What do scientists do and why does it matter? Questions such as these are more important than ever in the push to attract and train a new generation of passionate and diverse science professionals ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
To better engage students and the general public in the wonders of science, a coalition of plant biologists across the United States worked together to outline the challenges in scientific outreach and provide a roadmap to improve future efforts.
Ramin Yadegari, a coauthor on the paper recently published in Plant Direct and a professor in the University of Arizona School of Plant Sciences, sat down with CALS to outline how scientists can effectively engage with a more diverse student body and citizenry.
Q: Why is science outreach so important, particularly now?
A: We are facing major global challenges, including the effects of the warming the climate, the associated degradation of the environment, and reduction in our ability to feed the world in the coming decades. We need the citizenry and our students to be better informed and engaged with the scientific knowledge necessary to deal with these challenges. Also, we have failed to include a large swath of our society in our scientific training and education because of lack of economic opportunities and inherent biases. Climate change will have a greater impact on marginalized communities. Those who are impacted most should therefore be involved in making decisions about how best remedy the problems.
Q: How can researchers and scientists better inspire scientific curiosity in the public?
A: First, we have not fully conveyed the wonderment of science to the public. The public needs to understand that we, the researchers and scientists, are not very different from them. We got into this business because we (as is true for most people) are curious about things and want to know the 'how' and 'why.' Second, they need to understand that a career in science can be as rewarding as any career, both in terms of the tangible (salary, job security) as well as the intangible (job satisfaction) aspects. Third, we can inspire people to recognize their own potential to make positive impacts on their own communities by using science to solve problems that affect them directly, including health disparities, environmental damage due to pollution, food insecurity, disappearance of native foods, etc. Finally, we should make it easier for the public to engage in science by offering opportunities for the public to work with university scientists through citizen science projects on and off-campus.
Q: Access and opportunity for K-12 students to explore their interest and ability in science is a nationwide issue, how can we better support budding scientists?
A: We need to spend money in primary and secondary education to hire and train more teachers in STEM fields. Teachers should be paid better in order to reduce turnover. We also need to spend money in equipping classrooms with low-cost scientific tools, computers and digital books to teach our students so that they are better prepared when they arrive at the university. Additionally, we need to recognize and eliminate inherent biases against marginalized students as they progress through our educational systems. Finally, we need to recognize those with an interest and gift in STEM fields, regardless of economic background, and systematically connect with them early in their primary education and as they move through K-12 education, to ensure that they will find a place in a university and ensure their success.
Q: What are the major challenges you face in attracting and supporting diversity in plant science?
A: We do not have enough financial support to recognize, nurture and support our underserved students in plant sciences, as is the case for STEM in general. Integrated programs such as ASEMS have proven that we can increase diversity in STEM. We need to be willing to provide more financial support to institutionalize such programs to attract and support diversity.