The Power of Engagement

The Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology opens its doors to the public

A young student peers through a solar telescope during KIPAC's 20th anniversary community day.

“Discoveries are much more impactful when you can communicate them effectively,” says Risa Wechsler, director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University. “Communicating with the public is a key aspect of training scientists.”

KIPAC, as the institute is known, is a powerhouse for astrophysics research, with members participating in some of the biggest astrophysics projects of the last two decades, from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and Dark Energy Survey to the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument and the upcoming Vera Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time.

And they don’t stop there. They’re also finding new paths to engage the public in their research about the wonders of the cosmos. The institute holds regular public “Discover Our Universe” lectures, stargazing nights, summer programs, classroom visits, and Noches Astronómicas – discussions and activities conducted in Spanish. They also celebrated their 20th anniversary by welcoming over 3,000 visitors to their facilities for a day of hands-on activities, demonstrations, and mini-lectures.

“We want to communicate the impact of our work in a way that attracts new people to science generally, and to astrophysics in particular,” explained Wechsler.

KIPAC welcomed over 3,000 people to their 20th anniversary community day.
Families participate in activities at KIPAC's community day.
KIPAC Director Risa Wechsler addresses guests during KIPAC's community day.

The Kavli Foundation’s Science and Society Program partnered with KIPAC to grow and strengthen these public engagement efforts in a rigorous and strategic way, including support for the institute to collaborate with evaluation experts at Catalyst Consulting, as well as science communication scholar John Besley of Michigan State University. Together, they worked toward articulating specific goals, developing metrics, tracking progress, and identifying other systems that allow for learning and iteration.

“The evaluators we’ve been working with have been so helpful,” said KIPAC Outreach and Engagement Manager Xinnan Du. “We’re currently working to refine and finalize our strategic plan in public engagement where the goals were synthesized and extracted from discussions with different groups of KIPAC scientists and outreach project volunteers. For example, since we’re hoping that K-12 students would consider a STEM career, and that the public will trust scientists more, the evaluation team is helping us map those goals onto actionable items and make little tweaks in existing programs to make a big difference.”

Kavli Foundation Science and Society Director Brooke Smith knows the challenges when it comes to evaluating outreach efforts. After the work required to design and implement a public engagement program, there are often few resources remaining to then evaluate the work and inform the next iteration of efforts. But ideally outreach should be as scientifically rigorous as the research itself –- using carefully collected data to drive decisions and build on previous efforts.

“It’s meant to be a reflective practice,” said Smith. “It’s not about an evaluator coming and saying what you’re doing is good or bad; right or wrong. It's about articulating your goals, collecting data about how your engagement activities achieved those goals, and evolving your work for maximum impact. It’s also important because while few engagement programs do evaluation, understanding the impact of engagement will help science, and those who communicate about it, do it better.”

When an institute as prolific as KIPAC makes a concerted effort in science engagement, it benefits the surrounding community, the wider public, and the scientists themselves. KIPAC scientists are establishing themselves as leaders in the field while embodying the spirit of Fred Kavli when he created The Kavli Foundation and the Kavli Institutes around the world to “advance science for the benefit of humanity.”