A Community of Practice

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Last week, dozens of informal science education stakeholders met in Washington D.C. for the biennial Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) Primary Investigator meeting, organized by the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE). The meeting provided a platform for outreach professionals to show off their National Science Foundation-supported programs, share insights and best practices, and confer with researchers and evaluators about future directions in the field.

The 2014 AISL PI Meeting ProgramThe first day featured technical assistance sessions for PIs, provided by NSF program officers and CAISE leadership. One session focused on evaluation in informal learning, one of the major themes for the conference. Attendees noted confusion about whether the intent of evaluation was to determine the effectiveness of projects for enhancing learning, or to simply determine whether the projects had met their goals. There was also a call for clarifying the distinction between evaluation of, and research on, informal learning.

On the second day, conference attendees were addressed by Joan Ferrini-Mundy, Assistant Director of the Education and Human Resources Directorate at the National Science Foundation. At the last PI meeting in 2012, Ferrini-Mundy stunned attendees with her decision to rebrand the NSF Informal Science Education (ISE) program as AISL, redirecting the program’s focus towards supporting research about learning in informal environments. This year, her remarks were much less controversial, instead touching upon on strategies for improving the visibility of informal education programs.

Attendees then split up into multiple breakout sessions:

  • Broadening Participation in Informal STEM Education
  • Connecting with Scientists: What are the Needs & Unexplored Opportunities?
  • How is Technology Building New Audiences for ISE?
  • ISE Contributions to the STEM Workforce
  • ISE Networks, Infrastructure & Resource Centers
  • Learning & Learning Environments: Research, Design & Implementation
  • Measuring Learning Across ISE Projects
  • Mining the Field: What Are We Learning?

Discussions ranged widely, though a common motif was how the lessons learned from current effective approaches can be applied more broadly to grow the field. Attendees also felt it important that the field include stakeholders beyond those supported by NSF, a point that was emphasized during a lunch panel that featured staff from several different federal agencies (including NASA, NOAA and the National Endowment for the Arts) talking about how their organizations supported informal STEM education programs.

PIs showed off their individual programs during an afternoon poster session. The diversity of programs ranged from small-scale programs at individual institutions to larger efforts like media projects and national outreach networks, covering the entire breadth of STEM fields.

For the conference’s final day, attendees got to choose from a series of open sessions nominated by their fellow PIs:

  • Cultural Competency And Cultural Relevancy Strategies For Broader Engagement And Impact
  • The Intersection Of Art As Science: Arts/Science Connection
  • STEM And Public Libraries
  • How Do You Measure Success?
  • ISE and Scientists: Helping Each Other Cross the Divide
  • What Are The “Big” Research Questions We Should Focus On Regarding Broader Participation In The Field?
  • Broadening Participation Through Media
  • Informal STEM Media/Tech/Social Media
  • Place-Based Education And Community Involvement
  • Learning In Public Places

One of the collective take-aways from these sessions was that the community needs to come up with strategies to ensure that the informal science infrastructure be set up so that existing programs and individuals can support each other. Such infrastructure should include clearly defined terms and goals, identification both of successful and unsuccessful approaches to doing informal education, making resources widely available and establishment of platforms for collaboration and interaction amongst stakeholders.

Given this infrastructure, the conference attendees determined that a logical next step is to demonstrate the importance and value of informal STEM education to those who are not currently engaged or involved. Attendees felt that both top-down and ground-up approaches could be used to build support for the informal education field and expand its reach and effectiveness. Potential ideas that were mentioned included a landscape study of existing informal education programs, a separate conference to discuss these themes, and drafting of a white paper to be shared with top administrators. Certainly laudable goals to aim for by the time the meeting returns in 2016.

A Storify of tweets from the conference can be found here.

Information about the conference can be found on the CAISE website.

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