The impact of science outreach

I used to volunteer at a low-income school in East Palo Alto, and a friend recently asked me what “impact” my outreach had.  I’ve discussed that issue a lot over the years, and I’ve always been uncomfortable with the question.

First off, I  feel that there’s an implicit (explicit?) assumption that outreach efforts must ultimately be justified in some concrete long-term outcome.  We’re either contributing to scientific literacy, or increasing the presence of underrepresented minorities, or improving U.S. competitiveness.  I’m largely sympathetic to these goals, and especially the second.  And of course if The Science Bus were receiving some government grant, we’d have to ensure that public funds are being used appropriately.  But should a group of grad students volunteering a few hours a week be held to the same standard?

I think there’s an understandable tendency to try and find greater meaning in actions like these.   To make ourselves seem more important than we actually are.  It’s a tendency that should be avoided.  We end up conceptualizing childhood as merely a vessel that brings children to adulthood rather than a period of life important in its own right.*  It’s especially easy to fall into this trap with the poor black and Hispanic kids that I worked with.  Oh, those poor black children! We must do something to give them a better chance!

Again, I’m largely sympathetic to such sentiments.  But we shouldn’t forget that us yuppy white and Asian kids–which unfortunately describes most American scientists–often did things just because they were, well, fun.   We had no problem enjoying life in the moment without caring about the future.  We shouldn’t assume poor people are any different just because they are poor.

So what was the impact of my volunteering? Well considering that I only spent  a couple hours every week at the school, and the same kids didn’t always show up, and that they had several other after-school activities, and they usually had a dedicated science teacher…I’d guess that that my efforts probably had almost no long-term impact.  In the grand scheme of things, my work was probably drowned out by all the other factors in their lives.  I also suspect that lots of outreach is like this.

I do know, however, that for the short time we hung out every week, the kids had a lot of fun.  And that’s impact enough for me.

* I shamelessly plagiarized this phrasing from the first chapter of Project 2061.

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