Linda Rayor

March 25, 2019

Sharing, Spreading and Supporting Science Is ‘Civic Activism,’ Professor Says

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Among the many job titles that children dream of having, “scientist” is not uncommon, but “science teacher” often is. The latter, however, is just as important as the former, according to Prof. Linda Rayor, entomology. In a lecture on Thursday, “Why Science Outreach Matters: Case Studies at Cornell,” Rayor explained the importance of science outreach in inspiring the youth to learn about and possibly pursue STEM-related fields.

Rayor has been involved in science outreach throughout her career. She organized Insectapalooza — Cornell’s annual “insect fair” — participated in the Science Discovery show Monster Bug Wars, and currently teaches Naturalist Outreach Practicum, which sends Cornell students to local classrooms to talk about science.

According to Rayor, science outreach is a form of civic activism that is meant to inspire children and young adults to pursue their science-related interests.

Rayor said that to encourage the younger generation to participate in science, it is important for them to have good mentors and experiences that will guide their interests and efforts. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, which asked 65 established scientists why they wanted to become scientists, having role models in the field was a primary reason, Rayor said.

“It is important to have good mentors, teachers and professors, [to] do lab or fieldwork, [to] have an internship, attend science fairs [and] childhood experiences in science museums, and the natural world,” Rayor said.

At the same time, even though some children in Ithaca may already have scientific knowledge, there is still more they can learn about their local surroundings, Rayor said.

“Kids here in Ithaca actually have a pretty good idea of what’s happening in a tropical rainforest […] but they don’t have a really great idea about eastern deciduous forests and the biology of what’s happening locally,” she said.

According to Rayor, understanding the science of the environment has become a necessity, especially in a time when it’s uncommon for children to spend countless hours playing outside.

In addition to children, adults can also benefit from informal science education. According to Rayor, students who went out to teach science classes through her Naturalist Outreach Practicum course got to improve their presentation skills, understand science better, interact with community members, and become empowered.

“About 41 to 45 percent of my students come out of my program and… want to become a teacher. A lot of them are continuing to do outreach as they go on,” Rayor said. “Basically, they’re doing better in their classes, they’re understanding science better, because they’re teaching.”

Rayor’s goal is to inspire a generation of civically engaged science leaders. College students in the future can become leaders who contribute to the understanding of nature and science, but also become future articulators of STEM-teaching, she said.

“Formally training people how to do effective scientific outreach greatly enhances the probability of these individuals going on to become STEM teachers or continuing to do informal science education that communicates the value of science to the public through their careers,” Rayor said.

Additionally, older students have the opportunity to be a role model for local youth and lead by example to show that kids can achieve their dreams, according to Rayor.

“College students are aspirational role models for younger students,” she said. “Having these college students as role model scientists really makes it work.”