Commkit: Unconventional Outreach

Commkit: Unconventional Outreach

Thibaut Roger (Europlanet/Universität Bern/NCCR PlanetS) investigates unconventional outreach practices. 

Read article in the fully formatted PDF of the Europlanet Magazine.

If you need something to make you smile and banish the ‘January Blues’, try the Massive Exoplanet Meme Exhibition (MEME) on 27 January 2023. From an impromptu event organised in Leiden, with colleagues queueing to see printouts taped to an office wall, MEME has grown into an annual online gathering that harnesses the creativity and humour of memes to communicate the day-to-day lives and research interests of astrophysicists around the world.

The organisers have now set up a second online venue specifically for high schools, where scientists provide guided tours to explain to students the science or work-related aspects behind the memes.

Using Internet culture is an unconventional way to teach astrophysics, but it can be effective. A Google/Ipsos survey found that 80% of teens reported using YouTube to become more knowledgeable about a subject. While traditional outreach (observing nights, museum exhibits, open days etc) by the planetary community is useful and necessary, it tends to reach a public who is already ‘converted’ to science. So how can we engage, grow and retain new audiences and communities that have previously had no interest or experience of astronomy and planetary sciences?

Science communication can learn from marketing techniques, which aim to trigger an emotional response, such as surprise. Unconventional outreach activities are often, by their nature, unexpected and can result in a positive experience for the public, especially if tailored for different audiences. Following co-creation practices of involving the target community during design phases can help make such activities more effective.

Non-science festivals, from music (e.g. Bluedot) to science-fiction (e.g. Fantasy Basel) offer another unconventional outreach opportunity. In Switzerland, we have been attending the latter type since 2016, starting with a 10 m2 stand and now managing a ‘space village’ of over 500 m2 in a partnership with space-related institutes, museums, associations and student projects. Although each event requires some financial investment, plus over 50 volunteers to cover the weekend, it enables us to reach over 60,000 visitors with exhibits, science demonstrations and stage talks. Initially, the public were surprised to find actual science alongside the science-fiction. Now, regular attendees are excited to meet us again and recommend us to their friends. Each time, we also see an increase in the number of students coming to us for advice on studies and careers.

Unconventional or not, these personal interactions are important.

Thibaut Roger is Europlanet Magazine’s new columnist on science communication topics and tools.

Issue 4 of Europlanet Magazine