For about five years now I have lead a small, multi-cultural team of volunteers in designing, preparing, presenting, and sponsoring science-based programs and activities for our community. We do this through the auspices of the local public library. So far, our audience has been 9 to 14 yr-olds. The programs have been successful and are by far the best-attended programs for that age group offered through the library. We often have two or more adults who attend with their children.

Some observations so far: There are some intelligent young people out there. For any given event, about one sixth of the young people attending are home-schooled (generally for religious motivations). There is anecdotal evidence that as many theists attend (and present) as do non-theists and similar naturalists. (this is consistent with the conservative culture of the community at large). The most controversial subjects we have presented are cloning/bioengineering, genetics, and nanotechnology. As a team, we are not viewed as any kind of experts or authorities in science. In fact we purposely avoid building that reputation.

For myself, I want to expand the scope and audience for the programs. I know the director of the library supports this idea. The main issue seems to be a lack of interest (and availability) among the general populace. I think there are enough alternate sources of science information that any interested individual can find what they are looking for and need not attend an amateur local event. I also sense that a debate on any of a number of science topics would not have a big draw with science-oriented folks. In fact, on of our team members works at the metropolitan museum of nature and science and explicitly has not desire to engage in debates, seeing them as of little value.

Questions for the Aspiring Public Intellectuals group:

1. Should I be leveraging the current activity to build more credibility as a "public intellectual" in the community?

2. How can a local group/individual ignite interest in science and reason when one is competing with the Web, PBS, cable television, magazines, local museums and universities?

Feel free to indicate if I am being a troll or out-of-scope for this group.

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Replies to This Discussion

1. I think it would be okay only if it is done as an indirect association with the group/team/activities. If you're trying to promote the group, promote the group, not yourself. But, for example, if someone from a newspaper wanted to interview you about you, then by all means mention the group as a way that you act as a public intellectual. If the interview is about the group, however, then keep it about the group. Otherwise you'll probably end up looking like an ass. Just my opinion. Probably a better way to promote yourself would be to write a book, get a column in a local newspaper, or host (or appear as a guest) some sort of media program, such as a TV, radio, or podcast show. Obviously, a website or blog is another way to do it.

2. As per my username and the philosophy I promote, I think the best way to get people interested in science is to show them in an intuitive way the wonder of the science we've discovered. Kids think bones are boring, but they *love* dinosaurs. It's the wonder of the bones, not the bones themselves, that sparks interest. Kids are natural wonder machines.

Show them something totally mundane which comes to life when you apply the discoveries of science to it. Demonstrations, such as using liquid nitrogen to do all sorts of things like freezing balloons filled with air to prove that air is just particles bouncing around like mad because they are hot. When the balloon is frozen with liquid nitrogen, it shrinks down flat because the particles stop moving. When allowed to return to room temperature, the balloon expands again. Who thought balloons could tell you something about the nature of matter?

Of course, adding a touch of wonder to the *discoveries* of science is pretty easy. The hard trick to pull off is to show how *thinking* like a scientist can be amazing. Feynman's lectures are a good source of material here. Also, stories of scientists and their journeys of discovery can often be interesting. One of the first children's books I ever read was the story of Louis Pasteur and his development of germ theory. Sounds boring, but it was nicely illustrated and told a story (probably fictional) about a kid who got bit by a rabid dog, and Louis Pasteur saved him from Rabies with a vaccine based on germ theory. I still remember that story today. These kinds of mixtures of evidence-based reasoning with intuitive explanation can be very powerful.




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