STEM Ambassadors

Left to right: Becky Smoak, Ryan Brown, Kaitlan Angel, and Mo Walczak

By Ryan Brown


When CEOAS master's student Becky Smoak first approached community members in her coastal Washington hometown about connecting with fishermen in a local bar to discuss climate change and local fisheries, she got a lot of advice. Be prepared for heckling by the folks who still think you’re a teenager. Meet up at the “neutral” bar in town where everyone can be comfortable. Don’t be surprised by the suspicion some folks in the fishing community hold for scientists, and make sure your trivia questions are comprehensible to all.

While she knew that these reactions did not represent the attitudes of the entire fishing community, she knew she needed to tread carefully if she wanted to make a genuine connection. Undaunted, Smoak pursued her idea when she became a STEM Ambassador.

STEMAP flips the traditional model of outreach on its head. Instead of scientists sharing what they think the public needs to know about their science, STEMAP starts with community members’ needs first. Ambassadors spend time identifying communities they personally relate to through shared interests, hobbies, circumstances or experiences, and determine how their science might be of interest to the community. They then connect with representatives of their chosen group to find out how the community might want to engage with the Ambassador’s subject area. 

Smoak’s discussions with local fishers and her own first-hand knowledge of the community helped to hone her objectives for the project. Instead of trying to convince fishermen about the impacts of climate change on local fisheries, she chose to focus on building trust between scientists and the fishing community. She acknowledged the impact of damaged fisheries on their livelihoods, and understood that scientists are often viewed as the catalyst for negative change in their communities. 

Smoak ended up planning a trivia night for a local brewpub, a location regularly used by folks from across the community. She enlisted fishers to help her spread the word and recruited scientists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as resources. Instead of relating facts about plankton and climate change, her questions highlighted shared values around a love of the ocean and its fisheries by drawing on the expertise of both the local fishing community and scientists. Her goal was to spark deeper discussions that everyone present could contribute to as equals.  

“I love science and learning about ways to better share the information I have learned,” Smoak says. “This project forced me to step out of my comfort zone and really dig deep as to why I wanted to put myself in between scientists and members of a unique coastal community. STEMAP gave me the opportunity and tools to make this outreach project a success.”