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Quality outreach in your mother tongue

We asked our Native Scientists what it means for them to do science outreach in their mother tongue.

Migrant pupils across Europe are twice more likely than non-migrant pupils to underachieve, leave school early and be unemployed (EU Education and Training Monitor, 2015). Fostering literacy among these minorities is part of the efforts to reverse this trend, to inspire migrant pupils to pursue higher education. This is what led us to develop or take part in Native Scientist, which organises workshops that connect international scientists to migrant pupils who speak the same native language and share a common heritage. We wondered how this mattered to the scientists – migrants themselves – so we asked 50 of them, from a range of disciplines, career stages and nationalities, what it means to do science outreach in their mother tongue and how such undertaking has impacted their lives. Some comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Personal & Societal benefits

Feeling closer to the roots: 95% of these scientists consider that doing science outreach in their mother tongue brings them something more. Scientists choose to do it for different reasons, but all of them mention at least one of these three key concepts: disseminating science, inspiring next generations and valuing their heritage. For over a third of them, it is a way to feel connected to their home country and pay it forward, while encouraging pupils to use their native language. After the workshops, 2 out of 3 pupils feel prouder of speaking more than one language, and 3 out of 4 learnt five or more new words. This strong positive impact on the scientists transpires to the classrooms, with most teachers expressing interest in repeating the experience.

“I've been abroad for so long that I can't even remember when was the last time I spoke about science in Portuguese. When you are abroad it is hard to feel like you belong somewhere – Native Scientist made me feel like I belonged again, it felt like home.”

(Vanessa Las Heras, Portuguese, Postdoc in Ireland)

Inspiring the next generation: A third of these scientists want to act as role models, not only to inspire children but also to make them aware that they can be scientists too. Doing outreach in a language different from the host country’s language means reaching less privileged communities, which have less access to such type of extracurricular activities, and some scientists acknowledge this as a reason for participating in such activities.

“To show that science can be created in any language and that with willing and good training you can become a great scientist independently of where you come from.”

(Lia Domingues, Portuguese, Postdoc in France)

The power of communicating: Using their own language to speak about science can be a challenge for some, given that most are used to do it exclusively in English. However, a third of the scientists report feeling empowered doing so. It is also an opportunity for practice, to explain science in their mother tongue, a relevant asset in a world where it is increasingly more important to communicate in more than one language. Some scientists also mention that it is easier to connect and communicate with the pupils in the heritage language.

“I have always been used to communicate science only to my peers and in English. Doing science outreach in my mother tongue was a completely different experience, and simplifying the message without using scientific terms was easier in my own language - it was easier to find the metaphors or the right words to express myself”

(Roberta Codato, Italian, Postdoc in France)

Professional benefits

New opportunities: These outreach activities also come with professional benefits: 98% of the researchers say that participating in these workshops has had a positive impact in their jobs. It brings the possibility of connecting to other compatriot scientists, and for some it even created new career opportunities, or influenced their career strategies.

“It made me aware that I would love to change career from working behind the lab bench to a more communicative and teaching profession. I realized it is more rewarding for me to help, teach and share my knowledge with others.”

(Sabine Weisheit, German, Postdoc in Norway)

New skills: One in three scientists mentioned that doing outreach contributed to improving and developing soft skills, from presentation preparation and communication to engagement and management. For 8% of the scientists, these activities were their first opportunity to learn such skills.

“It allows us to develop transferable skills essential for a researcher. It is crucial to develop communication skills and to talk about complex issues in a simple and clear way. This is important since most of the projects are interdisciplinary and we need to communicate with researchers or collaborators from different backgrounds. Also, by engaging conversation with pupils, they suggest interesting or different points of view that make us realize different sides of the subject.”

(Catarina Novo, Portuguese, Postdoc in the UK)

New perspectives: Remarkably, more than 10% of the scientists stated that, after the workshops, they felt their motivation for working reignited and they rekindled their passion for science.

“Seeing the enthusiasm and hearing the "wow!" sometimes compensated the frustration from failed experiments or from unsupportive managers who think this is a waste of time.”

(Anna Cupani, Italian, Research Manager in the UK)

A call for more science outreach support

Doing science outreach has undoubtedly multiple personal, professional and societal benefits; yet, it is still today mostly a result of individual pursuits rather than institutional policies. Science outreach can either be seen as a mere hobby of extracurricular interest, or as a missionary endeavour that helps raise scientists’ and the institution's profiles. At an individual level, each of us can decide how we want to portray our science outreach efforts. Many, afraid of negative discrimination, opt to hide it from their co-workers and superiors. Others, confident of the value of their actions and aware of the uniqueness of their efforts, opt to celebrate their engagement and disseminate it among their network. Undeniably, for more people to be able to learn and benefit from practicing science outreach, the scientific community still needs to let go of some stigma, more individuals need to speak up about the benefits of science outreach, and senior managers need to be more engaged in outreach activities and actively push for their institutions to have positive, forward-looking science outreach policies.

“In the end I felt that just being present and available to talk to them is the most important thing. In a world that desperately needs to trust science and the word of scientists, I think outreach activities like this one are essential. And since children are the future, encouraging them to remain curious is a great bet.”

(Raquel Correia, Portuguese, Research Technician in Germany)

About Native Scientist

Native Scientist is an award-winning European-wide non-profit organisation that promotes cultural diversity in science, education and society. Native Scientist provides science and language workshops, science communication training, and bespoke projects for various institutions, including schools, universities and embassies. The work developed connects pupils with scientists to foster science and language literacy through role modelling and science and language integrated learning. Founded in 2013, their work reaches over 1,200 pupils a year and they count with a network of over 1,000 international scientists.

About the authors

Mariana, Rafael and Joana are all active members of the Native Scientist community.


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