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.

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.

A Special CAISE

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When ASBMB made its formal foray into science outreach a few years ago, the first step was to undertake an assessment of the organizations and programs already out there doing outreach. Our goal was to identify who was doing what and how they were doing it, in order to figure out how our efforts could be most effective. One of the most thorough, useful programs that we identified was the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), an National Science Foundation-funded initiative that aims to “strengthen and advance the field of professional informal science education and its infrastructure by providing resources for practitioners, researchers, evaluators and STEM-based professionals.”

CAISE banner

In the August issue of ASBMB Today, we get an in-depth look at CAISE and how it can be used by ASBMB members, thanks to a comprehensive interview with CAISE staff Jamie Bell and Kalie Sacco. In the article, they recount the history of CAISE, describing the motivation for its founding in 2007 and talking about how the project has grown since then. The main focus of the article is on the centerpiece of CAISE’s efforts, the informalscience.org website. This site, which contains thousands of case studies and professional resources, is a great starting point for all ASBMB members who are involved with outreach, regardless of whether they are at the planning or evaluating stage.

InformalScience.org Homepage

 

But CAISE is more than just a website. This week, CAISE is set to host the semi-annual Advancing Informal STEM Learning PI meeting in Washington D.C. NSF-funded participants will convene to share their outreach and informal STEM education experiences, and to hear from NSF leadership about future directions. The conference also serves as a wonderful networking opportunity, as informal educators from across the country build connections with other dedicated individuals in the field. Check back with the Cellular Culture blog for a full recap!