I did an experiment this week. In and of itself, this is nothing unique for a graduate student. My experiment was brief, has not been replicated, and is based on a small sample size. But the results are too good to not share.
I started by asking my lab mates, “Who wants to plant some seeds?”
The reactions? Blank stares, laughter, and even a curt request to be quiet. No one shrieked, clapped, or dropped all of their belongings to get started.
I got the latter reaction a lot on Monday, April 6th, when I asked that same question to hundreds of kids on the South Lawn at the 2015 White House Easter Egg Roll. I had teamed up with a (small but mighty) group of ASPB volunteers to teach some of the 35,000 attendees about plants by making mini garden necklaces, handing out copies of the My Life as a Plant activity book, and having conversations about how important plants are to our daily life.
The ASPB booth was one of 14 stations scattered all over the lawn encouraging Americans to lead a healthier life through the First Lady’s “Let’s Move!” initiative. Various science-themed activities, including a AAAS booth with boat-building competitions and a USDA booth with info on bees and other pollinators, were interspersed with sports, including yoga and basketball, and traditional Easter activities, like the egg roll and egg decorating.
Visitors came in five, two-hour waves based on timed tickets, resulting in over 12 hours of prep time and hands-on, active interactions with kids for the ASPB team. It also meant a full day away from my lab. Reflecting on it now, though, I know that the benefits of the day outweigh these time costs.
The outreach challenge
“I don’t have time.”
It’s something we all think and say, especially when submission deadlines loom. Things that we want to do fall to the wayside and outreach is usually one of the first to succumb to the time crunch. I’ve been guilty of this many times in the past. After the Easter Egg Roll, I was reminded how important outreach is in providing a different perspective on our work while cementing the important role of plant science in our society.
With the White House garden just a stone’s throw away from our ASPB site, growing food at home was something that was one everyone’s mind. Our booth was both popular and intriguing to most visitors. Unlike other science outreach events I’ve done in the past, we weren’t competing with the engineer’s rockets, the entomologist’s bugs, or the zoologist’s animals for visitor’s attention. Plants were front and center, an appropriate place in all of our minds, and a place that was affirmed throughout the day when visitors told me how great it was that we were there, helping them to start their own lettuce and carrot seedlings that they could continue to grow – and eventually eat – at home. A confidence boost? Sure. More critically, it was a confirmation and reminder that what we do matters; something that’s easy to forget when you’re dealing with failed experiments, negative results, and grant or paper rejections.
You mean a plant comes from that?!?
We’ve all probably struggled with addressing “plant blindness” to some extent, whether it’s while working with undergrads or explaining our research to the general public. On Easter Monday, all the volunteers made strides in combating plant blindness. Volunteer Janet Slovin had booth visitors really look at the seeds and think about where they come from and how the plants would grow from them. Many visitors had dealt with pumpkin or sunflower seeds before, but they had a disconnected understanding of how the plant and the seed are related. It’s unbelievable to any of us that something this basic isn’t widely understood; it highlights a critical void that we, as scientists, communicators, and educators, can fill.
Other visitors to the booth were veteran gardeners excited to grow their own lettuce and carrots. Some told us that they would transfer the plants to their plots at home or at school. Though vastly different from the people newly mesmerized by the simple concept of seeds, these visitors represent another segment of the population that we can engage, talking about the best growing and cultivation methods, improving backyard yield, and promoting both environmental and personal health.
Though I was only there for half of the day (yes, I missed the bees!), I talked to enough people to be reminded of how important engagement with the public is in fulfilling our mission as scientists. Plus, I returned to the lab reinvigorated and excited to get back to my research. I did my best to share some of my enthusiasm with my lab mates, but don’t think I have yet powered them with enough of Mark Ronan’s & Bruno Mars’s Uptown Funk, the undeniable anthem of the Easter Egg Roll. Though something as simple as planting seeds may not excite us in the lab, we’re certainly intrigued and inspired by the research that we do. The excited reactions of the kids and families I interacted with at the White House made me realize that we have an enthusiastic and willing audience to whom we can communicate our work and educate about plant biology.
Given that we provided over 7,500 youngsters with mini garden cup necklaces and sowed seeds of fascination with plants, I think I can conclude that this week’s experiment eggs-periment was a success.
Not every event has the pull of the Easter Egg Roll. Yet any public engagement can have a similar effect. Fascination of Plants Day is just about a month away, so consider putting on an event to share your science with others!
Special thanks to all of the other volunteers who helped out at the event: Daniel Czerny, Melanie Binder, Rachel Binder, Ryan Binder, Stephanie Liu-Kuan, Justin Kuan, Matthew Yu, Hemayet Ullah, Stacey Slijepcevic, Burkhard Schulz, Kim Kimnach, Rosanne Alstatt, Liesel Alstatt, George Ude, Assumpta Ude, Janet Slovin, and Caitie Hanlon, and major kudos to Katie Engen for organizing and running things on the ASPB end.