A Graduate Student’s Use of Education and Public Outreach as a Looking Glass into Her Culture

Cristina Torres

I believe it is a safe assumption to say that most professionals in science and education feel concerned with education and public outreach (EPO). When one thinks of EPO, our goals seem very straightforward: we strive to instill an appreciation for education and a desire to educate oneself on technological subjects. We each have a slightly different interpretation of what EPO means but my interpretation is probably very similar to the interpretation held by most individuals concerned with EPO. As people actively engaged in EPO we may be biased, as to EPO's importance, but the society at large also recognizes the importance of education. The recognition of EPO's importance is so widespread that we even see it discussed in the halls of city and national government.

Acknowledging the need for EPO in our society is obvious. The question we actually ask ourselves is "Since EPO is important, how should it be carried out?" It is very important to know where we want our EPO efforts to go and more importantly, "How do we reach those goals?" We all agree on a "goal” for EPO efforts, but deciding the optimal prescription to reach those goals is not trivial. Instead, we must acknowledge the inhomogeneous nature of our societal collective, and realize a "one size fits all approach" is not only difficult, but possibly detrimental to our long-term goals.

To reach potential EPO goals, a targeted approach is the optimal solution. We then need to decide, "Who or what are we targeting?" because EPO's target audiences are as diverse as the demographics in our society. Target groups can be very complex in composition and display behavior influenced by gender, religious belief structures, language, ethnicity, family structure, age, social stature, income bracket, etc. The ways in which we could classify potential target audiences seems endless. What should determine our ideal target audience and optimized prescriptions for reaching our audience has less to do with the audience and more to do with ourselves. The EPO movement is far from monolithic, and by looking inwards at ourselves, and using our inherent diversity we can determine what groups can be targeted most easily and effectively. An EPO group's internal demographics should guide its activities and tailoring techniques. The more an EPO group can be structured to reflect its local demographics the more an EPO group is likely to experience a boost in effectiveness.

During my experience as a graduate student involved with The University of Texas Physics and Astronomy EPO group, our internal demographics were an advantage. The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) is a primarily Hispanic serving institution, and is located in a border region whose Hispanic community comprises 91% of the local population [1]. This places UTB and its outreach efforts in a truly unique position when one considers that the concentration of Hispanics in Texas as a whole is only 32% [1]. As a Hispanic physics graduate student working in EPO, my experiences served as a mirror into my own culture. UTB's group is engaged with activities like local science fairs, a traveling physics circus, public popular science talks, school visits, teacher workshops, and student science camps, all of which are used to stimulate our local community on a regular basis. Each time we engaged the community it gave me a unique opportunity to uncover more about how my community, the Hispanic community, related to the university and the technical world at large.

The Hispanic community is an under-represented (minority) group similar to African-American, Asian and many other minority groups. The fact that Hispanics are a minority group I believe is not an internalized reality in Brownsville, TX but rather an abstracted fact, because UTB is in the middle of a cultural microcosm. It is this microcosm which influenced my development from child to adult, and highlighted the fact that while all groups share similar traits each one is unique. Homogeneous environments like that in and around Brownsville, Texas magnify the effect and importance of cultural nuances more than one might think. What I witnessed during my time with UTB's EPO group was very illuminating; it showed me the barriers to higher education we face, some internal to my culture and others external to my culture that all minority groups deal with. I'd like to share a collection of my experiences as a Hispanic graduate student helping with EPO, giving my perspective on the positive and a few negative experiences while promoting scientific awareness in the Hispanic community.

Our local community, as I see it, reacted to our outreach efforts in a counter-intuitive way. I noticed that in many instances, the receptiveness level of an audience was very dependent on the ability of the audience to relate to us. During our events the levels of audience hospitality and engagement could be arbitrarily divided into two categories: one, EPO volunteers as part of the audience's "personal" community, and, two, EPO volunteers as social outsiders. If the audience seemed to "adopt" us our EPO impact was significantly boosted, but the amount of the boost is difficult to quantify. For example, we experienced a greater impact with our audience when, after a show, time permitted our physics circus performers to mingle extensively the audience.

The comments from the audience were typically about how the audience member could see their brother, sister, parent or sometimes themselves performing some element of our show. Integration of personal experiences via association to familial bonds and relationships seems to be a fairly standard trait in my community [2], one of which I became consciously aware after working on UTB's EPO activities. In more negative situations, a typical audience member who did not internalize the experience positively did not seem to relate the EPO volunteer to someone in their family hierarchy. In situations such as these our efforts were considered akin to the role of a salesperson or recruiter, who was expected to have a hidden agenda or was just someone to endure. Tailoring activities so that they are as successful as possible required that the target audience be given an avenue to internalize the activity through an emotional connection to the EPO group. The science content proved to be less important than one might initially expect, and this was certainly truer the younger our target audiences were.

In situations where our target audience was teen or adult, the optimal approach changed somewhat from approaches we relied on for younger target groups. When working with older groups, the EPO efforts were less entertaining and more informative. Examples of these types of events were teacher training workshops, student academies, and science competitions like science fairs. For these event types, I believe the fact that we were mostly graduate students offered two concurrent benefits. It was possible for us to connect to both slightly younger audience members and older audience members simultaneously. In the case of a connection to a "younger" person, the same basic internalization and association of the EPO volunteer to someone in their family shaped the success of our efforts.

The primary difference here is that our targeted person needed to not only associate us to a respected person in the social hierarchy but also realize it was possible to move to a position of respect in their own local community as they age. This internalization allowed us to successfully break negative stereotypes of technically educated people as "nerdy", "uncool", "old", and "socially isolated." The last stereotype in particular is one that I feel is most important to break when doing outreach in a Hispanic community. In the second case where our interaction was with an "elder" person, a similar internalization of our interaction was required. In this case the elder person would be positively impacted by our interactions if they perceived us as "one of them," a peer of sorts who is very approachable and willing to share knowledge. This again harks back to the idea of close-knit community, which is a common theme in the Hispanic community. For elder audiences the most important stereotype to break was this idea that technical/scientific people were "socially isolated" and that this isolation is the norm.

The last technique that I've had experience with is the "camp" or "academy" EPO activity. In this type of environment I think we use the least amount of target audience tailoring. In my interactions with students during summer academies, I found that carefully challenging the students built self-confidence. I feel confidence building in the Hispanic culture is important because I've witnessed and experienced a feeling of unfounded transient inferiority. This uneasiness seems to be common at least in my region among Hispanics and has been verified by experts researching education of the Hispanic community [2, 3]. In my summer academy groups, I believe my impact was maximized because my entire group of students could relate to me as a fellow Hispanic, possibly someone who once had similar fears and concerns as my students. In this environment students could internalize the experience positively by considering me to be a role model. My students realized I was integrated tightly into the Hispanic community, functioning in my own family structure and working to better myself. Seeing me in this light, they could project themselves onto a similar life path that satisfied Hispanic cultural expectations and societal responsibilities.

While working with the UTB EPO efforts I was able to gain an appreciation of the subtle ways that Hispanic culture permeates and influences all people in the culture. One way in which Hispanic culture influences its members stems from the fact that our culture tends to be functionally bilingual. While growing up I was not conscious of the influence from my bilingual family and surroundings. Imagine for a moment that concepts are regions in a memory hyperspace which is our brain. Now, imagine that words are mapping functions to those concept regions, and concept regions are not always mutually exclusive. Now, I want to introduce two innocuous words, cognates (words only phonetically similar), one in English and one in Spanish. I didn't realize the impact this word pair had on me until I saw its impact in our Hispanic EPO audience members. The words are education and educacion, accent on the 'o'. Influences from cognates like these have been researched when dealing with educating Hispanics [2]. Education is "... the act or process of training by a prescribed or customary course of study..." as stated in Webster's dictionary. Educacion and education are cognates but have different meanings. According to the Oxford Spanish dictionary educacion could mean education, but it simultaneously refers to "upbringing" and "manners." In the Hispanic culture educacion is more than a prescribed course of study resulting in more knowledge. For me, and most Hispanics, "education" defines a region in our concept hyperspace which is actually a subspace of the region spanned by the concept of "educacion." I don't know why, but I subconsciously interconnected/interchanged the concepts of educacion and education, and as a result education evolved into a very personal concept. Cognates like this are nefarious and for Hispanics can lead to strange feelings about educators, different academic subjects and feelings about our educational accomplishments versus social accomplishments. I witnessed unexpected behavior in our EPO target audiences which could be due to cross-linking of concepts in our minds as a result of simultaneously acquiring two languages. The effect of language on the way Hispanics value and pursue education could be written off as speculation, but education research seems to indicate this is an observed characteristic of multi-lingual minority groups and can't be dismissed.

My experiences as a graduate student working with the UTB EPO efforts were very enlightening. For me personally, working with an almost exclusively Hispanic community offered me a looking glass into the influences that shaped my choice to go into physics and how I perceived the sciences at large while growing up. Doing outreach in our communities is very important, and for me, I think working with under-represented communities like the Hispanic community requires tailoring of programs and materials presented to the community. I also think that integrating responsible graduate and undergraduate students into various EPO projects is an excellent technique to build bridges across generation divides present in most any EPO audience. I feel this is especially true in the Hispanic culture which is heavily reliant on interpersonal connectivity and a feeling of belonging/self-worth.

EPO in any context is very much a "service before self" operation. The amount of work required to perform effective EPO and continue making impacts in our local communities requires a serious commitment. This level of commitment can be maintained by science professionals and graduate students working cooperatively. While making quantifiable measurements of the impact of any single EPO activity is difficult, I've noticed subtle changes in our community as a result of repeatedly reaching out and stimulating the community. Measuring EPO progress is abstract and difficult, but perseverance over time will bring us a measurable result. Unfortunately we can't estimate the outcome of our efforts, but we can optimize our EPO activities within the world we live by tailoring each EPO event for maximum effectiveness. Working in EPO is important, has taught me to know my audience, and has instilled in me an appreciation for the community I grew up in.


[1] http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/48/4810768.html

[2] Brown, Alan V., “Effectively Educating Latino/a Students: A Comparative Study of Participation Patterns of Hispanic American and Anglo-American University Students,” Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 97-118 (2008), DOI: 10.1177/1538192707313929.

[3] Oliva, Maricela, “Latino Access to College: Actualizing the Promise and Potential of K-16 Partnerships,” Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 119-130 (2008), DOI: 10.1177/1538192707313943.

Cristina Torres is a first generation college graduate working for Caltech as a postdoctoral scholar on dual assignment with Louisiana State University and LIGO Livingston Observatory.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.