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Environmental Factor, April 2012

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NIEHS seminar encourages science outreach

By Ian Thomas

Ericka Reid, Ph.D.

Reid emphasized the importance of communicating the environmental health paradigm and the effects that the many components of the environment have on human health, as well as tailoring the message to the diverse audiences that OSED targets. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Schelp

Schelp’s focus in outreach is community engagement, especially at meetings of the NIEHS Public Interest Partners and at community forums. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Michelle Heacock, Ph.D. and Debbie Wilson

Along with talks by outreach specialists, the program included small working groups. Michelle Heacock, Ph.D., left, one of several NIEHS trainees involved in education and outreach, talked with Debbie Wilson, coordinator of the NIH Summer Internship Program at NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED) welcomed Institute staff to Rodbell Auditorium Feb. 28 for a unique training seminar titled “Outreach 101.” Featuring key presenters from the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison (OCPL), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), the three-hour event treated attendees to a number of fun and interactive techniques designed to enhance interest in science education.

“A lot of people still don’t know what environmental health science is,” said Ericka Reid, Ph.D., the OSED lead specialist for education outreach and diversity. “Whether it’s through basic outreach at a middle school science fair or a formal presentation at a national research conference, the job of our office is to work with the public to teach them how their overall health is directly linked to the world around them.” 

As the NIEHS primary outreach arm for science education in the local, state, and national communities, OSED continually partners with students, teachers, parents, and fellow scientists to raise awareness about the Institute and its mission. 

The interactive key

A common theme throughout the afternoon was the notion of an interactive educational experience between students and those who conduct outreach. 

“As anyone who has ever stepped foot into a classroom knows, you can’t just walk in and lecture,” explained Kelly Leovic, manager of the EPA Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) and environmental outreach programs in Research Triangle Park, N.C. “Whether it’s by using games, educational demonstrations, or just some really cool props, you have to have hands-on activities in order to get students engaged in learning.”

“Competitions are always a great way to get people to plug in, particularly when you’re dealing with kids in middle and high school,” added Rachel Clark, Leovic’s colleague at EPA who led a quick round of Environmental Jeopardy for the crowd in attendance.

A message of clarity

In addition to fostering more interaction among students, teachers, and administrators, attendees also learned the value of conveying their message with not only clarity, but simplicity. 

“As scientists, it’s very easy for us to confuse people with the same terminology and concepts we use around our peers,” said Dana Haine, K-12 science education manager of the Environmental Resource Program at UNC. “That’s why it’s crucial for us, as scientists and educators, to know our audience, so that we can tailor our message in a way that everyone can understand.”

While Haine emphasized the importance of message clarity with regard to the spoken word, Ed Kang of OCPL stressed the need for it with the written word as well.

“As communicators, we use words that have meaning for our audience,” said Kang. “Whether we’re crafting a research paper or writing an email to a friend, it’s important that we think about not only what we want to say, but who we want to say it to, in order to ensure that the key points of our message are understood.”

A partnership for success

“Ultimately, environmental health outreach has to be a two-way conversation, not a one-sided lecture,” explained John Schelp, OSED special assistant for community engagement and outreach. “That means working with our partners in the community to find out what they need and how they need it, because, in the end, we’re all just trying to help people live healthier lives.” 

(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Rachel Clark

As part of their outreach efforts, Clark, above, and Leovick coordinate the EPA-RTP Speakers Bureau, a database organizations can search to find and request speakers on a wide variety of environmental science and related topics. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Bono Sen, Ph.D.

Bono Sen, Ph.D., science education and outreach program manager for the NIEHS journal Environmental Health Perspectives, has drawn upon the talents of NIEHS postdoctoral fellows for staffing workshops for teachers and high school students. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Outreach 101 presenters

  • Kelly Leovic, EPA
    “Developing an Effective and Sustainable Outreach Program: Best Practices”
  • Dana Haine, UNC
    “Effective Communication Strategies: The Spoken Word”
  • Rachel Clark, EPA
    "K-12 Classroom: Engaging Your Audience"
  • Ed Kang, NIEHS
    "Effective Communication Strategies: The Written Word"

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