-president of the group, said she was exposed to Earth science at an early age because her parents owned an environmental consulting firm, but she said most kids, aside from a class or two in school, generally don’t share the same experience.
She’s made it her mission to change that.
“Working with children in science outreach is import to me because these are our future scientists,” Marcon said. “Without getting them interested in science and showing them a diverse group of scientists, we will lose those future scientists. It’s important to get them excited about science and keep them wanting to learn. It’s how we create future scientists.”
To attract eager kids, Marcon brought an assortment of conversation pieces including fish fossils, ancient squids, fool’s gold, and serpentinite, a mineral-rich rock once used to make asbestos.
Marcon sees a disconnect between scientists and the general public and she wants people to know that scientists are members of the public. Strengthening this relationship, she said, is critical to solving key problems facing society including sustainable energy use and climate change.
“We’re losing our ability to think through and solve problems using reason,” Marcon said. Through talking to adults about science, we want to bring scientists back out into the public to say ‘Hey, I’m a young woman but I'm also a scientist. I’m not someone who’s stuck in an ivory tower. I can have a conversation with you. I live in the same world you live in. I live in the same community you live in. I’m worried about the same things you’re worried about. I want clean water and clean air but I also want to be able to live a nice and comfortable life.’ ”
Judi Sclafani, a doctoral candidate in geosciences, was on hand to field questions about fossils. Specifically, she studies the second-largest mass extinction in history, which occurred about 445 million years ago and wiped out as much as 85 percent of the Earth’s animal species.
Sclafani said people tend to be interested in fossils but not know much about them. That can spark a lot of questions, she said.
She brought petrified wood, whalebone, coral and shark teeth, which she said is always a hit with younger crowds. So was the fossilized clamshell that was colonized by corals and worm tubes.
“Kids really like to see worms,” Sclafani said. “They either think it’s gross or really cool.”
Sclafani, who helped organize the event and also helps maintain the group’s website, said public outreach is critical to the future of science education and policy.
“Improving science communication and working to improve science literacy among the public is an important step that we as scientists need to take seriously in order to secure the future of science,” Sclafani said. “If we can make people realize that science does meaningful things for the public, then legislation to defund research in Congress isn’t going to get as much traction. That’s the ultimate goal, and as scientists we have a responsibility to work toward that.”
Students from the Eberly College of Science (chemistry, physics, astronomy, biology and statistics), Huck Institutes of Life Sciences (plant biology), College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (geosciences, materials science and geography), College of Liberal Arts (linguistics and Center for Language Science), College of Health and Human Development (nutritional sciences) and the College of Agricultural Sciences (entomology, ecology and plant pathology and environmental microbiology) also participated in the event, which was sponsored by the Eberly College of Science’s outreach office.