I totally should have written sooner about the Science Communication Fellows program hosted by the U of M Museum of Natural History. This is a really great opportunity for grad students, postdocs, and faculty to design a demo for the public that will kick-start a discussion about their research. The program included an “orientation” day where museum curators teach volunteers some best practices of science communication through activities. Then volunteers get a day to try out a model of their demo to see what does or doesn’t work. After this, the newly oriented scientists set up during open days at the Museum to showcase their demos and engage the public about their research.
I had the pleasure of participating last Fall (2017) with a demo I called “Resolving the Universe.” I learned a lot from the museum, especially how to let the audience guide the conversation by asking questions, rather than assuming I know what is the most interesting. My demo showed what happens to light when it passes through an aperture, by shining a laser through 1) a small hole pierced into aluminum foil 2) two adjacent small holes in aluminum foil. The first nicely shows the classic “Airy” pattern, the point-spread function of a circular aperture. The second shows interference fringes. I would ask the audience what they expected the light pattern to look like through each aperture. We made predictions and tested it out. I also showed PSFs of other more complex apertures that I generated on the computer, including the James Webb Space Telescope PSF which is an important part of my research.
The museum does a really good job of trying to accommodate as many people that are interested as they can. I definitely recommend doing this once the museum is open again next year! In the future I will try to think of a demo that is more accessible to a younger audience. Feel free to let me know if you have any good ideas!