Outreach activities are an important part of what we do. Not only do they inform the public what their tax dollars are being spent on and allow it to ask questions, but also reaches out to students when they are still thinking about a career; either when they are undergraduates or even earlier in high school.
Research is built around the concept of “apprenticeship”, and having good, motivated students is crucial. They do a lot of the “grunt work”, e.g., building and calibrating the detector, writing software, etc., but they also analyze data that lead to publications, and their dissertations ; undergraduates can also make important contributions.
One way to work with undergraduates is to be a host for a student in the REU program (Research Experience for Undergraduates). An undergraduate typically spends ten weeks during the summer with a research group at a university different from where they are enrolled as a student. This summer a colleague and I are hosting a student from Missouri University of Science & Technology; last year we worked with one from Vanderbilt University. He is reading ATLAS documentation to understand how “Missing Energy” is determined, learning how to use software tools, making plots, giving talks in local group meetings, etc. In other words, getting a first hand look at how research is done.
Another outreach activity I have been involved with since last year is called “Adopt-a-Physicist”. It is coordinated through the American Institute of Physics. Basically, one is “adopted” by high school students from around the country for a period of two weeks, and they ask questions (on a web-based forum) about whatever strikes their fancy, e.g., what my research is all about, what the life of a scientist is like, what my daily activities are, how much I get paid (not as much as I would like! Even Physicists like to own Porsches!), whether I have pets, etc. The adoptees have a Physics degree but are not necessarily in research. It is a very good way for students to learn the benefits of getting a science education. I received the following from one teacher whose class had adopted me, “…thanks for increasing their interest in a science related career. This interaction with you has definitely changed their view about scientists and they realized that scientists are real people leading a life a similar to theirs…” Maybe one or more of them will end up doing research. At the very least, it broadens their perception about science and scientists.