Come Together

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For those involved with public outreach, a major challenge is often just finding other people like you, even if they are at the very same institution. Last week in Arlington, VA, the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) hosted a convening to bring these individuals together. The goal of the two day conference, born out of the last summer’s NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning PI meeting, was to facilitate collaborations both national and regional, and allow for the sharing of ideas and best practices. A majority of attendees were education and outreach directors from NSF-funded centers and facilities, including several from NSF-supported Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs) and Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCIs), while others in attendance came from professional societies, national networks, and even the NSF itself.

Meeting facilitators began the convening by identifying a set of “knowns” and “unknowns” in the field of informal science education (ISE), as a way to nudge attendees towards developing action items that could be used to strengthen the “knowns” and turn the “unknowns” into “knowns.” Using this framework, participants then spent the rest of the meeting engaged in loosely-structured interactive discussions, focused on four primary topics:

  1. Designing and Evaluating Education and Outreach Programs at Centers and Large Facilities
  2. Working with ISE Institutions and Networks
  3. Current and Past Productive Areas of ISE Research
  4. Implications for ISE from Recent Science of Science Communication Findings

From these discussions, a prioritized list of needs was generated in order to determine actionable next steps. A lot of interest focused on the NSF’s Broader Impacts requirement for grant applications, something that will likely be a hot topic at the upcoming Broader Impacts Summit. Participants felt that it would be extremely beneficial for the community to develop resources, standardized guidelines and event trainings for Broader Impacts statements, which would not only help applicants but also reviewers and program officers.

Attendees additionally pushed for the development of a centralized repository that would allow for aggregation of all things outreach. This would include successful public engagement models and examples, resources such as evaluation tools, and potentially a map of existing networks and programs involved in any type of outreach, science communication, public engagement or informal science education. Several existing websites, including the informalscience.org website, the AAAS Trellis website and the ASBMB outreach website, are attempting to do just that.

Another area of need identified by meeting participants was the continued development of common spaces and venues that would allow for informal science professionals, STEM researchers, science communication experts and social scientists and evaluators to connect and develop activities and programs jointly. Similarly, there was much discussion of finding a way to lessen the divide between informal and formal STEM education, perhaps by working in conjunction with groups such as the National Science Teachers Association. Professional society meetings would seem to be obvious locations for such interactions, while CAISE is also looking at ways to host additional convenings.

Two of the major needs identified by participants that unfortunately lacked specific actionable items were increasing both funding resources and programmatic sustainability, common themes for those involved in the field.  However, attendees felt that building of networks and personal and institutional connections could at least help the field start coming up with solutions to these issues.

ASBMB will continue to work with groups like CAISE to help improve the practice of informal science education and expand the field of those involved with the public outreach. If you have questions about how to get involved, get in touch with us at outreach@asbmb.org.

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