Judith A. Sclafani, Ph.D.
As scientists we have a responsibility to improve science literacy among the public. This is our long-term defense against funding cuts and anti-science public sentiment. If we make science and scientists more approachable, we can create a force of informed citizens with the power to halt attempts to sow doubt.
Throughout my Ph.D., I worked on a number of projects that reach both K-12 students and voting adults and have developed initiatives to improve the connection between scientists at Penn State and the surrounding central Pennsylvanian community. I truly value these opportunities to step outside of the lab and share my science. It is immensely rewarding to be able to connect with and make an impact on my community.
My approach to outreach stems from my background in community organizing and the formal training I received from the Sierra Club and William and Mary's Office of Community Engagement. As an undergraduate, I was involved in pushing sustainability efforts on William and Mary's campus. Through these projects, I met with faculty and administrators from all across campus to pitch ideas, present proposals, and ask for support. I developed communication, management, and organization skills that have been immensely helpful in my academic career and which I have applied to the outreach projects I've taken on as a scientist.
A fundamental tenet of community organizing is cooperation and the re-distribution of agency and power from those with authority to all members of the community. This is how I view my goal as a science educator. It is also how I structure and manage teams working on an outreach project. Scientists have power (in terms of an understanding of science concepts and the scientific process). When we take on the role of an educator (especially outside of the classroom), we must empower those we educate so they feel like they have a stake in science and a means of contributing to its success. This involves working to understand the groups of people we interact with so that the way we present our science is most relevant to their needs. In this way, we can make science more accessible in the hopes that people take an active role in understanding the science they encounter in their daily lives.
I have volunteered at numerous elementary student outreach events hosted by the Penn State Eberly College of Science Outreach Office. This is a photo from a Halloween themed event where we put on a puppet show about the Late Ordovician mass extinction. Since the area's outcrops contain Ordovician fossils, the premise was that all of the neighborhood fossils came back to life to explain how they went extinct.
In 2017, I took a graduate seminar on designing and implementing science outreach activities. As a part of the course, we developed and ran an activity at an elementary science exploration night. I partnered with an archeology graduate student to design an activity to explain the difference between archeology and paleontology. To do this we had children dig through buckets of sand to find pictures of fossils and artifacts, which we helped them identify using guidebooks. We then walked them through what the items they found told them about either an ancient civilization or an ancient environment. If you would like access to the lesson plan and materials for use in your teaching, please contact me.
In 2016, I and several other graduate students founded a campus-wide science advocacy group which aims to use outreach to improve diversity in science, increase public science literacy, and inform science policy. As a part of this organization, I participated in the March for Science in Washington, D.C.; organized an outreach event called "Ask a Scientist" in which brought researchers from across campus to have conversations about science with the public; and successfully wrote a proposal to establish a graduate fellowship for science outreach, advocacy, and diversity in the Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.
These efforts generated a number of news articles including: