Education and Public Engagement with NASA’s Science Mission Directorate

Programs to engage audiences in planetary science have changed significantly over the past 10 years. Many new NASA programs exist that need the participation of the planetary science community!

Education or Public Engagement?

NASA Science-funded missions and instruments allow for public outreach and engagement under the “public communications” umbrella. Public engagement programs are conducted by NASA science missions, as well as by numerous NASA Centers, universities, and research institutions across the nation. Programs range from inspirational presentations to active participation events. Some examples from planetary missions include the artistic works created by the Psyche Inspired program, and the hundreds of informal education institution events conducted in connection with the Mars 2020 Perseverance landing. The Cosmic Exploration Speaker Series, SkyFest family events, and Virtual Exploration Experiences with Planetary Scientists (VEEPS) at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), for example, are popular programs. Based on their experiences, LPI recommends that events be designed with a limited number of objectives, such as increasing awareness and interest in planetary science. All these programs are enhanced when scientists and engineers interact with the public and share their stories.

Children participating in STEM activity

Meeting a scientist and participating in an engaging activity have the potential to increase a child’s STEM identity. Credit: LPI.

There is increasing research on public events that strives to answer questions: Why do audiences attend and what are their goals? What factors make an event more impactful? What are the long-term impacts of participating in public engagement events? When working with young audiences, repeated engagement events have the potential to increase awareness of planetary science, support a child’s interest in science, and empower an individual’s STEM identity — their ability to see themselves as scientists.

Science education involves more rigorous considerations, including alignment to education standards, curriculum, and assessment of learning gains. It is not something to be engaged in casually.

Participate in NASA Science Mission Directorate’s Science Activation Portfolio

The NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) also funds the Science Activation (SciAct) portfolio. These competitively selected projects serve lifelong learners (from kindergarteners to senior citizens) in all science disciplines across the U.S., D.C., and U.S. territories. Over 23 million learners were reached in 2021 through the network of 43 projects and 268 partnerships, many of which are planetary focused. The planetary science community is invited to participate!

The NASA SMD Community of Practice for Education (SCoPE) program connects scientists and engineers to NASA’s Science Activation effort. Planetary scientists are invited to attend a SCoPE event to learn more about different SciAct programs, share their expertise with audiences by partnering with a SciAct program, propose a collaborative NASA project by applying for a SCoPE Seed Grant, and join the NASA SCoPE Subject Matter Expert Database.

Library webinars through the SciAct program

Scientists gave webinars for libraries and their patrons in 2020 through the SciAct program NASA@My Library. Credit: LPI.

Planetary Resources and Content Heroes (ReaCH) conducts planetary engagement workshops for planetary scientists (including researchers, engineers, and graduate students) and informal educators who serve minority communities. In addition to providing their scientific expertise, planetary scientists participating in these workshops will learn best practices for engaging public audiences, with a focus on engaging Black and Latinx youth and their families.

The Planetary Learning that Advances the Nexus of Engineering, Technology, and Science (PLANETS) project is an out-of-school-time program for youth in grades 3–8 that provides STEM learning with an emphasis on integrating NASA planetary science and engineering, particularly for underserved audiences. PLANETS includes STEM units — each consisting of an engineering guide, a science guide, and educator resources — that the planetary community can use in their own public engagement programs.

The Infiniscope project creates digital learning experiences using NASA data and imagery that are inviting, accessible, and interactive for educators and learners of all ages. Infiniscope provides a virtual space to connect users with cutting-edge space exploration experiences that inspire curiosity, excitement, engagement, and confidence, offering a place where educators can collaborate and create their own interactive digital experiences. Scientists can leverage the developing tools or work with educators to create adaptive learning experiences.

The NASA Solar System Treks project produces a suite of online, web-based, interactive visualization and analysis portals. These tools enable mission planners, planetary scientists, students, and the public to explore the surfaces of a growing number of planetary bodies as seen through the eyes of many different instruments onboard a variety of spacecraft.

Other SciAct projects offer resources and roles for planetary scientists and engineers to leverage their expertise and share planetary science content. Some projects support programs at libraries and museums; the managers of these programs may be eager to partner with planetary scientists who can share their experiences, provide feedback on programs, and help conduct activities for their audiences. Other projects are developing curriculum and virtual programs; these benefit from the support of planetary scientists in helping to brainstorm interesting new topics, review scientific content, and participate in the development of resources such as videos for educators or the public.

Mentoring: Preparing and Supporting Students

One of the best ways for experienced planetary scientists to support future scientists is to mentor them. Many diverse students enter college with an interest in science and technology but are deterred by challenges and barriers. Having mentors who provide guidance and support can make a critical difference. The Summer Undergraduate Program for Planetary Research (SUPPR) is one example of planetary internship opportunities. In this eight-week summer internship, undergraduates participate in NASA planetary geosciences research under the direction of a NASA-sponsored planetary science investigator at various science institutions. Other college internships are available on the Division of Planetary Science (DPS) Research Experiences for Undergraduates website. The LPI Summer Intern Program in Planetary Science provides undergraduate students with an opportunity to perform cutting-edge research, learn from widely respected planetary scientists, and discover exciting careers in planetary science. During the 10-week internship, students have opportunities to participate in enrichment activities, including lectures and career development workshops.

In addition to mentoring an intern, planetary scientists and engineers can provide feedback to students and other early-career scientists as they prepare for conference presentations, such as at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) or the DPS Early Career Presenters Review. LPSC provides the opportunity for experienced attendees to mentor students for half a day, attending sessions together and learning to navigate the conference environment and meet other attendees.

Scientist mentoring student at poster session

Scientists provide critical feedback for a less-experienced presenter preparing for the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Credit: LPI.

There are also other workforce development programs that experienced planetary scientists and engineers can support. In SciAct’s NASA Community College Network, scientists partner with community college instructors teaching astronomy and space science courses. The SciAct’s NASA Neurodiversity Network invites scientists to apply to mentor neurodiverse high school students each summer. In the Center for Lunar Science and Exploration’s Exploration of the Moon and Asteroids by Secondary Students (ExMASS) program, planetary scientists are invited to mentor teams of students conducting authentic, inquiry-based lunar or asteroid research.

Planetary Efforts in Citizen Science

With so much data to analyze, questions to answer, and problems to solve, planetary science can often benefit from the assistance of volunteers. In 2018, NASA Science began an initiative to fund professional scientists working on projects where volunteers can help. Publications in peer-reviewed journals are still a requirement, but the movement is growing, with over 25 ongoing citizen science projects. This includes five NASA citizen science projects in planetary science that can engage a broad range of audiences. In particular, three of those projects can be done by anyone with just a cellphone or laptop. The planetary community is welcome to propose citizen science approaches to any NASA ROSES solicitation, including some that are targeted to this approach to collaborative science.

Examples of ongoing missions that include citizen science opportunities for the public are the OSIRIS-REx citizen science project Target Asteroids and the opportunity for people to select which pictures the JunoCam takes of Jupiter. Amateur astronomers have also been monitoring impact events on Jupiter for several decades, something that is very difficult for professional astronomers due to limited telescope time.

Support NASA’s Community and Volunteer Efforts

The planetary community can support and participate in activities and events being conducted by volunteers, clubs, and museums by connecting with NASA national coordination efforts. These groups welcome planetary scientists as speakers or participants in events, as well as to share planetary data and resources.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory coordinates the Solar System Ambassadors program, a public engagement effort that works with motivated volunteers across the nation to communicate the science and excitement of NASA’s space exploration missions and discoveries with the people in their communities. Volunteers apply to participate and conduct presentations and programs across the United States, and even internationally. Planetary scientists can apply to become an Ambassador, offer to present their science or share resources with Ambassadors, or contact the program to find other ways to support these volunteers and their programs.

Informal educators learn about lunar research

Solar System Ambassadors and other informal educators relished the opportunity to learn about lunar research from Dr. Rachel Klima. Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/LPI.

NASA’s Night Sky Network is a nationwide coalition of amateur astronomy clubs bringing the science, technology, and inspiration of NASA’s missions to the general public. Clubs share their time and telescopes to provide the public with unique astronomy experiences at science museums, observatories, classrooms, and under the real night sky. Planetary scientists can contact clubs to give in-person or virtual presentations, to join the clubs, and to discuss other ways to support their programs.

NASA’s Museum and Informal Education Alliance (MIE Alliance) brings current NASA science and technology to audiences through the professional development of informal education providers (e.g., museum, planetarium, library, camp, and scout staff) and by providing access to NASA staff and materials. Interested scientists may contact the MIE Alliance to disseminate their resources or share their science with this large national network.

Leverage National and International Events

There are frequent opportunities for scientists to share their enthusiasm for planetary science with audiences. For example, they may want to participate in the DPS’s Trick or Treat and Telescopes program to set up a telescope on Halloween. Scientists can celebrate a major planetary mission milestone like a launch or landing by working with a local museum, planetarium, library, or astronomy club to hold a public event. Celestial events can also be a natural draw for curious audiences — scientists may leverage the interest and media surrounding eclipses and meteor showers to conduct a public engagement event.

There are established annual programs that the planetary community supports. The International Observe the Moon Night is held annually, typically in September or October. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team has played a key role in developing and conducting this event, along with the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Ames Research Center, and the LPI. Everyone on Earth is invited to learn about lunar science and exploration, take part in celestial observations, and honor cultural and personal connections to the Moon. Like all planetary science events, this one relies heavily on the participation and support of the planetary science and engineering community.

Next Steps

For those planetary scientists and engineers who would like to participate but are not certain where to begin, the education and public engagement team at the LPI recommends that they learn more about engaging audiences by partnering with educators, by attending LPI’s Sharing Planetary Science seminars, or by applying to attend one of the Planetary ReaCH workshops. Scientists (including graduate students and other early-career scientists and engineers) should also consider contacting the communications and education specialists associated with their mission or NASA Center or university department, as well as other local organizations. Other opportunities include attending an education session during a science conference and talking with the attendees about their programs. The science education and communication communities are eager to work with the planetary science community and include scientists in programs for their audiences.

Sharing Planetary Science seminar

Scientists learning more about engaging audiences during a Sharing Planetary Science seminar. All planetary scientists are welcome and encouraged to participate in future seminars. Credit: LPI.



The author would like to thank the following for their contributions to this article: Grace Beaudoin, LPI; Lin Chambers, NASA; Kristen Erickson, NASA; and Andrew Shaner, LPI. Any errors are the author’s.