Thursday, June 7, 2012

Scientific Outreach at Liberal Arts Institutions

I enjoyed these posts by Kate Clancy and Scicurious about scientific outreach. At most universities, as they point out, outreach isn't valued and isn't what we're paid to do, so any outreach is done on our own time and can actually be detrimental to our careers.

Their perspective on outreach is colored by the expectations of major research universities. Small liberal arts colleges, and particularly my small liberal arts college, provide a very different context for scientific outreach. U of MN Morris not only has a culture that encourages outreach (we have a science blogging celebrity on the faculty), we actually have an Office of Community Engagement with staff to support outreach in many forms, from service learning to student volunteerism. This is one of many reasons I love my job here!

My own experience with outreach (other than this blog, which won't count unless/until I gain an audience!) suggests that liberal arts professors, at least, can integrate outreach into their research and teaching in ways that benefit all. The higher value placed on teaching, student engagement, and pedagogical innovation makes this much easier at a liberal arts institution than at an R1.

For example, last semester I taught North American Archaeology. Outreach was part of the class. Rather than write a term paper, my students posted annotated bibliographies on the class blog. The hope is that these posts will be a resource for other students and researchers in the field. OK, so the blog posts are of varying quality, like any set of student assignments, but the potential is there, and this is a form of outreach that can be included in a class without adding any more work than would be required by regular papers.

In the same class, the students created lesson plans on archaeology and Native American culture for preschool and early elementary school children. These lesson plans are posted on the class blog for teachers to use (our Office of Community Engagement is publicizing this resource to teachers throughout the state), and my students also implemented these lesson plans in classrooms here in Morris (with the supplies all paid for by, yes, the Office of Community Engagement). Sure, implementing the lesson plans took some time out of my schedule (at the very end of the semester, when I was 8.75 months pregnant!), but creating the lesson plans was an academic exercise for my students, and, again, didn't take any more time out of my schedule than grading any other paper.

The quality of my teaching will be a huge part (about half) of my tenure decision next year. Innovative approaches, student and community engagement, and outreach count as "pluses" in my portfolio. No, a class blog won't make up for abysmal student evaluations or a total lack of publications, but outreach is valued and can help create a strong tenure package at institutions where teaching and engagement are encouraged.

So, while I agree with the points Katy Clancy and Scicurious made on their blogs, I just want to point out that many (most?) PhDs don't work in R1 institutions. For those of us at liberal arts colleges, outreach can be an asset.


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  2. Aaaaaaaaaand this is why I want to go back to a liberal arts school (I did my undergrad at one and am currently a grad student at an R1)...

    I included a link to this post in my new blog post here: Thank you for reminding us that the situation is not the same across the board!

  3. Much agreed. I am at a SLAC, and really enjoy the outreach that I do. I think it can help complement existing teaching, research and service efforts. I mentioned one such way in my post reacting to Sci and Kate at my blog.

  4. Thanks for the comments and links! I attended R1 schools as an undergrad/grad student, but I'm loving the many benefits of teaching at a SLAC. Cedar, I agree with your point that outreach is important for any significant interdisciplinary research. A focus on interdisciplinary research and teaching is one of the aspects of SLACs that I like the best. I hadn't thought about outreach in that context, but it is true that outreach activities tend to bring in faculty from other disciplines in a way that doesn't happen when writing journal articles.

  5. Their perspective on outreach is colored by the expectations of major research universities. art college