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Graduate Education: Sea Grant student sets training in motion, amplifies impact of science

As any physicist will tell you, an object’s increase in motion is proportional to the force exerted upon it. Sea Grant is an organization focused on coastal science, which can sometimes include physics—along with other natural and social sciences. But, if you view things metaphorically, physics is the reason behind a new Wisconsin Sea Grant initiative.

“We had a former Sea Grant student respond to our alumni survey. She said when you are a student you don’t realize how much community engagement will be required of you when you get a job in management agencies,” said Amulya Rao, a graduate student working with Wisconsin Sea Grant’s Assistant Director for Research and Student Engagement Jennifer Hauxwell.

That alumnus’s response—along with feedback received through interviews and focus groups—was the external force that set in motion Rao and Hauxwell’s investigation into finding a curriculum, of sorts, to prepare students to amplify science’s impact, engage with stakeholders and assist science-based decision making. “We wanted to find a way to train students for what they likely could be doing in the workforce. That training is not now provided,” Rao said.

Hauxwell elaborated, based on her own experience while securing a Ph.D. in aquatic biology. “When I did my graduate work, tackling an applied-science question with implications for how a community might manage nutrients to improve water quality of nearby estuaries, I already thought I was part of that world, part of understanding community engagement with science. After all, I was doing work that had direct ties to a community problem, publishing it, and sharing those papers with community members. But it was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of having a real impact on community actions.”

She continued, “For communities to adopt science-supported actions, it is best if they are not just ‘informed,’ but rather engaged in all aspects of the work—from defining the actual science question, agreeing on the approach, and potentially even being part of the data-gathering and interpretation of results and implications.”

Hauxwell said there is an existing menu for scientists to choose from when looking to secure buy-in while interacting with stakeholders—seminars, other events, social media, webinars and citizen science. However, she said she’d like to inspire the next generation of coastal scientists to “blow open that menu. Think about what else there is to try.”

The pair hit on a way to perhaps facilitate those student-led pyrotechnics. They will offer an in-person event and a sequence of training webinars, “Bridging the Gap: Actionable Science in Graduate Research.” The topics covered will be actionable science in practice, engaging stakeholders in research, communicating research to diverse audiences, conducting policy-relevant science, and careers in science/community engagement.

The first go-round will happen in spring 2017, pulling in both graduate and undergraduate students funded on Wisconsin Sea Grant projects. The numbers fluctuate from one grant cycle to the next, but typically, there are dozen graduate students and up to 30 undergraduates; all soon to be set in motion by an external force for community engagement and amplifying science’s impacts.  

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