Every year, universities worldwide open their doors to international students to join their research programs. Thousands of students move from one country to another with the dream to pursue higher education and increase their career opportunities. As a result, universities are cultural hubs that gather students and researchers from different backgrounds, who provide a diverse and enriching environment while embracing newcomers with their institutional values and culture. For PhD programs in Europe, students can participate in public engagement and outreach activities, a practice that is becoming highly encouraged and, in some cases, is required. Many research projects, funded with public funds from national science organizations, are required to keep the public informed about their work and research findings through public engagement activities. Moreover, the culture of science dissemination is part of university life, and it can also be led by student societies or university organizations that are not linked to specific research funds. Students join these projects as part of their professional development, gaining skills to engage with the general public.

Natalia Cañas Estrada became a science communicator as her research project was part of the Irish Photonic Research Centre (IPIC), funded by “Science Foundation Ireland.” Natalia joined Tyndall National Institute-University College Cork for a PhD in Photonic Systems in 2015. Similarly, Dr Angeles Camacho Rosales, who joined the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton (England) for a PhD in Optoelectronics in 2015, became involved in outreach duties as part of her professional development activities. 

Natalia Cañas Estrada, PhD Student at the Tyndall National Institute, University College Cork. Photo: Clare Keogh
Dr. Angeles Camacho Rosales, PDRA in Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton, UK.

Originally from Latin America, Natalia and Angeles are both IEEE volunteers. Natalia got involved with multiple outreach activities organized by the Irish Photonic Research Centre (IPIC) and local initiatives like ‘Engineering in a box,’ part of STEAM Education Ltda. Meanwhile, Angeles participated in outreach projects with the Optics and Photonics Society and public engagement events organized by the University of Southampton. Thanks to their commitment to science advocacy and outreach work with their local communities, Natalia and Angeles empirically learned the best practices to carry out outreach activities. Also, both agree that this experience helped them in gaining confidence to talk about their scientific work using plain language. This further improved their oral skills in a foreign language and helped them in interacting with the general public, particularly children and young adults.

Volunteering through outreach and public engagement also was a helpful way for Natalia and Angeles to build their professional network in optics and photonics. Through their professional networking, Natalia and Angeles met and shared their ideas and will to create projects for science communication in Latin America. They started to work as a team in June 2020, joining forces to develop and lead ‘Bright the Future,’ a STEM outreach project with a strong social approach, emphasizing inclusion, diversity and equity as principles. The first stage of this ambitious project will be a pilot run in Latin America under the name ‘Iluminando el Futuro,‘ and it will be fully delivered in Spanish. This initiative is a unique opportunity and the first of its kind where the IEEE Photonics Society aims at promoting a strong collaboration network into the Latin American optics and photonics community. 

‘Iluminando el Futuro’ is a STEM initiative that envisions promoting long-term science dissemination that can trigger regional development and narrow the gaps between the science community and society in Latin America. It is also expected that the regional optics and photonics community will be encouraged to engage in other IEEE Photonic Society initiatives. The heart of this STEM outreach initiative is centered on work with local communities, engaging two different groups:

  • Volunteers from the IEEE Photonics Society, students from graduate and postgraduate programs, professors or professionals working in STEM fields;
  • General public from local communities, mainly targeting children, adolescents and youth.
Members and collaborators of the teams that are part of ‘Iluminando el Futuro’

The strategy of this initiative is to provide formal and systematic training to volunteers to become STEM ambassadors. During training, they learn to conceptualize, design and implement simple hands-on activities to explain scientific concepts using friendly and accessible language. These outreach activities will be the means used by STEM ambassadors to connect with their communities. The activities will be focused on the research, work field or area of expertise of the STEM ambassadors.

It is also expected that people from different communities will feel motivated to get involved in STEM and consider it as a career path in the future. “Here in Ireland, a lot of effort is made to encourage scientists like me to share their work with the general public. The most successful type of activities are visits to schools. After the first interaction with outreach volunteers, many pupils ask their parents to take them to similar scientific events organized every year by the University or part of national initiatives like Culture Night or Science Week. These events are opportunities for students to find a mentor, identify areas of interest, and even potentially consider accessing higher education in a STEM field,” says Natalia. “‘Iluminando el Futuro’ seeks to encourage science dissemination as part of scientific life, and to highlight the social responsibility associated with working in STEM and being a scientist,” adds Angeles.

‘Iluminando el Futuro’ gathers a multidisciplinary group that has developed the training content, which targets to form STEM ambassadors. The training is divided into two parts: self-paced virtual training and synchronous workshop. The virtual training provides a combination of theory and resources for STEM ambassadors to learn how to plan and design their own outreach activities or public engagement events. The training includes short clips from experienced STEM outreach volunteers, or as we call them, “Experteers,” who have contributed by sharing their best practices in outreach based on personal experience in public engagement with different communities. Over 20 experteers have volunteered with their videos about outreach and past experiences leading science communication projects worldwide. The second stage of the training consists of a synchronous workshop, a live session that gathers small groups of STEM ambassadors from different countries. This space will allow STEM ambassadors to exchange ideas, present their outreach plans, and decide on the best method to measure the academic and social impact. All volunteers who complete the training in this pilot stage will become STEM ambassadors and will have the possibility to apply for funds from IEEE Photonics Society to create outreach activities to work with their local communities.

The conceptualization and design of the training was a joint effort between Angeles, Natalia and the IEEE Photonics Society.  The IEEE Photonics Society has embraced the project since its conception through the liaison team formed by Lauren Mecum-Smith and Lisa Sandt. They have provided guidance, resources and valuable feedback to this initiative. The content of the training, developed by Dr. Nora Aneth Pava-Ripoll (Universidad del Valle, Colombia) and her team, is based on the principles of accessible education, human development, and work with diverse communities. Dr Elizabeth Torrico has contributed as an external peer reviewer of the training content. 

This ambitious initiative has been conceptualized and developed since summer last year, aiming to gather volunteers to participate as STEM ambassadors in 2021. The launch of ‘Iluminando el Futuro’ was set to happen as part of the International Day of Light celebration in May. In the lunch ceremony, the IEEE Photonic Society opened the call for volunteers in Latin America to apply to the program, receive the training and become STEM ambassadors. During the second semester of 2021, the selected volunteers will receive training to become STEM ambassadors and will implement their own outreach activities with their local communities. They will share their experiences and findings through surveys that will help the leading team of ‘Iluminando el Futuro’ in measuring the success and impact of the project. Angeles and Natalia commented on the project’s expected outcome: “We hope this is the beginning of a strong collaboration network in Latin America,” says Angeles. “We want to create opportunities for younger generations to find role models and encourage volunteers working in STEM to share their work with local communities,” says Natalia.

‘Iluminando el Futuro’ offers an excellent opportunity for professional development to the optics and photonics community in Latin America. It also offers an alternative to engage in projects along with the IEEE Photonics Society that is looking forward to hearing and supporting more initiatives from its members.