There are so many incredible science outreach efforts out there, but sometimes I wonder if we’re preaching to the choir– the people who go to science museums, read the popular science press, and watch science-related TV shows already think science is interesting, and have intentionally sought out more information. While you can encounter visual and performance art in public spaces, history through monuments, and even literature via public inscriptions, it’s relatively rare that anyone has a conscious encounter with science (or scientists) that they didn’t plan in advance.
So, this past weekend, friends and fellow astronomers Jeff Oishi and Jeremiah Murphy joined me in an experiment called Science Train: we set up a mobile “Ask an Astronomer” booth on the NYC subway, to see what happens when people encounter science where they don’t expect it. Here’s how the pilot run went, with lessons learned along the way.
Materials: We kept it light and brought two small (8″x11″) whiteboards, some CMB and Zooniverse postcards, paper and pens. In practice, we ended up mostly using hand gestures (evident in the video!). The whiteboards were handy for trying to engage people on loud cars without yelling at them (see Lesson #2 below).
Signage: the NYC subway has metal bars for riders to hold onto, so we made a posterboard sign attached to some wire hangers for easily hooking it onto the bars (and for easily removing it). We debated the content of the sign the evening before– we wanted something that was intriguing without being intimidating, that would pique people’s interest without confining the kinds of things they asked. For that reason, we decided to seed the questions with a few facts, rather than direct questions. One side read:
The Universe is expanding faster every day.
Earth is just one of billions of planets.
All gold comes from exploding stars.
Want to know more?
Ask an Astronomer!
The other side read:
Rivers disappeared from the surface of Mars.
There’s a black hole at the heart of our Galaxy.
The Sun rings like a bell.
Followed by “Want to know more…” as above. This brings us to the first thing we discovered during Science Train:
Lesson #1: Prompting people to ask a question is intimidating
We’d intended to let people choose their own questions, in part because we figured provided specific questions would result in our just answering those exact questions over and over again. What actually happened was that almost every single person we spoke to said “I’m trying to think of a question to ask you” followed in some cases by “but I can’t think of a good one”. In retrospect, we would have been better off providing actual questions as a starting point, since once people are talking with you, the conversation naturally goes elsewhere.
Lesson #2: People need a little encouragement
And on the topic of “once people are talking to you”: this is a bit harder to do than one might imagine. Anyone who has ever ridden the NYC subway knows the singular horror that is being approached by a stranger with an agenda on the train. You’re trapped in a small space, you’re trying to go somewhere, and somebody with a bible/candy for sale/science booth is in your face. The intent of this experiment isn’t to force science on people, it’s to put it in their path– it should still be up to them whether they engage or not. Having said that, people are often a bit shy– a few people kept glancing curiously at us, and sometimes (though not always) they’d eventually end up coming over. We ended up working around this by either waving at them, or holding up a sign that said “Come Say Hi”. But it seemed that what worked best was that people were more willing to talk to us when someone was already talking to us– which brings us to something we might try next round:
Lesson #3: Get someone to act as a plant
There were three of us scientists on the train, wearing nametags and science-y looking t-shirts. In practice, one of us (Jeremiah) graciously did some of the photo documenting (in addition to my lovely boyfriend Michael Rau, who created the video linked above!). A better practice might have been the time-honored tradition of NYC scam artists: getting a plant to engage with you who isn’t obviously part of the group. This might sound duplicitous, but most scientists like talking to one another anyway, so think of it as an opportunity to ask your friend about their research or talk about stuff that’s in the popular science press outside your field.
Lesson #4: Finding the right train is tricky
We chose to ride the C train for a few reasons. First off, it’s a local train that’s typically less crowded than the express (A) train that runs along a similar line. Much like being approached by an agenda-having stranger on the train, agenda-having strangers who take up space in jam-packed commuter trains are an equally unpleasant encounter, and we were hoping at a bare minimum to come away without people associating scientists with extreme annoyance. The second reason for choosing the C train, as well as a reason for choosing the subway car as opposed to, say, a specific station platform, is that subway lines pass through a wide range of neighborhoods. The C train carves a path through some of the greatest socioeconomic inequality in NYC– you can see how it stacks up against other lines in this New Yorker feature.
In practice, we ended up on some pretty sparsely populated trains. The weather ended up being hot and not as stormy as predicted that day, so I think many people were outside enjoying the sun (or perhaps just at home, but hiding from the heat). It may also have been that we were riding in the midafternoon, rather than the late afternoon (when people are heading home from daytime activities) or evening (when people are headed out to dinner and nighttime activities). The trains were well-populated when we got on, and by the time we’d ridden from one end of the C line to the other and back again, it was only around 3pm– but when Jeremiah headed back into Manhattan a bit later, the trains were starting to be busy again. I’m guessing that in part, given that not everyone on a particular subway car will interact with you, the way to up the number of people you talk to is to have more people on more lines (and likely at a slightly later time in the afternoon or evening)– but that’s an experiment for the next Science Train.
Parting Thoughts: People tell you where they got off the Science Train
Multiple people we spoke to brought up their own experiences with science, whether that astronomy class they took in school and really liked, or when in their lives they decided they couldn’t do science after having been interested in it. I know there are a lot of people in science and science communication who, like me, are interested in helping people form a personal connection to science, rather than seeing it as something that is outside the fabric of human existence. After Science Train, it occurred to me that many people actually do have an existing personal connection to science– it’s just that they have often shelved that connection after getting the message that if they aren’t actually a scientist themselves, it’s not for them at all.
Now, there’s probably a selection effect here, in that the people who told us these things were people willing to talk to a bunch of scientists on the train. To me, though, the takeaway is hopeful, as it’s perhaps easier to rekindle the ember of an interest than to light an entirely new one. If we can awaken people’s dormant connections to science in unexpected ways, and if those people then tell their friends about the scientists they met today, maybe that can be the starting point for sparking science interest across our culture as a whole.
Next Ride of the #ScienceTrain
I’d like to roll this out on a much larger scale, involving more people and other disciplines, as well as to set up a site with information on how you can implement Science Train in your own city. If you’re a scientist (of any discipline) and you’re interested in joining the next round of Science Train, please contact me using the form below!