My first "real job" following my Ph.D. defence was working as the Communications, Education & Outreach Officer for the Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astroparticle Physics Research Institute, or McDonald Institute for short. This research institute and community came to be thanks to a successful CFREF application spearheaded by Prof. Tony Noble, Queen's University and a number of other institutional partners. I was only the 2nd full-time staff member hired to start shaping this brand new institute, which was both an incredible challenge and opportunity!
Building off my past experiences and forced to learn a plethora of new skills on the fly, I had the pleasure to build the foundation of the McDonald Institute's public and education programs: public talks and events, high school workshops, undergraduate and graduate summer schools, conference and seminar series, a brand new Visitor Centre filled with informational and interactive activities, and much more! My year spent at the McDonald Institute was incredibly formative and has equipped me with the knowledge and confidence to tackle all matters of new challenges that await me.
The Queen's Observatory is located on Queen's University's campus in Ellis Hall. It hosts school and private tours of all kinds, from kindergarteners to adults looking for a special night out. It also hosts public Open House events every 2nd Saturday of each month which features a special talk given by a scientist and an observing session using a 14-in reflector telescope and an enthusiastic team of graduate students and RASC members on the observing deck!
I was the Coordinator of the Queen's Observatory from 2010 to 2016, and still stick around to help out and consult! I've done everything from MC'ing to presenting to operating the telescope to shovelling snow on the observing deck. One of the main aspects of managing the Observatory included the creation of a suite of educational talks and activities catered to the specific needs and curriculum requirements of K-12 students. I've also hosted special community events for astronomical events such as eclipses and planet transits!
I'm so proud of the way this operation has grown over the years: from having two dozen guests joining us in our warm room to now hosting upwards of 150+ guests during Open House events in the Ellis Hall auditorium. Nothing beats seeing astronomers in action and there's just no replacement for seeing a Jupiter or the Moon's craters through the telescope with your own eyes. If you are ever in Kingston, ON, I encourage you to check out the Queen's Observatory!
Engaging directly with the public is often the best way to get people interested in science. This can be ask simple as having a one-on-one conversation with someone who wants to find out more about space. It can also be really fun to bust out the arts and crafts or observing tools! You can find a multitude of activities that will educate and entertain children of all ages online, such as learning about the Solar System by building a planetary mobile. I've volunteered with wonderful organizations such as Let's Talk Science that facilitate activities such as science trivia games, engineering projects, and so much more to encourage the development of curiosity, critical thinking and problem solving in youth.
Astronomy is a very communal and collaborative science! Over the years, I've helped thousands of children observe their first sunspots and solar flares through a Coronado telescope. Communities love to get together at witness spectacular astronomical events as a group! You get to share your thoughts with each other, and ask questions to the experts on hand! I've helped to organize public viewings of the solar eclipse of October 2014 on the Lake Ontario waterfront, and a very popular viewing of the Venus Transit of June 2012 at Fort Henry. We helped provide specialised tools such as eclipse viewing glasses, solar telescopes and sunspotters for all attendees.
Getting to interact personally with a diverse range of people is one of my favourite parts of science outreach. There are a variety of obstacles that hinder different parts of society's access to science: gender, race, socioeconomic status, disability. It's up to us as educators to bridge the gap and make science accessible to the entire spectrum of the members of our community. The first step is reaching out and collecting as many POVs as we can from these different intersections of society, and there's nothing quite like having that conversation in person.
Public Talks | Media Interviews
On top of travelling all over the globe to talk about my research at scientific conferences, I've also had to pleasure to spread the gospel of science at public talks at schools and special events, TV, online feature, and radio interviews from the university (Queen's CFRC 101.9FM) to the national level (CKNW). I am now a frequent contributor to CBC and Radio-Canada on all matters pertaining to space. You can find out how to contact me for media inquiries here!
In my experience, members of the audience are often avid listeners, but can be quite shy and tentative about asking questions. I believe that it's up to the speaker to start a conversation with the audience, and I always try to focus my talks on audience participation. Science educators need to strike a balance between establishing a position of confidence and mastery of the subject matter without building a wall between themselves and those who are listening. I try to do this through a lightness and a focus on storytelling. The Universe is telling us a beautiful story every single day we observe it; it's my job to tell you about it!
On The Interweb
I can hardly remember a time in my life where I didn't have access to a computer. Technology and the interconnectedness given to us via the marvels of the internet have truly changed how information is exchanged and how people relate to each other. It would be foolish for scientists and educators alike to not take advantage of these tools in their most noble of endeavours. In that spirit, I make weird science memes on the internet.
On a more serious note, internet culture has heavily shaped the way that I think and what I find funny, interesting, captivating. There are lots of educators out there, and we're all very different people that have different backgrounds, different interests and different personalities. There are as many ways to communicate science as there are communicators, and there is no reason to believe that we must sacrifice scientific accuracy for fun, or vice versa! Once again, it's all about striking that balance. The content I create online, including on social media platforms and on my blog, are where I let my unique viewpoint shine, and I've received a very positive response to it! If you're someone who is interested in performing some education and outreach, I encourage you find what makes your message unique and run with that!