I don’t drink coffee.
What, you may ask, does this have to do a blog about girls and science outreach. Let me explain in graphical form.
You will notice that the pie chart on left is dominated by coffee related activities. As a person who is known for doing a lot of outreach people often seek me out for advice. Inevitably, they email or stop by my office and offer to “take me out to coffee” to discuss their ideas. I do not know why, but I remain surprised at how often the coffee offeror is proposing creating some entirely new offering from scratch with little to no experience at running a program.
I never want to discourage someone from getting involved in outreach, but I also do not enjoy seeing people flail or burn out trying something ill conceived. I believe in swinging for the fences, especially when people are reflexively nay-saying… but … there’s swinging for the fences and theirs swinging for Mars when all you have got is a whiffle ball bat and a wad of construction paper.
Below is my handy list of things to consider before embarking on outreach.
What are your goals?
What are you hoping to get out of outreach? Do you want to raise awareness for your discipline or a specific issue? Do you want to beef up your resume? Do you want to share science with a group of kids you know? Do you need more practice teaching? All the cool folks are doing it, why shouldn’t I? There are any number of reasons why someone might want to do outreach. It’s important to know what your reasons are. Until you have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish and why, it will be hard to figure out how you’re going to go about doing outreach in a way that is sustainable and meaningful to you.
What type of outreach fits your goals?
Let’s take the example of raising awareness for your discipline, area of research, or a special issue. Maybe you are a riparian zone researcher interested in habitat restoration or a an optical physicist working on quantum encryption. Educational research shows us that whenever possible, outreach should be hands on and relatable. For a riparian researcher, activities that actually simulate river environment or even going down to a river will be much preferable to paper and pencil work. How to study quantum encryption in an informal setting is probably less obvious. It may be that your subject lends itself better to public talks, or museum installations, or educational videos.
The point is, give some thought to what type of outreach is going to communicate your message best.
See what’s been done before!
There’s a whole internet of resources out there. Search around and see what sorts of things other people have done. Unless your goal is to prove that you are the best at developing a very specific kind of curriculum, you don’t have to place the whole burden on yourself. The most important element of your outreach (hopefully) is the impact you have on learners.
Almost all good outreach has been used, remixed, and used over and over again. It works, so use it! This doesn’t mean plagiarize. Many outreach resources state clearly the limitations of use (which is typically wide open, because outreachers are all about sharing). Please respect those limitations and always give credit to anyone who developed activities or resources that you use or ones that simply inspired you. It never hurts to share credit!
Get with other people!
Once you have an idea of what you would like to do (and especially if you are notsure what you want to do) look around and see if anyone is doing something similar. Professional organizations, existing outreach groups, hobbyist groups, student clubs, and educational organizations are great places to start. Often times groups and clubs are looking for experts to share workshops and presentations. This is a low pressure way to share your expertise and practice your outreach skills.
Existing outreach programs may be able to offer you other opportunities with their existing lineup and can provide more resources and mentoring.
Professional organizations often offer trainings, curriculum, and small outreach grants that can support your efforts. Partner with an existing organization and you’ll increase your chances of securing funding.
Honestly asses your abilities, time, and resources
We all have limitations. It’s never a bad idea to take inventory of what you have going for you. Perhaps you have a lot of time, but limited experience. If so, volunteering with experienced outreaches can be a huge help to them and give you more experience to figure out what you want to do going forward. Maybe you have resources in terms of expertise, equipment and connections, but little time. In this scenario you might best serve as a technical advisor to other outreaches and someone they can borrow microscopes from.
Make sure to understand what you can commit to and where you need help before you set out on an outreach odyssey. If you legitimately believe you have a great idea and a lot to offer then do it! Just don’t underestimate the amount of administration and marketing outreach can take.
When it doubt, ask someone with more experience out to coffee… or whatever works for them.
 FYI – I’ve noticed that people tend to think of “coffee” as something that doesn’t count as “real” work or time, even though it takes longer to schlepp off to a coffee shop and back than it does to simply talk in an office. If someone is well known for doing something, they’re probably pretty busy and get lots of “coffee” requests. By all means, offer them nourishment in exchange for their time, but please don’t be offended if they say no. It’s not personal. Some of us just don’t have the capacity for coffee to keep up with demand.