Epistemic status: uncertain about reasoning and effectiveness of proposed strategy, highly certain that it’s good to try out. Could be projecting a lot.
TL;DR: Specifically targeting STEM, logic, debate, and philosophy competitors with short outreach could increase high school outreach effectiveness as it would select for high-performing students who are more likely to engage with EA ideas. This would give these individuals more time to think about career choice and enable them to start building flexible career capital early and might make them more open to engaging with EA in the future. Short exposures to EA might be most effective.
This is heavily based on a discussion with Richard Annilo, who originally put a similar idea forward. I want to thank him for the great discussion we had. Thanks to Alison Xin for very helpful feedback!
Increasing effectiveness by targeting competitors
Posts on the EA Forum have already discussed reaching out to high school students about EA. It seems that university outreach is more effective than high school outreach according to current metrics, and that one of the main factors making high school outreach ineffective is a lack of selection.
I want to discuss a possible modification to the strategy of high school outreach - specifically targeting high-level STEM (+logic, philosophy, and debate) competitors.
It seems that this narrowing down would select for people who would be more likely to act on EA ideas. This could also simultaneously select for high-impact individuals.
As many other members of this community have stated, I would have benefited significantly if I'd heard of EA sooner, and I think the main benefit would be the extra time I'd be able to research EA topics, career choice, and college choice. High school students probably have more time to spend researching similar topics than college students do.
Anecdotal evidence and uncertainties
This mainly stems from my observations gathered on the competitions I've participated in around 2 or 3 years ago, and from conversations I've had with other highly-engaged EAs.
I've noticed that at least around half of the highly engaged EAs I've brought up the subject with have competed in STEM or debate. Maybe we should run some sort of survey asking HEAs about this?
There might be some heavy selection bias happening (I interact with people similar to me, or I notice such people more). There might also be some projection going on here, where I assume the other competitors are more similar to me than they actually are.
For context, I've participated in a few national competitions and one international one. I'm from Croatia so my points might not hold in countries with different competition systems.
Common EA-aligned traits in competitors
These are some traits I've noticed in other competitors that might make them more prone to engaging with EA:
- Scientific/rational mindsets
- Propensity to like philosophy
- Affinity towards reading books
- Extensive internet use for knowledge and community
- Relatively common discussions on ethics and philosophical problems, like the trolley problem, the existence of god, abortion, teleportation, existential risk
- It might be relevant to add that these tend to be held without knowledge about philosophical/rationalist lingo. I'd say the best explanation for this is that most of the people who participate in these discussions haven't come to the point where they seek out literature or communities on these issues.
- It could also be that I've noticed this because I am quite likely to start philosophical and ethical discussions, but I remember instances where other people started these discussions as well.
Possible low-cost tests
Some low-cost ways to test the waters could be:
- Holding talks about EA at competitions
- Holding giving games at competitions
- Giving out books at competitions
- Using competition mailing lists to promote EA
I think the most effect can be probably had by targeting third-year or fourth-year students, as students in their first or second year probably think much less about college/career choice.
I think that the most effectiveness would probably be achieved by keeping these exposures short (around an hour long). I'm very uncertain how much effect "planting a seed" about EA has, but I'd say that being once exposed to EA might make someone more willing to engage with it in the future. It might be that compared to college students, high school students have less resistance towards attending an event about something that they aren’t very interested or knowledgeable in (as there has been less career/interest lock-in).
When I say "at competitions", I mean at the talks and events that are held for competitors before or after competitions. In Croatia it's common to arrive at a hotel one or two days before a competition and participate in prepared talks and events during this time. Someone who participated in US science competitions (Alison Xin) confirmed that this is also common in the US.
Some more thoughts
This would in its selection effect probably be similar to projects like the numerous applied rationality summer schools. It would cost much less, which could allow for relatively easy testing and iteration.
I'd predict that exposing national or international STEM, logic, philosophy, and debate competitors would very likely get 5% of the participants interested in EA (where maybe signups to a book giveaway and follow up emails could be used as a proxy).
This strongly aligns with my thinking around high school outreach opportunities:
Participating in ISEF, mock trial, and Science Bowl (and following others who did through their careers) makes one realize how a) impact-oriented, and b) career-centric many of these student competitors are. Several friends knew at age 17 they wanted to pursue PhDs or JDs. They went ahead and obtained those degrees, and come 2021 they are vocal faculty members at prominent law schools or U.S. colleges. Expanding this category of student's "mental menu" of great career options to include:
Strikes me as a very exciting opportunity for 2022 and beyond. Thank you for your write-up here!
I have a similar model to you about these students. How in touch are you with current high schoolers doing this kind of thing?
Just to note these:
- Outreach to high schoolers has been tried in the form of Students for High Impact Charity. Their postmortem is here https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/3HaXa7dtu86NQNEZJ/shic-will-suspend-outreach-operations
- I think I recall that one of the EA funds (longterm or meta) funded a project to give top math competitors copies of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I'm not sure whether any retrospective for that effort is available.
Agreed that this is promising! From my perspective in the outreach space (high school teacher, SPEAR/ESPR instructor, had lots of conversations about this at EAG with people running other outreach), this is generally well-accepted, though afaik debate and non-math but still STEM competitions haven't been implemented yet*, and I've been pushing for that.
There's few enough people in these competitions (especially in UK/US, which Richard Annilo may not have been talking about) that I think there's a definite risk of over reaching out to the same people (and generally coming on too strong), so I'd recommend communication before action, but I think if folks have specific connections to the relevant communities, they should definitely make that known and they might be the right liasons for suggesting summer programs/readings/internships through the competitions themselves or through the social networks that come out of them.
If someone has these connections, I'm super happy to talk to anyone considering doing this kind of outreach (or can recommend other people to talk to). Just message me through my profile here.
*I've been in touch with a science bowl and mock trial student who is running an EA related science bowl and considering doing some outreach at mock trial national competitions. It's definitely possible there's other outreach I don't know about.
+1! For debate, I believe the EA Debate Championship and Lecture Series would offer some useful lessons. It was for college debate, and I haven't heard of anything similar being done for HS debate (but it's quite possible that I've missed something).
Many top universities in the US host HS debate tournaments (often as a money-making activity for the club). It seems plausible to me that at least one of the major uni debate societies would be open to sponsoring an EA-related tournament (or perhaps have one or two rounds that are focused on EA topics). Has anyone tried this?
If someone wants to try this: I did HS debate semi-competitively and college debate (American Parliamentary Debate) during my first two years of college [at Harvard]. If anyone is interested in learning more about the debate circuit, feel free to reach out! (I'm sure there are other EAs who were more involved in the HS/college debate scene, so if one of them comments, reach out to them instead!).
Hey! I have been on the lookout for people connected to debate. I was my school's Public Forum debate coach for four years, but I wouldn't want it to come from me, and I don't work at that school anymore. I spoke with one very good mock trialler recently who might try out speaking to his organizations and the national competitions. If you're still in contact with high school debaters, let's talk!
I also wanted to chime in about debate. For context, I did Lincoln-Douglas debate (LD) competitively throughout high school.
I think many LDers could be good targets for outreach. Many ideas from EA come up extensively in LD. In particular: different moral theories and arguments for/against them, cost/benefit analysis, moral hedging to deal with moral uncertainty, arguments for existential risk reduction, and focus on existential risks. Note that debaters bastardize many of these arguments and concepts, but I think this introduction is useful nonetheless. LD was certainly where I first heard names like Bostrom, MacAskill, Singer, and Parfit. More generally, I think LD inculcates many attitudes and skills that can be useful for EAs. Debating LD well requires extensive research of policies, thinking hard about how to apply moral theories to concrete problems, and thinking through both sides of issues.
I should note a major caveat to what I said above. Much of the LD community and discussions within LD are not the sort of EA debates I noted above. There is much sophistry and arguing over rules. Moreover, the LD community is fairly left politically (at least based off arguments many people read) and so I imagine there could be some pushback to outreach efforts.
If anyone is interested in learning more about LD, or US high school debate more generally, I'm happy to talk about it!
Cool! Are you still in contact with friends still in high school and doing LD?
Unfortunately, at this point I have relatively limited contact with current LDers -- there are some I know, but not very well. I do know
some people who are important within the LD community (e.g., run debate camps or major tournaments), but I am not very involved in LD anymore.
If any of the people who run debate camps or major tournaments are into EA or open to it, I'd be excited about talking to them or intro-ing them to other people, fwiw.
Glad to see discussion and suggestions for ways to reach out to people currently still at school! Thanks for the contribution.
"I want to discuss a possible modification to the strategy of high school outreach - specifically targeting high-level STEM (+logic, philosophy, and debate) competitors. It seems that this narrowing down would select for people who would be more likely to act on EA ideas."
My sense is that this slightly misrepresents the current landscape. I think that, when it comes to school outreach, there are many possible combinations of the following variables:
(1) age of target audience, e.g. 11-15 years old, 16-18 years old, 18 years old only, etc. (2) outreach methods and proxies that you use as indicators of promisingness, e.g. high performing schools, olympiad participants, performance on an application process, recommendation from teachers, etc. (3) format, e.g. written online advice, an online course, a summer camp, an after school club, integrated into assemblies, etc. (4) focus cause/intervention area, e.g. all of EA, longtermism, extinction risk reduction, AI safety, rationality, etc. (5) "ask" and key metrics you, e.g. changing degree programmes, signing up for a newsletter, reading X resources, joining an EA group once they reach university, etc. (6) marketing strategy, e.g. career benefits, help you land a place at uni, impactful in itself, intrinsically interesting, etc.
I think that very few of the possible permutations have been tried. So your post proposes something specific within the second variable category I offered. That seems good, and I'd be keen to see more exploration. But I don't think that there's a very extensive current "strategy of high school outreach." Given that the EA movement currently has quite a lot of funding and there are a decent number of people interested in EA movement building, I think the focus should be more on adding to the current portfolio of efforts than redirecting it.
It's possible we already agree here and I was just reading too much into your exact phrasing.
One even more nitpicky comment:
"It seems that university outreach is more effective than high school outreach according to current metrics, and that one of the main factors making high school outreach ineffective is a lack of selection."
I think I've read all the posts in the Forum's "effective altruism outreach in schools" tag, and neither of the two clauses in this summary sentence fitted well with my memory/impression. I'd be interested in elaboration, clarification, or supporting links/evidence if you're happy to provide it!
Thanks for your engagement with this important topic.