University education & outreach coordinators


One of the advantages of working with research centers is that many of them have education and outreach coordinators. These are usually people with advanced training in science and engineering; often they have completed graduate or post-doctoral training, but have chosen to devote their time to education and mentoring rather than to research and teaching.

Education and outreach coordinators go by many titles. Kathryn Hollar, whose Ph.D. is in chemical engineering, serves as Director of Education for Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She describes the job this way:

Education and Outreach Coordinators for research centers work with center researchers and partners to engage the public in the excitement of research ongoing in the center. E&O coordinators also work to increase the diversity and number of individuals who pursue science and engineering careers. E&O coordinators are responsible for developing, implementing and evaluating programs such as research experiences for undergraduates, teachers, and high school students and for organizing special events that engage diverse audiences in learning about or discussing science and engineering topics relevant to the Center’s research.

E&O coordinators make natural allies and liaisons for the science museum staff working on the public engagement and professional development side of the partnership. E&O coordinators are familiar with the research interests and skills of the faculty and their students, and they know which faculty members both enjoy and are effective at communicating with broader audiences. E&O coordinators often have had experience working with teachers and with public audiences; they may have already been involved in developing hands-on demos and other outreach programs. They most likely will be thrilled to see a science museum partner join the center, as it will enhance access to the museum’s venues, audiences, and expertise, and offer the opportunity to find like-minded colleagues concerned about attracting young people to science and advancing science literacy. Andrew Greenberg, who has a Ph.D. in chemical education and serves as E&O coordinator for the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says,

We help each other. The Discovery Center Museum [Rockford, IL] helps us reach a younger audience. We learn a lot from them about building a narrative, packaging a story around the material that helps to hook the kids. They’re really good at that. We can apply this to our other focus, which is classroom instruction.

Andrew’s partner at the Discovery Center Museum, Associate Director Michael Rathbun, adds

It’s been invaluable for us. It’s made everything we need to do easier with our grant. We can pull together something pretty quick. Andrew’s been fantastic with us. We do after-school programming, library outreach, museum exhibits, NanoDays, and we’re building a carbon playground together.

The caution here is that the university-based E&O coordinators also have a lot on their plate. They are quite often responsible not just for education and outreach to the community; they may also manage center-associated REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) and RET (Research Experience for Teachers) programs, GK-12 programs, graduate student seminars and professional development programs, as well as diversity recruitment. Their time is quite limited.

Some universities have centralized offices of outreach and some have them organized by department or school. As COSI’s Kim Kiehl notes,

It can be quite confusing, even to a person like me who was an associate dean inside the system, to find the right person to start with and process requires great patience and someone to focus on this work. It also helps to find an ally at the highest level of the university to help open doors that you may not even know need to be opened!

The National Science Foundation’s Research Center Educators Network, or NRCEN, is a somewhat loosely organized association made up of E&O coordinators from NSF-funded centers. Many of them represent MRSECs, or NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers. Because MRSECs can be renewed every six years, without limit, and NSF explicitly requires them to have education outreach programs, many of them have fairly mature programs and full or part-time E&O coordinators. MRSEC education coordinators meet on a yearly basis, and share strategies for developing, implementing, and evaluating education outreach programs and for broadening diversity in science and engineering. A list of MRSECs and their education coordinators is published at www.mrsec.org.

Sometimes university-based E&O coordinators have expertise in informal science education and lead development of hands-on demos and other tools that can be used in science museum settings as well as in K-12 settings. Examples include the Interdisciplinary Education Group associated with the University of Wisconsin – Madison MRSEC, which produces the Exploring the Nanoworld website, and educators associated with the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, who produce demos, course units, and an online children’s magazine. E&O coordinators are usually happy to share what they’ve produced with science museums and during community science festivals. They also sometimes organize graduate student volunteers for education outreach.

Sometimes, the first contact between a science museum and a research center sometimes comes from a university-based science museum coordinator. For example, Daniel Steinberg, the Princeton University MRSEC E&O director, has reached out both to the Liberty Science Center and the New York Hall of Science. He wrote:

Science centers and museums, already accustomed to dealing with a variety of audiences, have staff trained in the communication science concepts. They are well situated to assist research facilities in meeting outreach goals. The relationship is beneficial for both partners. The researchers gain greater visibility and reach a bigger audience, and the science [museum] gains effective and interesting public programming that can help boost attendance.

At times, it is a research faculty member who is inspired to catalyze education outreach activities for a university research center. For instance, Gary Harris, director of the Howard University Nanotechnology Initiative, conceived and carried out the design and implementation of NanoExpress, a mobile laboratory that visits schools and sometimes science museums. Ainissa Ramirez, a materials science researcher on the faculty of Yale’s MRSEC, established Science Saturdays, a popular series of family events on campus. Carol Barry, a research faculty member of the Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing, oversees many of the education outreach activities for the Center, including the Center’s partnership with the Museum of Science in Boston.

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