Over the past two decades, thousands of San Diego community members and visitors have learned about topics in earth and ocean science thanks to a dedicated group of educators at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Known as Scripps Community Outreach for Public Education (or SCOPE), this student-led, volunteer-driven outreach program works to connect the general public to research at Scripps Oceanography, while fostering scientific curiosity and creating STEM-focused opportunities for today’s youth.
SCOPE celebrated its 20-year anniversary in 2021. Culminating this milestone year, seven current and former SCOPE coordinators reflected on the success of the program and wrote an article that highlighted SCOPE as a scalable outreach model for other research institutions. Their work was published recently in Connected Science Learning, a journal of the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) that focuses on STEM education.
“We wanted the article to be a way for people to learn about how outreach is approached through our program here at Scripps Oceanography, and use that as a template for designing outreach programs that are catered to their own institutions, strengths, or facilities,” said Kate Nesbit, a recent Scripps graduate who served as a SCOPE coordinator for five years while she pursued her PhD in marine biology. “It evolved to highlight how impactful these programs are for all participants, including volunteers, and how to really evaluate that.”
The article outlines how SCOPE has emerged as an invaluable and integral part of Scripps outreach to the wider community, with humble beginnings as a grassroots movement. The program came to fruition in 2001, when two then-graduate students sought to fill a need for community engagement by establishing permanent education and outreach opportunities at Scripps. Starting on a small scale, the students began working with volunteers to host free events for community members interested in learning about science.
SCOPE has grown significantly over the years with a revolving group of student coordinators at the helm, while retaining its volunteer-driven roots. More than 150 volunteers have participated in SCOPE over the lifetime of the program, reaching an estimated 25,000 community members—ranging from K-12 students to senior citizens and everyone in between.
Some of the most popular SCOPE activities take place on campus, such as tours of the Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier, where participants might learn about climate and environmental research and the scientific process, and tours of the Hubbs Hall Experimental Aquarium, where visitors might learn about marine biology research and gain hands-on experience with marine life. Other campus activities include tours of the renowned Scripps Collections, tours of the local beach with a focus on geology and the tidepools, and meet-and-greets with scientists.
Off campus, SCOPE volunteers frequently deliver presentations at schools, senior centers, STEM career fairs, or other events held by organizations such as the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, or Rotary clubs.
As described in the article, SCOPE’s mission grew from loosely defined outreach into a program centered around more specific goals that align with the commitments of Scripps, UC San Diego, and the National Science Foundation regarding education and diversity in STEM. In addition to fostering scientific curiosity and creating learning opportunities for youth and adults, the program now focuses on meeting the needs of underserved communities and demographics traditionally underrepresented in science.
“It has been wonderful to see the reach and impact of SCOPE grow and evolve over the years as each generation of graduate student leaders have contributed their passion and innovative ideas to showcasing Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Scripps research,” said Cheryl Peach, director of Scripps Educational Alliances and an advisor to the group for several years. “Perhaps most important is that SCOPE has broadened the graduate experience at Scripps by providing students with opportunities to hone science communication and teaching skills, and reach out to underserved communities.”
The coordinators keep track of each outreach experience through follow-up surveys with both participants and volunteers, with the goal of finding ways to improve. Many teachers who have worked with SCOPE have commented that the experience was transformative in showing their students what a future in STEM might look like, and was instrumental in promoting environmental stewardship.
"My kids were able to see the different types of sciences and other disciplines that are involved in studying marine life,” said Camron Dozier, a science teacher at Marana High School in Tucson, Ariz. who brought his marine biology class to Scripps in 2018. “They were also exposed to the researchers and asked questions of them directly. This is a large point of our science standards so seeing the ongoing research was valuable.”
The SCOPE program serves the public while also benefiting volunteers—who are often early-career scientists or educators—by providing an informal, low-pressure setting where they can develop their communication skills and build confidence.
“Getting to meet a diverse variety of people—of all ages and backgrounds—and learn about how their perspectives/experience differ from mine, SCOPE has given me a better grasp on public speaking as well as communicating things in understandable terms,” one volunteer wrote in an anonymous survey.
Thanks to a private endowment that began in 2008, the SCOPE coordinators now receive a modest stipend to support their work. The endowment also supports a scholarship program that brings students from Title I schools, where at least 40 percent of students come from low-income backgrounds, to Scripps for educational tours.
Since its inception, SCOPE has grown from hosting one outreach event to more than 100 events per year, including both in-person and virtual offerings. When the COVID pandemic hit, the SCOPE team adapted its programming to include the use of virtual platforms including Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts. Despite the barrier, they still managed to host 86 total events in 2020 and 2021, reaching nearly 3,000 participants. They also shared virtual versions of their popular Scripps Pier and Experimental Aquarium tours on YouTube, expanding their digital reach.
The SCOPE team said its program structure serves as a tractable model for other institutions seeking to implement similar educational activities. Any new programs can be tailored to each institution based on its own facilities, resources, and expertise.
“We hope that this program model can serve as a scaffold for other institutions interested in incorporating outreach programs into graduate training and increasing their local community’s awareness of and appreciation for scientific practices,” wrote the authors.
In addition to Nesbit, the article was co-authored by former SCOPE coordinators Shelby Jones, Brooke Rasina, and Wiley Wolfe, and current coordinators Emelia Chamberlain, Kelli Mullane, and Erik Saberski.