From the Science Student Council

Psychological science outreach

Tips on how to share psychology with your community.

By Brittany Jeye and Taylor Ochalek

What inspired you to pursue a career in psychological science? Was it a teacher or a specific class? A field trip or outing? A book, TV show or movie? As a graduate student, you now have the chance to inspire a future generation of research scientists through public outreach. 

You don’t need to take a big and flashy approach to spark curiosity. In fact, as a psychological scientist, your work in asking questions about how people and other animals think, feel and behave can be uniquely relevant and interesting to the public.

However, as graduate students, adding commitments to an already full schedule of classes, research and more can seem daunting. In this article we offer some tips and resources that may help you begin outreach in your community.

Before you begin

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to science outreach. Some people are confident public speakers, in which case giving a talk at a local school could be a great option, while others prefer to work in small groups or via social media. Be sure to choose something that feels right for you.

It is important to consider the purpose of your outreach. Questions to consider include: What types of research are you comfortable explaining? Is there some aspect of your work or psychological science that you are especially excited about? Are fellow graduate students or scientists you know also interested in getting involved? Is there a particular audience you are interested in targeting (e.g., a community or university event, a local K-12 school or a senior center)?

In addition, you might consider outreach that reflects your own research. For example, if you study the psychological effects of bullying, you may wish to reach out and partner with local K-12 schools.

As outreach comes in all different shapes and sizes, it is important to establish up front what kind of commitment you can give and at what level you feel comfortable starting.

Types of outreach

Outreach efforts can range from large to small, can involve either many people or just yourself, and can require lots of time and resources or be very minimal. Furthermore, outreach can become a frequent habit (e.g., through social media) or a one-off event (e.g., volunteering at a local science fair). Decide which outreach method best suits your goals. Fortunately, with advances in technology, outreach is no longer limited to in-person meetings, which means that there are many options available to you.

If you are unsure where to begin, here are a few possibilities to consider:

  • Look within your own institution. Are there clubs or student run organizations that do science outreach? Does your institution host a community event that you could participate in? Are there professors in your department who get invited to give public lectures but don’t have the time to commit? These local connections may be relatively easy ways to get started in outreach. Organizing a workshop or presentation for your community may even be something that your department or institution has resources for and can support.
  • Utilize social media. Social media can be a great outlet for science communication, either through your own personal accounts or by creating accounts specifically for science outreach. Any and all platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, blogging, podcasts or your own personal website, can be utilized for science outreach. It’s up to you to decide on the mode, frequency, audience and content of your communications. For example, you could choose to broadly discuss science topics, disseminate emerging research findings or share your daily life as a psychological scientist.

    If creating a new social media account or using your own personal account doesn’t feel right for you, there are plenty of other ways to get involved through social media. This can include being a guest blogger or speaker on a podcast or curating a Twitter account. For example, the Twitter accounts Real Scientists and Neuro Tweeps feature different scientists each week.
  • Connect with your professional societies. Professional societies, such as the American Psychological Association, have many materials and tools to help you start your outreach and connect with like-minded scientists. They may sponsor local events in your community too. For example, APA, the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) and other organizations support the Brain Bee, a neuroscience competition for high school students. SfN also sponsors the “Find a Neuroscientist” network through BrainFacts.org, an online resource for the public about neuroscience. Additionally, many professional organizations (and maybe even your own institution or other local institutions) plan local events related to Brain Awareness Week.

    Starting small by volunteering at one of these events or by getting a group of graduate students to contribute can help you figure out what type of science outreach works for you.

    Another aspect of science outreach is advocacy — talking to your public policy makers about psychological science to inform their decisions. The APA has many amazing resources (such as the Science Advocacy Toolkit) to help you begin.
  • Reach out to local science organizations, schools, museums, zoos or aquariums. One of the key missions of many of these institutions is to engage the public in science. They often look for both individual and group volunteers to contribute to their events. It is worth reaching out to inquire if they need help or to find out how you can get involved.

    For example, you could collect your own research data while gaining science communication experience by talking to the public through Living Laboratory®. This is a national program that brings together scientists and museum educators to educate people about psychology as a science.

    You could also organize a psychology-related booth of graduate students or volunteer at a local science festival. Or you could have your fellow laboratory members join you in a Taste of Science or Science by the Pint event. In these events, you and your lab mates will give a quick presentation about your research to the public at a local restaurant or bar. After the presentation, there is typically a question and answer session over a drink or a bite to eat. 

Lastly, K-12 schools and afterschool programs also are great venues in which you could begin your outreach efforts. While in-person meetings with students in K-12 schools may be difficult to arrange, it can be worth reaching out to local science teachers. There are also online options, such as Skype a Scientist, for you to get involved with.

Practice

Once you have established what kind of outreach you are interested in pursuing, the next thing to do is practice and start communicating. Communicate as much as possible with the people that you interact with daily. Don’t be afraid to try new ways of explaining or showcasing your science.

If you are interested in gaining more formal science communication training, there are plenty of places to look. Events such as ComSciCon are offered across the country. It is also worth checking out your own university or local universities for formal courses in science communication  (make sure to look at course listings in various science as well as journalism departments.)

Keep your outreach efforts fun and exciting and make sure you communicate as much as possible. Psychological science is directly applicable to everyone’s life and can be a great way to start a science conversation with people from all backgrounds. You never know who you might inspire.

About the authors

Britany JeyeBritany Jeye is the biopsychology representative to the APA Science Student Council. She is a fifth-year cognitive neuroscience graduate student at Boston College. 

Taylor OchalekTaylor Ochalek is the behavioral neuroscience representative to the APA Science Student Council. She is a fifth-year experimental psychology graduate student at the University of Vermont.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the opinions or policies of APA.