Integrating Research and Outreach Through Massive Ocean Animals

Untitled-1With 5 stunning Duke University undergraduates, I participated in an experiment, one in which science outreach and research were not separate spheres.

“Time to put away the research and do some outreach.”

“I don’t have time for outreach because I’m doing research.”

Instead, I believe that effective science communication, from the scientists themselves, must be based on a model with better integration between research and outreach. And importantly, we must teach these models to our students.

At the beginning of the summer in 2013, I knew I wanted to try something new.  I wrote this in my lab notebook during that time.

1 part research,

1 part social media outreach,

and 4 parts massive ocean animals

This essentially was a recipe for my own research.  Could this work for a course or independent study?  My recipe needed specifics.  I came up with this.

For an entire semester, 5 undergraduates would explore and collect data on the body size of various ocean giants ranging from the giant squid and blue whale to the oarfish and leatherback turtle.  Each student would focus on a few specific animals and collecting data from scientific literature, contacts at museums, public media, fisheries services, and other archival information.  The data would placed in a database to be analyzed for measurement bias, age patterns, geographic variation, sex differences, etc.

The students would become experts on their individual animals.  Part of that coming about by searching the literature for body size data and part coming from sharing that knowledge with the public. I would ask each student to contribute blog posts to and that would serve as the core of our outreach. I would require each student to engage the science community and public via Twitter.  Each week there would be a Twitter assignment.

And now this Tuesday

McClain, C.R., M.A. Balk, M.C. Benfield, T.A. Branch, C. Chen, J. Cosgrove, A. Dove, L.C. Gaskins, R.R. Helm, F.G.E. Hochberg, F.B. Lee, S.E. McMurray, C. Schanche, S.N. Stone, and A.D. Thaler (2015) Sizing ocean giants: patterns of intraspecific size variation in marine megafauna.

I am ecstatic with the result of both the outreach and research.  I lucked out with a great set of undergraduates. I also lucked out with a great set of colleagues who helped pull even more data together. The students generated some amazing posts which I’ll rerun at DSN this week. The engagement on Twitter was amazing.   I saw other scientists engage my students. One of these, and interaction between my student Catherine Chen with Trevor Branch (an author on the paper) led to a lead that turned about over 20,000 lines of body size data! The students collected some serious data and produced some serious outreach.  I couldn’t be happier without how this experiment turned out.