A Community of Practice


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 National Day of Making


Sometimes you don’t need to wear an athletic uniform to be featured in a photo-op with the President of the United States. Sometimes you can just be a scientist. Case in point: the inaugural White House Maker Faire on June 18. A mix between show and tell and a science fair, the Maker Faire showcased, in the words of President Obama, how to “learn by doing,” demonstrating the practical applications of science and math.

White House Maker Faire“What on earth have you done to my house?” exclaimed Obama to the eclectic group of invitees, comprised of professional and amateur scientists and engineers of all ages, as he examined the dozens of inventions scattered throughout the White House. “Smart” furniture, 3-D printers, LED devices and life-size robotics were among the featured creations on display. Meanwhile, virtual participants from around the world joined the fun online, posting pictures and videos of their own additions to the Maker Faire mix.

That disruptive mindset is a particularly appropriate attribute of the Maker Faire movement that began in 2006 in the California Bay Area. Advertised as a “family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness”, the Maker Faire is a gathering place for inventors, creators, designers, scientists and artists, who all convene to share their work and their process. “We are all makers,” claims Maker Faire founder Dale Dougherty. This year, over 100 cities will host their own versions, culminating in the World Maker Faire in New York on September 20-21.

Importantly for the STEM community, events such as the Maker Faire provide an unparalleled opportunity to bring their efforts to the general public. Combined with the now-annual White House Science Fair, the Maker Faire is part of a broader trend that has seen the Obama administration be a continuous champion for STEM. With this kind of support, the President might be in line for an honorary lab coat.

Back to the Future


Here, (nearly) inside the Beltway, a common theme is talking about how a certain decision or policy will affect “future generations.” We hear it from the President during the State of the Union, members of Congress on talk shows, journalists online and in print, even scientists. But what if, instead of simply throwing an empty phrase around, there was a straightforward way for scientists to actually reach out to this “future generation,” to do something meaningful to inspire and help them?

Well, there is (obviously, or else there wouldn’t be much to read about in this post). Over the next few months, numerous STEM competitions will be taking place all over the country, featuring K-12 students participating in a wide variety of events that highlight their creativity, passion and engagement with science. ASBMB is calling on our members to take a few hours to volunteer (in any capacity) at these competitions, to help connect with, inspire and motivate this generation of future scientists.

For the majority of K-12 students, science competitions represent their most direct extracurricular scientific experience. Perhaps the most well-known competition is the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Started in 1950, the fair has grown to include more than 7,000,000 annual participants from over 70 countries. Students design projects in seventeen separate STEM categories, and take part in a tiered competition, starting with regional fairs before moving on to the state, and finally national, tournaments.

ASBMB member Laura Bohn from Scripps Research Institute presents Lillian Richards with an official certificate from ASBMB for her winning biochemistry project "Enzyme Time" at the 2014 Palm Beach Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

ASBMB member Laura Bohn from Scripps Research Institute presents Lillian Richards with an official certificate from ASBMB for her winning biochemistry project “Enzyme Time” at the 2013 Palm Beach Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

ASBMB member Laura Bohn from Scripps University recently served as a judge for biochemistry projects at the Palm Beach Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

“I was interested in experiencing how important science is to my school district,” said Bohn, “and I wanted to get a sense of what the students were learning in these schools.” She added, “[it] was worth the effort.”

Another major competition is Science Olympiad, which involves students working in teams to solve a series of STEM-themed challenges that are based on state science standards. ASBMB has worked directly in past years with state directors in Oklahoma and Hawaii to facilitate participation by ASBMB members as competition mentors, coaches and judges.

Numerous other examples of STEM competitions abound, including the Siemens Competition, the DuPont Challenge Science Essay Competition, and the Robotics Fest.

Beyond the thrill of victory (not to mention the potential for prizes and prestige), these competitions present an opportunity for participating students to interact directly with scientists, which has been shown to be a positive predictor of attitudes towards science and interest in choosing science as a career. Think back to when you were in primary school, first getting interested in science. What would it have meant to meet an ACTUAL SCIENTIST? The impact you can have will last a lifetime. The best way to ensure the success and vitality of future generations is to make sure that they are encouraged and excited by science right from the start. Not just the winners, but every single student who competes. They are demonstrating an interest in, and large commitment to, science, and your participation will positively reinforce that dedication. So get out there and use this opportunity to actually inspire that future generation. Instead of just talking about it.

Interested in participating? There is assuredly a competition taking place in your area. Check out a state-by-state listing of different events on our website: