FEd Spring 2002 Newsletter - Fermilab’s Ask-a-Scientist Program

Spring 2002



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Fermilab’s 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 weekends.

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! … an 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 Fermilab’s history …and future? Tell us about the foreign scientists working here. What do you do at Fermilab? Why did you choose to be a scientist? Even…can 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 Fermilab’s 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 doesn’t 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. We’ll 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. I’d be happy to hear any of your comments or suggestions.  Please e-mail me at garbincius@fnal.gov.

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.