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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

SciComm Advice: Start at the End (what are you trying to do?)

Updated: May 1

Girl drawing in a sketchbook with art supplies on table around her
Student sketching in a notebook surrounded by educational materials | credit: B.G. Merkle

I frequently get asked by students and faculty what kind of advice I have for a student interested in sharing science. Some of these students want careers as scicomm professionals. Others want to do scicomm as a scientist. And others just know someone who is looking for advice. This post is written as direct-to-the-seeker advice.

Feel free to share it and chime in about the advice you share or have found most helpful — share in the comments or on social media!

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As a starting point, I typically I recommend folks read “Unveiling Impact Identities: A Path for Connecting Science and Society” (link to paper). Julie Risien and Martin Storksdieck’s paper is about about how to meld what they call research and impact identities. Reading this paper can help you orient you to…yourself.

This paper is relevant because there are two key components to effective, meaningful, and sustainable public engagement/outreach. They are: (a) what is meaningful and compelling to you, and (b) what is needed by the stakeholders you care about reaching.

When you have had some time to think about what you are driven by and who that could be meaningful to, you’re in a stronger position to start planning/proposing engagement activities.

Then, it depends a lot on what kind of stakeholders you want to reach. In the case of a student studying some aspect of aquatic ecology, you might ask: Are they anglers, fisheries managers, policy makers, private land owners, recreators, K-12 educators, or someone else entirely?

While it is tempting to say, “Science matters to everyone,” that’s not an effective or sustainable approach to public engagement. 🙂 Language, strategies, communication materials, etc., are most productive when they are tailored to the values and needs of specific stakeholder groups.

Next, it is crucial to be crystal clear on how much time and resources you’ll have. Are you doing this project alone or with fellow students? Do your advisers have any (a) experience with this type of engagement or (b) interest in helping with it? Do they have existing relationships that you can build on to help you get started and increase the chances of the engagement being longer-term and thus more meaningful for the target stakeholders?

Keep in mind that your answers to all these questions can (and usually do) vary throughout the lifespan of (a) your career and (b) any given project. The important thing for sustainability and efficacy is to make some decisions to provide a reasonable scope for a project at any point along the way.

Location-specific advice

After you’ve considered the big picture questions, you may also want to consider where you are developing your engagement plan. I’m going to walk you through advice I give to students working in or wanting to share science in Wyoming, where I’m based. You can adapt the overarching framework of this advice to the specific resources, organizations, and considerations of your locale.

Here are some thoughts specific to public engagement in Wyoming:

If you’re not sure where to start, it’s best to avoid being a solution in search of a problem.

Ideally, that means you start by orienting yourself to who on campus is already doing public engagement in Wyoming. Check out the Biodiversity Institute’s programs, along with the Science Kitchen, Science Road Show, Science and Math Teaching Center, the Wyoming Science Fair, and the Women in STEM campus day, along with COPSE. Those are all potential avenues for learning more about effective public engagement in a Wyoming-specific context.

Doing this will help you understand what kinds of opportunities there might be to connect your research to existing efforts, and thereby avoid having to reinvent the wheel.

Leverage your mentors’ existing relationships within Wyoming to identify ways that you could contribute here. Leaning on that aquatics/fisheries student example: Does the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s fisheries team have anything going on that’s relevant to your research, or any needs you could meet, relating to public engagement? It’s best to have an open conversation rather than assuming that we have things they need from us. But, it can be quite productive to simply approach collaborators and partners and say, “I want to share my science outside academia. Would you be willing to chat with me about what you’re working on that does that and/or how I could do that in a way that supports what you already have going?”

Next steps & resources

Everything I’m telling you here is (a) best practices grounded in the science of science communication and (b) covered in the courses I regularly teach in Zoo/Phys and the Program in Ecology and Evolution (PiEE). The Haub School also offers a host of fantastic courses that teach students how to effectively work with stakeholders. Finally, starting in the fall, the UW Science Communication Initiative (WySCI) will start offering trainings again. You can get notifications about that by subscribing to our weekly updates on the WySCI website.

If you’re not a student based in Wyoming, it’s a great idea to look around for coursework across your campus that could help you cross-train and build/practice the skills you need. You might be consider courses in graphic design, journalism, public speaking, conflict resolution, project management, cultural studies, creative writing, pedagogy (teaching training) and more.

If you want to dig deeper into the whole framework of good practices in public engagement, here are two resources from my scicomm classes:

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