I moved to Columbia, Missouri, home of the University of Missouri (Mizzou), five years ago, and I was impressed with the amount of science engagement activities available to the public. Any time of any day of the week there appeared to be something going on: Saturday Morning Science, Science Café on Monday nights, and Science on Tap on Tuesday evenings. An incredible variety of settings to pick and choose from, from auditoriums to cafés to breweries. Topics to satisfy all interests, from chemistry to astronomy to biology. Professors, grad students, undergrads—they were all involved in outreach. I couldn’t believe what a big role science played in the state.
Except, it isn’t in the state, it’s confined to the city. And you don’t have to go very far out of it to realize that it is a thin bubble. Drive 30 minutes south of Columbia to Hartsburg, population 101, home of the renowned Pumpkin Festival, and things look quite different. Science is a distant high school memory. There are no outreach programs readily available in town, and no one is going into Columbia to seek them out. Access is indeed a big challenge in science outreach.
As a land-grant university, the mission of the University of Missouri is to serve all the citizens of the state. Those living in college towns already have access to science, whereas those living in rural areas do not. Hence rural communities are the ones where science outreach could be more impactful. Hartsburg is not that far away from Columbia, but there are thousands of communities just like it that are over two hours away from the closest city. And after a long work day chances are you don’t feel like driving two hours to get to a science talk. So for a change I decided to be the one to drive those two hours, to bring the science to people—right where they are.
As humans we distrust things we don’t know, and often people don’t know science. In rural areas there are typically no opportunities to meet scientists. People living there don’t necessarily know what we actually look like or what we do. I set out to change that to show that science isn’t just something that happens in the Ivory Tower’s labs—it’s used in everyday life. I decided to focus my outreach program on the relevance of research rather than on the research itself. Every scientific pursuit has the potential to transform our lives, and we need to communicate that clearly.
Part of the problem is that after K-12 science disappears altogether from the picture. Ask most adults about the last time they thought about science—“What do you mean? Like in high school?” is the probable reaction. Adults are often left behind in the science outreach effort. Programs often focus on K-12 (the science pipeline!), but we forget about lifelong learning. That is a glaring omission given that over 3 in 4 US citizens are over the age of 18, and it motivated me to focus on this age group.
Over the past summer I developed a program that would meet the needs I had identified. Science on Wheels travels to rural areas in any county of the state that requests it. Four to six graduate students give a five-minute overview of the relevance of their research to everyday life, and then mingle with the adult audience to chat more about science. So far we have reached seven counties, mainly in the central and southeastern parts of the State.
Our crowds are small: we have had audiences as little as one person, and only as big as 30 people. But we don’t consider that to be a failure. It takes more time and capacity than hosting an event in Columbia, but the people we are reaching in rural areas are exactly the ones we need to be reaching. They are the ones who are not typically engaged with science.
Here’s an example of our experience: it was 5:50 pm on a Thursday evening last spring. We had driven over an hour to hold an event, but no one had come in yet. 10 minutes from the official start, things weren’t looking up. There was a passerby, and we were quite forward in trying to convince him to join in. He wasn’t having it: science was not his thing, and besides his wife was expecting him for dinner. Finally, we somehow convinced him, and we ran the program with only him in the audience. It was transformative. Over the space of an evening, he relaxed, started asking questions, and eagerly discussed science. That night we changed someone’s perception of science, and that is most definitely worth our time and effort.
The relationship that adults have with science is often reflected in their voting choices. Therefore, nurturing that relationship is key to ensuring that research may thrive in our country. Someone who understands the value of science may be more likely to vote for legislators who do as well. The tangible outcome? Increased science funding, attention to issues such as climate change and conservation of endangered species, data-driven policy decisions—for the benefit of society at large.
Where to next? This summer I will work on expanding Science on Wheels at the state level. I plan to involve the other three University of Missouri campuses, in order to be able to cover a larger territory and hold more events. A few years down the road, I would like to see other institutions nationwide, especially land-grant universities, take the Science on Wheels model and tailor it to their needs. 90% of Americans can’t name a living scientist. My vision for Science on Wheels is for every resident of the state of Missouri—and one day of the U.S.—to have met with one.