Sep 17

National Laboratory dispatches scientists to engage community

How do America’s STEM scientists and researchers dismantle the “ivory tower” idea? What potentially game-changing breakthroughs are these dedicated men and women working on? Answering such questions is the aim of a program at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy research facility operated by Battelle, is training some of its scientists and researchers how to explain their work to regular folks.

The program is called STEM Ambassador Fellows. To find out more, we contacted a staff member at the laboratory, based in Richland, Washington. Peggy Harris Willcuts, a STEM education specialist who comes to this role in the laboratory’s Office of STEM Education after 20 years of classroom teaching and providing STEM education professional development, gave us some insight:

Q: Tell us about the work that takes place at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

PNNL delivers excellence in science and technology in three areas:

Mastering grand challenges requires deep expertise and leadership; world-class capabilities including state-of-the-art equipment and facilities; strong partnerships with other leading research institutions; and a culture of innovation. PNNL cultivates these Four Pillars of Science and Technology Success as the foundation for research excellence in each of its mission areas.

PNNL’s strategy is founded on Battelle’s principle of simultaneous excellence in science and technology, management and operations, and community engagement.

The Office of STEM Education, a component of PNNL’s External Affairs organization, seeks to align the laboratory’s education efforts with national, state and local initiatives/projects to realize change in STEM education and to address workforce challenges. We are particularly focused on:

Q: How and why did the STEM Ambassador Fellows program come about?

A: PNNL’s Office of STEM Education looks for ways to authentically connect PNNL’s research to support our local STEM education ecosystem. Many of PNNL’s STEM professionals are eager to connect with local students, educators and families, and many do so on their own accord but feel they lack the ability to easily communicate with the general public.

The research they conduct at PNNL is complex and difficult to explain. We teamed with the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington, to become a Portal to the Public (PoP) site, which allowed us to use these vast resources to design a six-hour professional development experience for our researchers using PoP as our guiding framework. We dive into how people learn, how to communicate to a non-scientific audience, how to be a role model and how to channel a passion for science.

PNNL staff members who take part in the program develop interactive, hands-on displays that engage and explain what goes on at PNNL. These displays have the ability to assist in communication to the general public and have been valuable when sharing the research with technical sponsors and government representatives who visit the lab.

Initial funding came through PNNL’s QuickStarter program in fall 2017 when we started with a pilot cohort of 10 individuals on the Richland campus. Through additional funding from the lab, we have moved into PNNL’s Seattle and Sequim, Washington, campuses.

Q: Who are the STEM Ambassador Fellows, what do they do as part of the program?

A: STEM Ambassador Fellows @ PNNL are scientists, researchers and other science-based professionals who share their stunning innovations and the joy of science discovery with their community. STEM Ambassadors join the Office of STEM Education in inspiring lifelong interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Currently we have 18 STEM Ambassador Fellows who represent all three PNNL campuses. They are diverse role models in ethnicity, gender, age and research interests. Together they have developed 11 table-top displays that are linked to chemistry, data analytics, deep learning, the energy grid, cybersecurity, nuclear energy and the ocean environment.

To date, the Fellows have presented at Take Your Sons and Daughters to Work Day; for high-level visits to PNNL by congressional staffers and the Battelle Education staff as well as at community events such as Celebration of Science and Connect Tri-Cities. We also have been able to “give back” to the Pacific Science Center by participating in their Curiosity Day event in summer 2017 and 2018.

We are ultimately preparing the Fellows to be ready when school starts this fall. Calls come in from local elementary schools and middle schools for science and STEM nights as well as for classroom presentations.

Q: Do the STEM Ambassador Fellows tailor their presentations to meet the needs of their audiences?

A: STEM Ambassador Fellows have had many interactions in sharing their science with the general public, varying from young children to high-level stakeholders. They have also had the opportunity to plant the seeds of wonder in young minds during outreach and engagement events in the local community.

Because of the innate variety of opportunities for Fellows to engage with the public, tailoring their presentations is critical, with the common denominator being that most of the presentations are to a non-scientific audience.

To develop their interactive table-top displays, the Fellows must first vet them with an audience of educators who provide critical feedback for improvement. The Fellows are also asked to present to one another for peer-to-peer feedback. Once they have revised their presentations and the associated hands-on materials, we take their displays to our Graphics Department to brand them and create a more professional look.

Q: What kind of feedback have you received from the public on the program? Do you plan to change or expand it, based on this feedback?

A: The feedback we have received from the STEM Ambassador Fellows has been tremendous. The professional development they receive is engaging and fun. They discover how people learn and how to communicate without using technical vocabulary. They are also surprised as they learn about themselves while diving into what inspired them to become a scientist or engineer.

The visitors to the displays are very engaged and often report that their interaction with a well-prepared scientist provides an understanding of complex topics that they have not had before. When presenting at the Pacific Science Center’s Curiosity Day, our table was judged as one of the favorites by the attendees.

We have made small modifications to the professional development for our staff members based on feedback we have received after each group has gone through the experience. The most significant change was to move to a one-day workshop instead of spreading the learning out over several months in two-hour presentations.

Q: What advice would you give other research facilities that might want to launch such a community outreach project?

A: Several things come to mind:

Q: Is there any else you wish to tell us about the STEM Ambassador Fellows program? How can interested readers find out more?

A: Those wishing to learn more can contact me at .

We also have begun to develop a series of 30-second videos called “Science Samples” that show the human side of researchers as they briefly explain their work. These should be available soon on the PNNL YouTube Channel:

And, check out the Portal to the Public site: