Fermilabs Ask-a-Scientist Program
Peter H. Garbincius, Fermilab
From its earliest days, Fermilab has
had a very successful outreach program for students from the surrounding
communities. This was most visible in the large number of middle
school and high schools visiting Fermilab on field trips during the
week and in the Saturday Morning Physics Program (started by Leon
Lederman). Laboratory-wide Open Houses
for the public have also been extremely well attended by the general
public. However, due to the large overhead in staging such open houses,
which attract tens-of-thousands of visitors, only two have
been held in the whole history of Fermilab. The public could visit
the Fermilab site for recreational activities and to attend public
lectures and the arts (performance) series. Maps and a self-guided
tour brochure made it easy for the public to find the various sites
and displays. However, they were pretty much on their own over the
Upon being asked a question by a Sunday
afternoon visitor, I realized that there was no simple mechanism
for an interested visitor to ask questions and to interact with a
member of the Fermilab staff. I also noted that the casual weekend
visitors were not only student-age, but always had at least one adult
(driver). Often, these were family groups, or a group of a few adults.Although
many of the displays in Wilson Hall (the main High Rise building)
were geared to an adult audience, they were not completely self-explanatory
or self-contained, and there were questions to be asked. Ah ha!
opportunity to make some more friends for Fermilab!
So, with a handful of colleagues, I started
a very informal trial Ask-a-Scientist session for a few Sunday afternoons.
One of us simply posted a small sign at one of the cafeteria tables
in the atrium, indicating that he was a Fermilab scientist and Ask
Me. It worked! The Sunday visitors stopped by, joined us while
enjoying their vending machine refreshments, and shot the breeze
for a while. The questions and discussions were quite informal and
neighborly: What is done at Fermilab? Why is such research important?
How is Fermilab funded? What is Fermilabs history
future? Tell us about the foreign scientists working here. What do
you do at Fermilab? Why did you choose to be a scientist? Even
you help my child with his homework problem? This
had a snowballing effect. As soon as the first visitors started to
chat, others joined in. We often filled the round ten seat table
and had a row of others standing around.
When I discussed the proposed program
and our initial experience with Fermilabs director, Mike Witherell,
he enthusiastically encouraged us to proceed. He noted that although
it was a low budget program of volunteers, it had a potentially large
public relations payoff.
In addition to answering questions about
Fermilab, we also try to present a face, a real person with whom
to interact. Our visitors can see that Fermilab scientists are just
their neighbors, not someone different. We can let our
neighbors know how we are investing their tax dollars. We hopefully
are making friends for Fermilab, elementary particle physics, and
science in general. We are somewhat parochial, however, not claiming
to know or to speak for all science, but just those parts in which
we work. Such new friends will be extremely important if our next
major accelerator project is to extend, even underground, beyond
the Fermilab site boundary.
We started in September of 2000, with
two scientists, for two hours on Sunday afternoons, stationed in
the public display/observation area on the 15th floor
of Wilson Hall. The program was publicized through press releases
from the Fermilab Office of Public Affairs to local newspapers. A
large fraction of our visitors were just walk-ins, who happened to
be visiting the site, saw our signs, and decided to stop to chat.
We have a team of approximately 45 volunteers, so each scientist
averages about 2.5 sessions per year. During 2001, we kept informal
counts of the number of visitors we met. Through September 7, we
greeted 778 visitors. This averaged 22.5 visitors per Sunday afternoon
session (with an RMS of 9.3), with the scientists often continuing
their discussions well beyond the nominal ending time. The questions
of quality versus quantity are surely at work here. Even when the
turnout is low, each visitor gets to spend more time with a scientist.
I tried, but failed, to find a correlation between the number of
visitors and the weather. Do more visitors come to Fermilab come
on nice sunny days, or on not-so-nice days? In fact, a day with a
terrible rainstorm surpassed the average. Even Super Bowl Sunday
was within 1.5 sigma of the average!
It appears that all of our volunteers
thoroughly enjoyed their sessions. Who of us doesnt enjoy talking
about and sharing what we do? Almost all who participated once volunteered
to do it again.
On September 2, 2001, we celebrated the
first anniversary of the Fermilab Ask-a-Scientist program. However,
the tragic events of September 11 have drastically changed the way
Fermilab interacts with the public. The heightened security has halted
or disrupted many of the cultural, educational, and recreational
opportunities at Fermilab for our neighbors. Most of our scientist
volunteers seemed to suffer withdrawal symptoms. We investigated
alternative sites. The volunteers were almost unanimous in preferring
to try to re-institute even a drastically reduced program at Fermilab,
rather than going off-site. Just recently, Fermilab and the Department
of Energy were able to redefine the security perimeter to allow access
by the public on Saturdays to the Lederman Science Education Center.
Although this outlying, single story building does not provide the
sweeping vistas of our accelerator laboratory and prairie, the growing
suburbs, and, on a clear day, even the tall buildings in Chicago,
the Lederman Center does provide a good forum to meet and interact
with the public. We re-started the Ask-a-Scientist program on Saturday,
January 19, 2002. Approximately 30 people attended. Half were associated
with Fermilab and half were visitors from the general public. Well
try to do better with our publicity in local newspapers. The Lederman
Center has many hands-on, interactive demonstrations (many analogs
of the machines we use in HEP), so we have to be careful not to get
too involved in helping the children play with the demos rather than
discussing our science with their parents.
At the conclusion, I would like to add
a few personal comments and questions. The name of the program seems
to alternate between Meet-a-Scientist and Ask-a-Scientist. Some of
us prefer the Meet since it seems to imply also learning about the
scientist, while others prefer Ask which seems to emphasize
learning something from the scientist. Of course, we try to
do both. We also considered opening our list of volunteers to non-Fermilab scientists,
graduate students, engineers, and other non-scientists. I
wonder whether the public would be as amenable to an Ask-a-Fermilab-Employee
program (maybe just a little bit of Fermilab scientist chauvinism
on my part). Finally, by meeting visitors who already have come to
Fermilab, we have pre-selected those who are already our friends.
We will have to do better in bringing the Fermilab name and message
to those who do not already know us, or who do not care about our
science, or who are even hostile to us. Maybe booths in shopping
malls, as we did while trying to get the SSC sited at Fermilab, would
be a better way to reach these additional citizens. Id be happy
to hear any of your comments or suggestions. Please
e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another article on the Ask-a-Scientist
program can be found in the FermiNews
for October 19, 2001
Fermilab scientists who participate in the Ask-a-Scientist program
gathered around the site model on the 15th floor of Wilson
Hall at Fermilab.
Peter H. Garbincius has been a scientist at Fermilab for
the past 25 years.