NCBI Bookshelf. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

National Research Council (US) Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Chemistry in Primetime and Online: Communicating Chemistry in Informal Environments: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011.

Cover of Chemistry in Primetime and Online

Chemistry in Primetime and Online: Communicating Chemistry in Informal Environments: Workshop Summary.

Show details

4Local Outreach Efforts

“Never miss an opportunity to show the human side of chemistry.”

–Ruth Woodall

As noted in Surrounded by Science, “A first step in understanding how to promote science learning in informal environments is to develop a full picture of what it means to do and learn science. . . . In the conventional view, the lone scientist, usually male and usually white, toils in isolation to understand some aspect of the natural world through a series of controlled experiments.”1 The panel of speakers in this session, however, helped illustrate that “science is fundamentally a social enterprise” involving many kinds of people, activities, and approaches. As scientists have done for many years, these speakers engage in informal education activities in the form of community outreach. Traditionally, the outreach took the form of entertaining public demonstrations or hands-on activities with nonscientists. However, that has changed. Two American Chemical Society (ACS) member volunteers, Jeannette Brown, New Jersey ACS Local Section,2 and Ruth Woodall, Nashville ACS Local Section,3 talked about how they conduct outreach efforts with their local communities to put a “face on chemistry.” Catherine Conrad, St. Mary’s University, talked about a growing area of scientific outreach called “citizen science,” which goes beyond fun demos and outreach activities and engages people in real scientific studies in communities throughout the world, such as the work she does with environmental monitoring and management.


Jeannette Brown, whose background is in medicinal chemistry, explained that the ACS North Jersey section, of which she is a long-time member, participates in many outreach activities such as street fairs (Figure 4-1), 4H club activities, and special events at local museums. She noted the new ACS Chemistry Ambassador’s Program, which helps to provide more support to chemists who want to do outreach activities.4 She said National Chemistry Week (NCW), the signature outreach activity of ACS, takes place every year in late October. Her local section celebrates the event at the Liberty Science Center along with other community groups, such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts (Figure 4-2). Brown noted that this year, National Lab Day was also a big event for her section. For most of the events, the ACS provides targeted educational materials that can be distributed to activity participants. Currently, she said local ACS sections are gearing up to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry in 2011.5

Photograph of student volunteers helping small children make chemical crystal model structures at an outdoor outreach event in New Jersey


Student volunteers helping make crystalline models, as part of a local section outreach event during Rutgers Day, 2009. SOURCE: Jeannette Brown, ACS North Jersey Local Section.

Photograph of student volunteers helping small children and their parents conduct chemistry experiments at an indoor outreach event


Outreach during National Chemistry Week at the Liberty Science Center. SOURCE: Jeannette Brown, ACS North Jersey Local Section.

Brown stressed the importance of speaking informally about chemistry in layman’s terms. She takes every opportunity, such as in a train or cab, to strike up a conversation with others about being a chemist. She said that “you don’t have to dumb it down, but you have to be able to explain exactly what it is.”

She highlighted a resource her local section created for teachers, a listserve (Yahoo group) called ChemEnthusiast.6 She said that it was started by one of the chemistry teachers in their section and is now available nationwide. On the ChemEnthusiast listserve, teachers typically talk to each other about needs for supplies or other resources, but chemists (nonteachers) are also on the listserve and can respond. The ChemEnthusiast listserve is also useful for posting information about events and resources.

The sections also reach out to media, such as television and newspapers. Members of the New Jersey section appeared on Good Morning America, and on another occasion the group invited a reporter to a local section meeting talk to gather background information. Some section members may also give community presentations and influence policy makers, as Brown has done. “In other words, we are trying to get all of our members, not just the Jeannette Browns, to become ambassadors,” said Brown.


“Chemistry Ambassador” Ruth Woodall, shown in Figure 4-3, discussed the outreach efforts of the ACS Nashville Local Section. She also briefly spoke about her involvement with the Tennessee Scholars Program.7 Woodall demonstrated an amusing example of how she connects to young people. She introduces chemistry in outreach activities and chemistry classes by using thermochromic “mood” pens; she has the students use the pens to determine who is the “hot-test” to invite to the prom.

Photograph of workshop speaker Ruth Woodall, as an American Chemical Society fiChemistry Ambassadorfl wearing a sash across her chest


Chemistry Ambassador Ruth Woodall. SOURCE: Ruth Woodall, ACS Nashville Local Section.

Woodall explained that such outreach efforts allow her to show a human face of chemistry. She is often recognized in different venues as the “chemistry lady” by people who have seen her give demonstrations and hand out her mood pens. She said that the local section outreach opportunities are a great way for volunteers to become engaged in the community, as well as for the community to engage in chemistry. She has enjoyed meeting people in the community and networking through her volunteer efforts with the ACS.

Woodall discussed some of the activities of the Nashville Section in her community. One example is in conjunction with a local museum, the Adventure Science Center, and involves student groups from local universities and colleges (Figure 4-4). The section also collaborates with the Nashville Earth Day in the Park each year and does outreach activities at state fairs, after-school programs, and so on.

Photograph of a young boy conducing a chemistry experiment at in outreach event in Nashville, Tennessee


Student participating in 2009 NCW event at the Nashville Adventure Science Center. SOURCE: Ruth Woodall, ACS Nashville Local Section.

Woodall emphasized that she never misses an opportunity for outreach. For example, each year she participates in a back-to-school activity sponsored by the mayor of Nashville. He opens up the center in which the Predators hockey team plays for free to about 100 vendors to provide materials for the approximately 25,000 students that come through. She hands out pens, pencils, and Periodic Tables, as well as the activity guide for the annual NCW program. The activity guide is printed in midsummer, so it is usually available for kids at the beginning of the school year and just in time for the mayor’s event.

The Nashville local section has also sponsored a variety of contests. One is the Women in Science and Engineering contest at Middle Tennessee State University. The section also conducts workshops for teachers and gives out prizes, such as the Merck Index to teachers at the Tennessee Science Teachers conference. She said the section typically organizes a whole day of chemistry at the conference.

In addition to the section activities, through the legislative part of the American Chemical Society, the local sections in the state have formed the Tennessee Government Affairs Committee. She explained that there is a strong bond between all of the seven local sections in Tennessee. Every year, they receive a proclamation from the governor of Tennessee for their efforts and have a picture taken with him. The group also has a significant and growing involvement in the ACS Legislative Action Network, which is an effort of ACS to get its members involved in advocacy at the state and federal levels.

The Nashville local section also has a weekly public radio program and often has articles published in local newspapers. Woodall said it is also using new media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook to increase outreach to the public.


Catherine Conrad uses the air and water in the environment as a way of engaging people in science. She explained that citizen science is one approach to informal science education. She stressed that the volunteers she works with are people engaged in the process of gathering very credible science. They work with detailed chemical, biological, and geological scientific information.

Conrad went into detail about her work in community-based monitoring, a process in which concerned citizens, government agencies, industry, academia, community groups, and local institutions collaborate to monitor, track, and respond to environmental issues of common community concern. This type of citizen science functions on a variety of time and space scales, as shown in Figure 4-5. It is an approach that started in the ornithological program at Cornell University,8 Conrad noted, “but one thing we are finding now in citizen science is that where it originated in the biological sciences, it is now moving into the chemical sciences. If you find that your particular favorite bird is declining, maybe there is something going on with the air quality. Maybe there is something that is going on if your favorite fish species is deteriorating or declining, maybe it has something to do with the water quality.”

Graph of level of citizen science questions based on time scale (from 1 day to 100 years) and spatial scale (from a single plant or point to an entire Harbourshed


Citizen Science functions on a variety of temporal and spatial scales. SOURCE: Catherine Conrad, St. Mary’s University.

She explained that even though her work might be labeled “environmental,” the majority of groups she works with are engaged in very hard chemical science, where they utilize quality assurance and quality control in their data collection. She stressed the high quality of the work—it is not “Mickey Mouse science.”

Because of the many benefits, it is not difficult to sell citizen science to a lot of people, Conrad explained. The benefits include increased environmental democracy, scientific literacy, and social capital. “You hear about economic capital, but social capital evolves as people and neighbors and communities are working together and interacting with trained scientists,” said Conrad. In addition, citizens value being included in local issues and addressing real-world problems. Their participation also enables extensive data collection.

Conrad said that scientists pay attention to citizen science because of the prospects for extensive data collection, but only “if we can guarantee that someone who is a volunteer can gather credible data using good protocols, they are trained, they have some form of certification, and the data can be upheld in an academic peer-reviewed journal.” She said that many of the groups she has worked with have met or surpassed these criteria.

Because of citizen science, “We now have tentacles out in the environment that we would never have had . . . [because] not every scientist can be in everybody’s pond or lake or stream or river or back yard,” said Conrad. For example, she showed a photo of a volunteer taking a water sample at night (Figure 4-6). She explained that the water quality of the stream was so important to the volunteer that he went out on a Friday night during the summer to take a water sample in his neighborhood.

Photograph of a volunteer citizen scientist collecting a water sample from a river at night


A dedicated citizen scientist collects water samples in the rain on a Friday night. SOURCE: Catherine Conrad, St. Mary’s University.

Conrad then spoke about the network she founded, the Community-Based Environmental Monitoring Network. It is housed inside the Geography Department at St. Mary’s University and is a network of community environmental organizations and faculty from St. Mary’s University, as well as many other universities within the Maritime in Canada. She said the network includes chemists, biologists, geologists, atmospheric scientists, green chemists, and others. She and the others in the network try to provide more than information; they “want to try and transform [information] into knowledge that people can then act upon.”

Conrad highlighted the network’s website.9 She said that one of the biggest functions of the network is the equipment bank, which operates like a library system, where volunteers can sign out equipment. For example, there is the YSI 650MDS, which measures temperature, salinity, conductivity, pH, and other properties of water. Conrad noted that the equipment available is the same equipment used by the provincial government’s water quality monitoring people.

In addition to loaning out the equipment, the network provides training to volunteers to use the devices. It also applies for funds to purchase and maintain the units. Conrad explained that her student Sara Weston, who was in the workshop audience, is the community-university liaison and is in charge of loaning out the equipment. Conrad noted that the group had been operating the equipment bank for 6 years and has never had a problem with equipment not being returned.

The network has also developed protocols and training manuals for communities. In one example the network collaborated with the government of Western Australia to develop the Nova Scotia Marine Community Monitoring Manual. The group in Nova Scotia not only monitors invasive aquatic species, but is now working on ocean acidification. Local fishermen are monitoring the temperature and pH in the near coastal zone. It is very simple stuff, she said, “but they are interested in this as well, because if the ocean acidifies, that is going to influence and impact directly their livelihood—they get that.” She explained that local communities are compelled to take this action, because when they go looking for answers, they often don’t find the kind of information they need. There is typically no physician to tell them, as in a checkup for human health, about their local water quality or habitat conditions.

However, Conrad explained that there can also be many challenges with citizen science. She encourages people to understand the purpose of citizen science to ensure they are not monitoring simply for the sake of monitoring. Volunteers can lose interest in the work, particularly if they are not well connected with others working on the project or with the users of the data being collected. Other challenges include lack of funding, data fragmentation, lack of participant objectivity and accuracy, and lack of integration with decision makers.

Conrad started this network about a decade ago. At that time, community groups would come to her with data on slips of paper stored in shoeboxes. She did not understand why the government was not doing anything with the data. After talking with government officials, she found that the data being collected were not of interest to the government nor were they in a usable format for data analysis. Now, she said, community groups understand that they need to do a better job coordinating with different levels of government to ensure that volunteers collect the type of data the government can use—in terms of both interest and formatting.

Conrad also mentioned the relevance of citizen science and community-based water monitoring to green chemistry. She spoke to a few of her colleagues who are experts in green chemistry and learned that number 11 of the 12 principles of green chemistry10 is real-time analysis for pollution prevention. She pointed out that the groups she works with are actively engaged in real-time water analysis.

In the last few slides of her talk, Conrad talked about efforts of the network to expand and grow. It is challenging to build the capacity and credibility of community-based water quality monitoring efforts and to develop partnerships with government to allow monitoring results to be used in decision making. To meet this challenge, the network has devised a strategy that includes developing a water certification program similar to Red Cross training courses. For example, after Red Cross training, “if you see someone who has had a heart attack on the sidewalk you could give them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the paramedics arrive.” Similarly, non-firefighters can be trained to volunteer and fight fires; so volunteers should also be trusted and trained to do water chemistry. This program will be endorsed by the Canadian Water Resources Association. She also noted that the certification program involved the development of (1) a standardized monitoring tool-kit, (2) standardized protocols and a water quality monitoring certification course, and (3) a centralized, coordinated repository for water quality data.

According to Conrad there is significant need for high-quality products for citizen science, but existing tools have many problems, such as difficulty of use and a lack of effective manuals and explanation of basic use. For example, there are large and increasing numbers of citizen scientists involved in monitoring water quality each year, such as for World Water Monitoring Day.11 In the United States alone, she said, more than half a million people are involved in monitoring rivers in their local areas. In addition, a poll by GlobeScan in 2009 found that 93 percent of people across 15 countries surveyed said that water pollution is the most important environmental issue to them.

Conrad ended by saying that the network is working to have maximum reach and impact by (1) establishing accuracy and consistency in the data collected by volunteers, (2) filling data gaps in watersheds and areas where existing government monitoring networks are absent, and (3) designing data collection according to government guidelines. The government especially likes it when cost savings can be demonstrated. She added, “We did a study last year [showing] that, in the province of Nova Scotia alone, we could save them 1.25 million dollars by engaging people in this, at the same time linking people with the things that they want to do in a meaningful way.”



In the beginning of the discussion, panelists were asked why they first became involved in outreach efforts. Brown said, “I was always an only,” always a minority. She wanted to find other African-American women chemists like herself. She also wanted to tell the world what chemistry was all about. She first volunteered to be publicity chair of her section.

Woodall said she was teaching chemistry in Memphis and was asked to come to a local section meeting as a high school chemistry teacher. She was not a member of ACS, but the section asked her to join to become the public relations (PR) chair. Eventually she became the PR chair and received training from the ACS. She noted that Nancy Blount, who was in attendance, taught her how to be a PR chair.

Conrad explained that her background had nothing to do with citizen science originally. She started working with a small community, and the people had more questions than she could answer. She realized that they needed a support network of people to tap into and she helped create the network. That interaction completely altered the research she was doing. She said she shifted from being an “effluvial morphologist” to doing the community-based monitoring work.

Science Cheerleader

Workshop participant Neil Gussman mentioned the citizen science effort Science Cheerleader.12 He said the effort was created by Darlene Cavalier, a former Philadelphia 76ers’ cheerleader, who is now involved with many citizen science groups.

Changes in Parent Attitudes

Mike Rogers asked the speakers how the attitudes of parents toward science have changed over time and what the activities are that interest students the most.

Woodall said that in the 19 years that she has been involved in outreach, she has noticed that more and more parents are becoming appreciative of the outreach activities the local sections offer. Parents, as well as students, are beginning to tie the outreach activities they do into the curriculum at school. “When we started, there wasn’t as much chemistry being taught, and it wasn’t as relevant, it wouldn’t be as relevant as it is in the curriculum now. So I think over a period of time, our outreach efforts are being tied in more with the curriculum at school, and the kids are seeing more of it at school, and what we are doing is helping more in the classroom than it ever has before,” Woodall added.

Rogers added that his impression is that there is a lot of interest from parents, “Even sometimes if the students aren’t interested, the parents—and I think more today than they might have been in years past—there is a genuine interest there.”

Woodall said she thinks that “one of the reasons that parents are becoming more interested now is because they are seeing that they are going to have to push their children into careers now even more than ever before. They see that need more than ever, and they are going to have to push their children earlier. They are getting out there and getting more active with their children.”

Youth Involvement

Andrea Twiss-Brooks, University of Chicago, asked Conrad if there are youth groups or children involved in any of her community monitoring efforts. She noted that she saw mostly adults in Conrad’s talk. She said she knew of groups in the United States that use youth groups and students for simpler biological or environmental monitoring.

Conrad replied that the pictures she showed did not represent all the volunteers she works with. She said that although the majority of groups she works with are typically 18 or 19 years old and older, the network does have a program working with school groups, as well as summer camps.



National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.


ACS North Jersey Section: www​


ACS Nashville Section: nashville​


ACS Chemistry Ambassadors Program: www​


For more information, see www​ (accessed December 21, 2010).


For more information, see www​​.html#ChemEnthusiasts (accessed November 27, 2010).


For more information, see www​ (accessed December 21, 2010).


For more information, see www​​/netcommunity/citsci/about (accessed December 21, 2010).


For more information, see www​ (accessed December 21, 2010).


For more information about the 12 principles of green chemistry, see P. T. Anastas and J. Warner. 1998. Green Chemistry Theory and Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


For more information, see the World Water Monitoring Day website at www​.worldwatermonitoringday​.org/index.html (accessed December 21, 2010).


For more information, see the Science Cheerleader website at http://www​ (accessed April 13, 2011).

Copyright © 2011, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK91490


  • PubReader
  • Print View
  • Cite this Page
  • PDF version of this title (14M)

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...