Science Cheerleader

Darlene Cavalier rehearses with students before their record-breaking science cheer.

Darlene Cavalier rehearses with students before their record-breaking science cheer. (Darlene Cavalier)

As a University of Pennsylvania graduate with a shiny new master’s degree, I set out on a crusade to reopen the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). I was naïve and delusionally optimistic perhaps, but this quest was a very personal one. 

In 2005, while writing a research paper about this well-oiled machine, I learned that the OTA was one of the few government agencies that had worked almost entirely as envisioned, despite its limited budget. The agency provided Congress with nonpartisan, in-depth analysis on emerging science and technology issues until it was defunded in the early 1990s as part of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. (Meanwhile, other countries were establishing comparable entities and including citizen input.) In my research I stumbled upon the work of citizen scientists who number in the millions: people like me with no hard academic backgrounds who are deeply interested in science, especially science policy and science literacy. I thought, “What if we could reopen the OTA and harness the vitality of our citizen scientists?”

Up to this point my relationship with science mirrored that of millions of other tax-paying Americans: spectator and funder. I believed there had to be a way to tap the enthusiasm, curiosity, and personal experiences of people like me. I started to publish papers on the need to reopen the OTA and began a blog called Science Cheerleader that focused on this issue. But how was I to convince policy makers and the public in the midst of what some were calling an “anti-science” political climate?  And, perhaps more daunting, how was I to prove to the science community that “average” people can learn about and participate in the often complex discussions of emerging science and technology policies? As improbable as it might seem, I started with what I knew: cheerleading.

As a former college and professional cheerleader who had cut her marketing teeth at the Walt Disney Company, I knew something about capturing attention. My first stop was the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom I was a cheerleader from 1990 to 1993. In 2009 their cheerleaders participated in a zero-budget video series I dreamed up that was tied to George Mason University’s science-literacy course for adults. In the first two weeks more than 20,000 people viewed the videos, earning coverage on Fox News and in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which praised the videos’ innovative approach to reaching broader audiences. This activity also uncovered an untapped resource: the hundreds of current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders pursuing science and technology careers. After seeing Science Cheerleader in the news, these “real” science cheerleaders got involved. The blog’s focus quickly changed to accommodate our changing audience—girls and their moms—and the cheerleaders claimed the name Science Cheerleaders for themselves. Today, the group travels the country spreading the gospel of science while playfully challenging stereotypes and inspiring young women to consider pathways in science and engineering.

Most promising has been the response of students. Recently, the Science Cheerleaders rallied 1,300 Pop Warner cheerleaders to perform a synchronized cheer for science, setting a new Guinness World Record in the process—a record previously held by China.

The Science Cheerleaders have proven to be an effective, if unorthodox, vehicle to reach underrepresented populations and help point them to science and engineering careers. Along with the blog, the group also connects people of all ages and demographics to citizen-science projects through a sister site, scistarter.com. This site connects millions of regular people to hundreds of research projects organized by universities and government labs, such as the cryosphere researchers who need help measuring real-time snow accumulation to better calibrate satellite weather sensors or the astronomers who need to sort through online images to classify galaxies. Volunteers can also sift through soil (conveniently mailed to their homes) from a dig site to help researchers better understand the environment of a 15,000-year-old mastodon skeleton unearthed in Hyde Park, New York. There’s no shortage of opportunities in scientific research today. Unfortunately, too few doors are open to public participation in science policy.

Efforts to reopen the OTA with citizen input have not died. What has emerged is an independent network that engages everyday citizens in science- and technology-policy issues, with responses disseminated from citizens to key decision makers before policies are set. This network, known as ECAST (Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology) was cofounded by Science Cheerleader, the Boston Museum of Science, Arizona State University, the Loka Institute, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. ECAST is currently developing activities centered on biodiversity. Science Cheerleader will help spread the results to the public, while the Woodrow Wilson Center will develop white papers and reports for Congress and other policy-making entities. The goal is to create a sustainable toolkit for anyone seeking public participation in emerging science policy.

I would love to believe that some of those 1,300 record-setting young cheerleaders will someday look back and think, “I know what turned me onto science. I was at a cheerleading competition, and we were invited to break a world record with a cheer about science.” Maybe by then public participation in science and science policy will be standard operating procedure, and science will be so intertwined with our daily lives that everyone working on public engagement in science will be out of business. Perhaps I should start thinking about another degree.

Darlene Cavalier is the founder of sciencecheerleader.com, a website that promotes the involvement of citizens in science and science-related policy.

The print edition of this article included misspellings in the fifth paragraph. Chemical Heritage regrets the error.