Naturalist Outreach: Engaging young scientists and training a generation of scientific outreach leaders

Date: 

2008 to 2020

Summary: 

The Naturalist Outreach Program sends Cornell undergraduates and graduate students to local classrooms and community groups to give free presentations about natural history, ecology and conservation. By presenting lively, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) presentations, the program helps open the world of backyard biology to young people, enrich local second-grade to high-school science instruction, and simultaneously train Cornell students to communicate effectively about science. The Naturalist Outreach Program is a response to the national need to attract students to science, the need for scientists who can communicate the value of their work to the public and the need to enhance public appreciation for the natural environment.

Issue: 

There is a national need for scientists who can effectively communicate scientific information to the public. Young scientists are often not taught how to effectively share complex information with people of all ages. At the same time, as the environment is increasingly affected by climate change and habitat destruction, the media tends to report biological sciences as being encompassed by molecular biology and medical fields.
Environmental biology and associated scientific careers are greatly undersold to children. Children often view scientists strictly as middle-aged white men in white lab coats manipulating test tubes in sterile white laboratories, instead of recognizing the diversity of biologists working on ecological, behavioral and conservation issues. There needs to be more effort to encourage children to appreciate the biological world around them and to consider careers in environmental science. Lively scientific inquiry outreach presented by college students is an effective way to accomplish all of these goals.

Response: 

Beginning in 1998, Rayor started the Naturalist Outreach Program to enhance local K-12 STEM curricula by sending Cornell University undergraduate and graduate students into local classrooms and community groups to give free, experiential scientific talks about environmental biology and understanding biology.
Beginning in 2005, Rayor formalized her outreach program into an innovative, interdisciplinary course: Naturalist Outreach Practicum. Cornell students meet for three hours per week to hear practical lectures by Rayor and guest speakers from biology, education and communication departments. By reaching across campus to bring together experts in pedagogy, communication and the sciences, Rayor has developed a ground-breaking course that addresses a groundswell of student interest in careers that combine their passion for science, education and civic engagement.
The college students learn to communicate science, to teach effectively and to develop large-scale outreach events. They learn how to give lively, experiential, informative presentations that emphasize environmental biology and careers in science, and then they apply those skills in classrooms across Central New York.

In 2015, Dr. Rayor hosted the inaugural 'Improving undergraduate education through science outreach' workshop to teach other faculty how to teach similar courses, start outreach programs, or develop large community outreach programs like Insectapalooza.

Impact: 

Since 1998, I and my 316 students have spoken to 2503 groups and reached ~106,000 people (classroom presentations= 59,525 people; large outreach events= 46,500 people). In 2015, we gave 141 presentations or interacted with ~7,400 people.

Recent surveys of former participants indicate that over 40% have continued outreach in some form and many have entered careers in non-traditional science education. The outreach, training, and ethos of the Naturalist Outreach Program have a multiplying effect well beyond Central NY.
The full scope of Rayor's outreach impact is difficult to assess, but it serves a wide and diverse audience.

Submitted by: 

  • Rayor, Linda S

Researchers involved: 

  • Rayor, Linda S

Organizations involved: 

  • Cornell Cooperative Extension

International focus: 

  • Australia
  • United States of America

United States focus: 

  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Tennessee

New York State focus: 

  • Cayuga
  • Chemung
  • Cortland
  • Erie
  • Schuyler
  • Tompkins