Outreach: Fostering Community Appreciation of Science

By Bassam Z. Shakhashiri
Professor of Chemistry and William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea


Today our biggest challenge is to help sustain Earth and its people in the face of population growth, finite resources, malnutrition, spreading disease, deadly violence, war, climate change, and the denial of basic human rights, especially the right to benefit from scientific and technological progress.

Science and society have what is essentially a social contract that enables great intellectual achievements but comes with mutual expectations of benefiting the human condition and protecting our planet. Our excellence in research and our commitment to high quality classroom teaching must be accompanied by sincere convictions to successfully connect with the public at large on all matters that relate to science and technology. Purposeful communication of the critical role of science and technology in society can help alter attitudes of the general public and can also foster collaboration among people across geographic boundaries to work together to solve global grand challenges.

WI State Senator Kathleen Vinehout joins Bassam for a demonstration during a Science is Fun presentation in Alma, Wisconsin, September 14, 2018.

I am now in my 49th year as a UW–Madison chemistry professor and continue to expand successful public engagement to reach audiences in person, on the radio, in print, and via television and social media. In the past two years, I and my group have given more than 80 scientific presentations in public venues ranging from schools to community centers to farmers markets to festivals to service organizations to professional society meetings. Many of these hands-on/minds-on interactive activities were bolstered by gifts from donors and in particular, a single donor whose gift made it possible to secure, equip, and help staff the SCIENCE IS FUN truck.

This is an integrated and comprehensive approach aimed at reaching audiences in cities and towns throughout Wisconsin and neighboring states. In keeping with the best traditions of the Wisconsin Idea, one major goal is to improve the connectivity between UW–Madison and the citizens of Wisconsin and neighboring states. Another goal is to foster collaboration between various communities and UW–Madison to better serve mutual needs. Listening to youth and adults in schools and community settings and improving the quality of education in both urban and rural settings require deliberate and deep involvement by all stakeholders.

Providing opportunities to enhance the quality of learning and nurturing personal growth of students is crucial to fulfilling human potential. Professional development of teachers and inclusion of families in meaningful experiences greatly impact the creation of a sustainable environment for the betterment of science and society. We aim to contribute to defining and securing the meaning of the Wisconsin Idea for the 21st Century.