Science Outreach – Public Understanding of Science

Hannah Alexander, Adjunct Associate Professor, Division of Biological Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211

A 2012 SENCER Model

SENCER Model Course Logo

Public Understanding of Science is an interactive course that aims to train students to communicate science to the public in an understandable and inviting fashion. We aim to combine the increase of the students’ love for science with an increase in their sense of duty to bring science to the public. Thus, our approach is two fold: to train the students to communicate science, and to generate opportunities for the students to actually practice their newly acquired skills.

The course has a significant interdisciplinary component, through the choice of topics, the interaction with faculty mentors from different disciplines, and the fact that the class consists of students from different departments. More importantly, in demonstrating how basic science results in tangible advances to our daily lives, the students have to explore a topic from many different science disciplines. For example, we owe our ability to undergo corrective eye surgery to physicist who studies lenses, physicists who studies laser, anatomists, neurobiologists, physicians who studies the eye and the eye/brain interaction and so on. By bringing these topics to the public the students increase the public’s understanding of the nature of and need for basic science. Moreover, it develops in the students a sense of civic engagement, and a responsibility that we believe all scientists should share: to explain to the public the importance of science in our society. In the past several years, students generated 35 different presentations, and have given over 110 presentations to adult audiences in the community.

Linking Science and Social Issues

See Table 1 in “Science and Me: A Student-Driven Science Outreach Program for Lay Adult Audiences” for examples of civic questions and relationship to science content.

Science and Me

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Below is list of student presentation topics:

MU – Fall 2008

It’s getting hot in here: What’s the big deal about climate change?
Katie Becklin, Division of Biological Science

There’s a lot of talk about global climate change, but what does that term really mean? Come learn the science behind climate change and how this phenomenon might affect you, your health, and your interests.

The aging brain: What to Remember about Memory Loss
Catharine Clark, Biomedical Sciences

Do you ever feel like you just can’t remember things the way you used to, or you occasionally have to “jog your memory” to come up with names and places? Don’t worry you are not alone. This presentation will explore the intricacies of the brain, how memory loss occurs and more importantly how to have more control over the aging brain.

Land-use effects on biodiversity: How can my golf game help frogs and salamanders?
Jennifer Hamel, Division of Biological Science

What is biodiversity? Come learn how roads affect wildlife and how golf courses affect amphibians. The answers may not be what you think! Come see how scientists answer these questions!

Critters in my backyard: Why do they keep eating my flowers?
Lianne Hibbert, Fisheries and Wildlife

Everybody likes having a nice looking yard, but what do we do about animals wreaking havoc on our plants? What causes this problem? What can we do to deal with all those critters?

The ever changing Flu virus and elephants with short tusks – what do they have in common? Why is it so hard to guess the correct flu vaccine?
Kathy Klymus Division of Biological Sciences

How can changes in an environment lead to changes in an organism’s traits? We will look at examples from creatures as diverse as viruses and elephants to explore this idea of natural selection. We will learn how natural selection affects us with respect to vaccine- resistant diseases.

Genetically modified food: What’s on your dinner plate?
Amy Replogle Plant Science

Within the past two decades scientists have learned how to move new traits into plants to make longer lasting vegetables and pest resistance plants. So how do you know if you are eating genetically modified food? Well the truth is you can’t so this talk will address what are genetically modified foods and what you should know about them.

The eye, the light and the lens: Why is it getting harder to see as I get older?
Andrew West, Science Education

Is it getting harder and harder to see? Are eye appointments and the explanations that the doctor gives sometimes unclear? We will explore how the eye works, why it is sometimes difficult to see, and what the eye doctor does to help us see better.

Infectious diseases: Can I catch my dog’s cold or the bird’s Flu?
Jordan Shroyer, Fisheries and Wildlife

Should we really be worried about catching the “Bird Flu”? Are we really capable of catching another animals’ illness? Spreading of disease and possible outbreaks will be discussed.

MU – Fall 2009

Development and Cancer – When the body does not play by the rules..
Anthea Aikins, Molecular Microbiology and Immunology

There are certain rules that control our body to make it function successfully. Compromising these rules can lead to diseases such as cancer. Join us as we explore the essential rules in the body and what happens when the body does not play by the rules.

The Secrets Behind the Sound of Music – Science, symphonies, and synthesizers
Gina Applebee, Geological Sciences

What is the science behind music and instruments? How do different instruments bring us so much expression, appreciation, and inspiration? This talk will focus on the science that helps us understand musical sounds, and explain how it has led to the enhancement of music in the age of technology.

Obesity, Diabetes, and Sleep Loss: Do we “gain” by losing sleep?
Rachel Barker, Geological Sciences

Sleep is necessary to maintain good health, but studies show that people are not getting enough. When we lose sleep we risk more than simply feeling tired. Could this epidemic of sleep loss be a contributing factor to some of the other health issues we see today?

My family’s genes – Do I have to be a chip off the old block?
Erin Flenner, Division of Biological Sciences

Just how much do our parents’ genes affect who we are today? We know that genetics affects more then how we look, but also how we act, learn and even our health. We can now learn from our family background and change the environment so that history is not doomed to repeat it self.

Think Green – Having your medicine and eating it too?
Tiffany Langewisch, Division of Biological Sciences

Even though illness has been around for centuries, doctors could not prevent sickness until the development of the smallpox vaccine. Today, biotechnology provides an alternative to traditional injection-based vaccines. How can eating produce help protect you against disease?

Allergies – What are we sneezing at?
Ashley Lough, Division of Biological Sciences

Have you ever wondered why you sneeze around your favorite flower, your friend’s cat, or the dust under your bed? If you have, come hear about the science behind allergies and how they are treated.

Estrogens in our food – How should I store my family’s food?
Elizabeth Jones, Animal Sciences

Science has vastly increased our understanding of how things around us can affect our bodies. We hear about estrogens that come from plastic containers. How do these differ from the natural estrogens found in our bodies? Are the bad for us?

The geologic timescale – Where do we fit in?
Geneviève Robert, Geological Sciences

The Earth is nearly 4.6 billion years old and has gone through many exciting transformations, from Moon formation early in its history to the beginnings of life more recently. How exactly is the history of the Earth defined? Where do we, humans, fit in? And why it is important?

MU – Fall 2010

MOVE more and SIT less: – The health benefits of putting your socks on.
Jacqueline Crissey, Biomedical Science
Mentor: Dr. Frank Booth, Biomedical Sciences

We all know that regular exercise is good for our health, but what if we are unable to be as active as we would like? Science tells us that we can benefit just by sitting less, and moving more. Come and learn how!

Sugar – The good, the bad and the alternative: The bitter side of our sweet tooth.
Rylee Do, Division of Biological Sciences
Mentor: Dr. Matthew Will, Psychology

Sugar – a friend or a foe? Either way, isn’t it best to know more about it before jumping to conclusions or consuming too much of it? Sugar has been with us from our happiest to our most desperate moments in life. Can we live without it? Do we have to?

Naked and hungry – Where would we be without science in agriculture?
Hannah Evans, Animal Sciences
Mentor: Dr. Bryon Wiegand, Animal Sciences

As the world population increases at a rapid rate and farm land becomes scarce, producing enough affordable food and clothing for everyone has become a concern. Come join us as we discuss the importance of science in agriculture and what scientists are doing to help.

Aid for AIDS – Will there be a cure?
Sanath Janaka, Molecular Microbiology and Immunology
Mentor: Dr. Marc Johnson, Molecular Microbiology and immunology

AIDS has been around for several decades, yet there is still no cure, and there is no vaccine to prevent infection. Where are we at conquering AIDS?

Osteoporosis as a childhood disease – Health habits your kids have can “make” or “break” it, literally.
Kayla Kanosky, Animal Sciences
Mentors: Dr. Charlotte Phillips, Biochemistry
Dr. Marybeth Brown, Physical health and Rehabilitation

Do you or someone you know suffer from osteoporosis? Research shows that our nutrition and physical activity at a young age influence this disease. Come and learn about preventing osteoporosis from a very young age.

What is the need to study a weed? – Why scientists study simple organisms.
Lakshminarasimhan Krishnaswamy, Division Biological Sciences
Mentor: Dr. James Birchler, Division of Biological Sciences

We often hear in news about scientists working on obscure organisms such as fruit-fly, soil worm, yeast, or weeds. Why are scientists keen on studying these organisms? Come and hear what this has to do with our own well-being.

Life is a Balancing Act – What does science tell us about falling down?
Lindsay Reustle, Division of biological Sciences
Mentor: Dr. Linda Lutz, Elm St. Yoga

Everyone occasionally trips and falls down. Come join us as we explore our sense of balance and ways to improve balance to reduce the risk of fall-related injuries.

Facts about Fat – Are some fats good for us?
Justin Rickard, Animal Sciences
Mentors: Dr. Bryon Wiegand, Animal Sciences, and Dr. Kevin Fritsche

Is there really such a thing as good cholesterol? What exactly is a trans fat? These and other questions will be discussed in this presentation, which aims to shed some light on a very common and often misunderstood topic of fat.

An aspirin a day keeps …. what away? How common pain relievers affect our body.
Kizzi Roberts, Animal Science
Mentor: Fred Wininger, Neurology/Veterinary Medicine

Do you ever wonder how Tylenol works? Or why it’s ok to take an aspirin every day? Pain relievers are used by almost everyone at some point, for a headache, a backache, and even a toothache, and they provide great relief, but what else to they do?

The Dirt on Dirt – Can we protect soil quality while producing enough food?
Roxi Steele, Division of Biological Sciences
Mentor: Keith Goyne, Soil, environmental and atmospheric Sciences

Can your garden soil benefit from the addition of nutrients? How do poor farming practices and building construction erode our soil and pollute our streams. Come hear about the science behind soil conservation and protecting soil quality.

The physics of flushing – How science is improving the most commonly used seat in our house.
Jessica Wood, Division of Biological Sciences
Mentor: Allen Thompson, Biological Engineering

Learn how the modern toilet is a prime example of science at its best. Integrating engineering, physics, and biology, scientists are working to improve upon a century old device to create a greener and more cost-effective throne.

Westminster College, Fall 2011

Mother Nature’s little helpers: How do microbes impact the environment?
Jonie Block – Senior, Biochemistry, Westminster College
Mentor: Dr. Irene Unger, Biology and Environmental Studies, Westminster College

What happens when plants and animals decompose? How are basic elements such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen returned back to the environments? Come learn about how bacteria impact the environment, and affect our lives in the process.

Food Allergies: Uncommon Symptoms Caused by Common Sources
Leah George – Senior, Biology, Westminster College
Mentor: Dr. Mark Vandewalker, Allergy/Immunology specialist

What we eat has a major impact on our overall physical health. Recent advances in science show that some patients’ persistent health problems may be due undiagnosed food allergies. Come and learn how some common ailments may be linked to previously unrecognized allergies.

The importance of being proactive: How does the Gardasil HPV vaccine prevent cancer?
Lee Goatley – Senior, Biology/Spanish, Westminster College
Mentor: Ms. Sarah Revelle, Family Nurse Practitioner, Wellness Clinic, Westminster College

The human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection and is known to cause many varieties of cancers in both men and women. Can the vaccine prevent the cancer? Do the benefits of this modern vaccine outweigh the unknown long-term effects?

Fibonacci Sequence: The secret behind nature’s beauty.
Phil Klahs – Senior, Biology/Mathematics, Westminster College
Mentor: Dr. Erin Martin, Mathematics, Westminster College

What is the Fibonacci Sequence? How can a Math equation discovered 800 years ago create patterns in living things? Come and find out the mysteries behind the Fibonacci Sequence and how it shapes the world around you.

Changes in Sport Equipment: Have they really changed the game?
Megan Slayton – Senior, Biology, Westminster College
Mr. Rex Sharp, Director, Sports Medicine Director, University of Missouri
Ms. Sasha Schmid – Head Coach, Women Tennis Team, University of Missouri, Columbia

Shoes, protective wear, racquets, clothing, and other pieces of equipment are constantly changing with new materials and new testing. But has all of it really changed the game?

Microscopes & Telescopes: Seeing the Unseen and the Unreachable
David Strawhun, Junior, Philosophy/Biology, Westminster College
Dr. Angela Speck, Physics and Astronomy, University of Missouri, Columbia
Dr. Michael Amspoker, Biology and Environmental Studies, Westminster College

From observing the inner workings of a cell to the grand spectrum of far away galaxies, unreachable worlds can now be explored because of the advent of the microscope and the telescope. Come and hear how developments in the studies of lenses, mirrors, and lights paved the way for the creation of these two essential scientific tools.

The other side of the sun: Can my beautiful tan be harmful?
Minela Sulijicic, Senior, Biology, Westminster College
Mentor: Dr. Suzan Zurowski, Dermatologist, University of Missouri, Columbia

Tanned skin is appealing, but excess sun can cause sunburn, skin cancer and quicker aging. To protect our skin, scientists developed sunscreens. But do they protect us from all the damaging factors of the sun?

From prenatal to advanced age: Why do we need vitamins?
Mei Yuan, Senior, Senior, Biology, Westminster
Mentor: Amanda Stevens, Nutritionist, Wellness Program Director

We need 28 different vitamins and minerals to sustain life and optimal health. However, Nutritional needs change as we reach different stages in life. Let’s explore what vitamins are essential for each stage of our life. Shall we?

The Course

Public Understanding of Science-Syllabus

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Course Readings

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Graduate students who take the course come from various different academic departments and have widely different scientific backgrounds. At the first meeting, students choose their topics and begin to investigate the material and prepare the presentation. A list of suggested topics for presentations is provided, but the students are encouraged to suggest their own topics on the basis of their passion and expertise, as long as they are not directly part of their graduate thesis research (see Table 1). University faculty members, experts in the latest scientific research in the related fields, are asked to mentor the students, both for accuracy of the presentation as well as for guidance in preparing and delivering the presentations. This has proven to be crucial to the preparation of the presentations and the success of the program. Organizationally, the course is divided into three parts: Part 1 (weeks 1–4) is devoted to choosing topics and mentors, building the presentations, and holding class discussions on related issues; Part 2 (weeks 5–10) is devoted to delivering the presentations to the class and analyzing their effectiveness; and Part 3 (weeks 11–15) is devoted to delivering the presentations to audiences in their venues and analyzing the experience to improve the presentations.

Evaluating Learning

This course was not initiated as a controlled study of the public’s understanding of science. With two
years of success behind us, we are now designing careful pre- and postsurveys that will enable us to give a quantitative, statistically significant evaluation of the impact of the course. As of now, we rely on students’ presentation reports, students’ end-of-course evaluations, and responses from audience members and activity coordinators.

See course assignments


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See Appendix in “Science and Me.”

Science and Me

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Student responses show that both students and audience members have benefited from the course and recommend the program to others.

Background and Context

Hannah Alexander, Anna M.
Waldron, and Sandra K. Abell, “Science and Me: A Student-Driven Science Outreach Program for Lay Adult Audiences,” Journal of College Science Teaching

Science and Me

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Related Resources

HANNAH ALEXANDER, PhD and SANDRA ABELL, PhD, “Science and Me: Intergenerational Interaction
Rewards Both Sides,” Journal of Intergenerational Relationships, 8:79–82, 2010

Intergenerational Interactions

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