Met Any Scientists Lately?

When you visit SCI, look for people wearing these buttons for your chance to learn from one of our Portal to the Public scientists!

When you visit SCI, look for people wearing these buttons for your chance to learn from one of our Portal to the Public scientists!

By: Sara Kobilka, SCI Guided Learning Manager

While preparing to film a video at a recent science communication workshop, I came across a number the shocked me: 83% of Americans can’t name a living scientist.

I know I live in a happy little scientific bubble known as the Science Center of Iowa, a place I like to refer to as "nerdvana," but really?? They haven’t heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall… Bill Nye the Science Guy? I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt... Perhaps they experienced performance anxiety and just couldn’t think of someone during the pressure of the moment, but this is still a disappointing figure.

As Guided Learning Manager at the Science Center of Iowa, I’m lucky enough to work with scientists on a regular basis – in fact, I consider many of them good friends – and when I speak with these scientists, I often ask them how they became interested in their chosen field. A majority of the time, they’re able to think back to an encounter with a scientist or a great science teacher. This person-to-person interaction turned them from their dreams of being a rock star or a professional baseball player to wanting to study bugs or the origins of our solar system.

Connecting scientists to the community

This June, I had the opportunity to travel with one of my coworkers to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle for training to join a new national network called Portal to the Public.

Portal to the Public was designed to help science museums around the country as they "seek to bring scientists and public audiences together in face-to-face public interactions that promote appreciation and understanding of current scientific research and its application" using "materials-based activities." Basically, this meant SCI would recruit local scientist and engineers to attend a workshop and learn how to talk about their research using hands-on activities (similar to the carting demos you see at SCI)!

It may sound simple, but this was an involved process. After selecting our first round of participants, multiple staff members mentored these scientists as they learned how to encourage people to visit their activity station, lead activities by asking questions rather than just telling people facts ("inquiry-based learning" in educator lingo) and explain their science using words and examples all of our visitor can understand. 

The training was a great success! One of the scientists, astrophysicist Sarah Willis from ISU, had a chance to try out her demo during a recent Girl Scout overnight. It was great seeing the excitement on the girls’ faces as they "made craters" in a plastic cube and looked for evidence as to which crater was the oldest and what impacted its shape. They also looked at pictures of actual craters and tested their crater knowledge.

As one of the girls left the station, she told me she wanted to study astronomy when she grew up, and I couldn’t help grinning: Science was cool, "Sarah the scientist" was the rock star (pardon the space pun) and the curiosity that drives scientists had been piqued in our young visitor. No longer would a scientist be just an old white man with crazy hair wearing a lab coat and pouring chemicals in test tubes… Each and every one of our visitors could see themselves as a scientist!

Come meet a scientist at SCI

Keep an eye out for our Portal scientists during your next visit. Perhaps you’ll meet Mohan Desari from Feed Energy and learn about the amazing power of corn. Laura Higgins from Pioneer may thrill (or scare) you with her buggy friends. And Gavin Warnock’s combination of physics and art will be sight to behold AND manipulate.

We’re so excited about this inaugural group’s success that we’re starting to plan for our second round of workshops next spring.

83% of Americans can’t name a living scientist. However, if you’re at the Science Center of Iowa at the right time, not only will you be able to NAME a scientist, but you’ll also be able to tell all your friends you met one and helped them do some really cool science!

Sara Kobilka is SCI’s Guided Learning Manager. She is in charge of camps, overnights, Portal to the Public, Café Scientifique and a litany of other programs that help inspire the next generation of scientists. Sara, a loud and proud nerd, has a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia, and an atmospheric and oceanic science degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has worked at SCI since April 2011, when she started as an Outreach Presenter.

Category: General SCI