On the Mall: Tips for Public Engagement

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Sunday, June 11, 2017


Jacob Robertson

"What brought you here today?" is a question I asked often at last week's Astronomy Festival on the National Mall. The festival, 8 years running, attracts thousands of visitors who eagerly line up for views of the moon, Saturn, and Jupiter through telescopes. While several local astronomy clubs brought the 'scopes, SPS was one of 16 scientific organizations hosting tables to engage with the public. 

In a busy public space, my question, I believe, provides important context when engaging the public with science. Did a casual interest in science and space bring you here, or did you just follow the crowd? My dialogue with the group of high-school students (astronomy is their favorite class!) was different than my conversation with the young couple who "just saw a big group of people." 

In addition to knowing your audience, here are a few more tips for public engagement:

  1. Be friendly: Smile, introduce yourself, and shake hands to eliminate any intimidation your visitor may feel. 
  2. Simplify the message: Avoid jargon and use real-life examples to get the point across.
  3. Maintain trust: If you do not know something, do not act like you do. Saying, "I'm actually not sure how to best answer your question," is perfectly fine. In this case, I will usually bring a colleague or advisor into the conversation. 

Students and early-career scientists may often encounter the situation in the third tip. Fortunately, while the public is divided over issues for which science is a key aspect of the policy-making process, such as climate change and food science, public confidence in scientists has remained stable for decades. However, maintaining high public trust of scientists is critical to further advance science in society. In addition to a clear message, consider the trust between yourself, as a member of the scientific community, and the public while performing outreach or engagement.



Jacob Robertson