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An interview with Shannon Swilley Greco, new vice chair of the APS Forum on Outreach and Engaging the Public

Shannon Swilley Greco, a program leader in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s Science Education Office, is the vice chair elect of the American Physical Society's Forum on Outreach and Engaging the Public (FOEP). The following interview is reprinted from the APS Physics FOEP website.  You can view the original article here.  
Q: You’ve been elected as Vice Chair Elect of FOEP! What’s your day job?

I am a science education program leader at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. I develop, run and evaluate the success of education and outreach programs - things like research internships for high school and undergraduate students, expos for middle school students, public outreach events, etc. I present the work of PPPL in all kinds of settings to all kinds of audiences, usually with super cool demos. I try to excite people about our plasma and fusion without actually electrocuting them with the Tesla coil. Mostly, I’m successful.

Q: How did you get involved in outreach?

I started with a part-time job in an education-outreach office of a materials science research center at Princeton University to fund my travel around the world. I found I really loved engaging people with scientific research and improving the public understanding of STEM. I was told I was good at it, so I took it on as a career.

Q. What do you find most exciting about outreach? Most rewarding? Most difficult? Most important?

I think the best part is when people get so excited about it that they want to get involved – whether it’s people offering personal checks to fund fusion or kids saying they want to be scientists. That’s when your audience suddenly decides that scientific research is worth supporting with their time and/or money. The most difficult part is convincing some researchers that it’s worth it to return the favor – that it’s in their best interest to return the favor – that it’s in their best interest to cultivate an engaged public to ensure the growth of their field.

Without an engaged public, the government doesn’t have the voters’ support to dedicate taxpayers’ dollars to solving the millions of mysteries and challenges left to solve in the universe. Without outreach, we may be missing out on inspiring some of our brightest minds to take on these mysteries and challenges.

Q. How did you happen to become the Science Education Program Leader of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory?

After spending 12 years at the Princeton Center for Complex Materials helping scientists and engineers connect with the public, the opportunity came along to do that and do some of the teaching and engaging myself. The PPPL job was everything I liked about the PCCM job, but with more opportunities to be the presenter. I also completely fell in love with a lab that has one primary mission – nuclear fusion - that could save the world. That’s pretty powerful.

Q. Has there been any studies done on the impact of the outreach you have done, and if so, what were they?

I’ve done my own studies (funding for outside evaluation is tough). SRI did an evaluation of all NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates programs and mine was one of those. They found around 70% of the participants went on to grad school. In my own PPPL longitudinal study, I’m finding that around 92% go on to grad school, but I also track them beyond grad school and 81% of those stay in STEM fields. (Actually, even among those who don’t go to grad school, 60% stay in STEM.)

I’ve evaluated our expo events and consistently find that we improve participants’ attitudes towards science and scientists and show a measurable positive impact on students seeing themselves as scientists.

Q. What advice would you give to others trying to do outreach on a large or small scale?

Connect with professionals! Most universities have at least one person, either funded by the university or by one of these research centers, who is experienced in getting even the most reluctant, introverted researcher to effectively communicate their work. AND those people have loads of opportunities to get involved. Whether they’re looking for volunteers for their own program or helping you develop your ideas, education and outreach professionals want to help, and they can ensure you do more good than harm! (Yes, it’s possible to turn people off from STEM, even if your heart’s in the right place!)

Practice! Even from the morning to the afternoon in a one-day event, you’ll see your science communication skills improve.

Shannon recently met with the Energy Secretary Rick Perry during his visit to PPPL where he noted the importance of fusion research, that the coolest job he’s ever had has been being Energy Secretary, and he gave a shout out to Shannon’s impressive science outreach and education programs. You can read the article here. 

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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