Outreach – should you get involved?

Outreach is a bit of a buzz word in science these days and everyone seems to be doing it. If you are funded by a UK research council you may even find that taking part in some form of outreach is a required condition of your funding. Sometimes this can be quite straight forward, like publishing something in an open access journal or tweeting about your fieldwork. But other times you may be asked to take part in more involved outreach activities.

I’ve done a fair bit of outreach myself. I have an academic twitter account that I use alongside this website to discuss my research and generally share information about doing a physical geography PhD. I also got involved in a larger outreach event when I helped out on the ‘Vanishing Glaciers of Everest’ stand at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2015. I’ve enjoyed all the outreach that I’ve been involved in so far, particularly chatting to school children and the general public at the Royal Society. This got me thinking about one aspect of outreach that I’d never done: a school visit.

I left for Svalbard immediately after the Royal Society Exhibition and kind of forgot about the whole school visit idea. That was until I got an email from the UK Polar Network asking for volunteers to visit a class of 6 and 7 year olds in Sheffield. How convenient for me! Naomi, a lecturer from Sheffield Hallam University, had also responded to the email and we decided to team up.

This year is the centenary of Shackleton’s epic Endurance expedition to Antarctica (I thoroughly recommend that you read Shackleton’s diary, but if you’re short on time check out the Wikipedia page). To mark this anniversary, loads of schools in the UK are doing projects on exploration and science in the Polar Regions. Our Sheffield school was doing just this and wanted us to help the kids see how the kit required for polar expeditioning has changed in the hundred years since Shackleton and Scott.

All very well but what did we have to do for this outreach visit? We started by contacting the teacher to work out exactly what she wanted from us, did a spot of research and then got together for a planning session. We decided to start with a quick Arctic or Antarctic quiz, featuring a few curve balls like Santa and the cast of Frozen (both of these live in the Arctic, if you were wondering). The kids were very good at this game and had clearly done their research – both Naomi and I found them far more enthusiastic than our undergraduates usually are!

Next we moved on to the real gist of the session – modern expeditioning kit. This was my time to shine (or swelter as it turned out). I had come dressed for a summer’s day in the field in Svalbard and it was the kids’ job to help me ‘upgrade’ to my full Antarctic wardrobe. This was a right laugh and involved a lot of discussion about all the layers I was donning and what the point of each garment was. I ended up absolutely dying wearing five layers, including a down jacket and fleece trousers, plus hat, gloves, mountain boots, buff etc in a toasty warm primary school that must have been heated to a good 22 or 23oC. Needless to say I striped back to my base layer and hiking trousers after less than 5 minutes!

We finished up the session with an excellent powerpoint by Naomi on the day-to-day practicalities of fieldwork. This was designed to answer questions about essentials like food and sleeping arrangements, plus the kids’ favourite: where do you go to the toilet? Hopefully this helped a lot with their task for later that day, which was to plan their own polar expedition and work out what equipment they would need to bring. The teacher was certainly pleased that we’d covered the subject area she wanted, so I guess it was a job well done.

I definitely enjoyed this new kind of outreach activity and would certainly do more school visits in future. The whole thing probably took up half a working day, including the visit itself as well as meeting Naomi to plan it, and one evening of researching and making powerpoints. So really not a major time commitment and I’d say it was worthwhile. Something a bit different to break up the monotony of writing my literature review plus it looks great on your C.V. and, most importantly it was a lot of fun!

p.s. the image for this post is a shot I took during a scientific expedition to West Antarctica. Snowmobiles are often essential pieces of kit for research in the polar regions!