Deeper stewardship practices

Science museum – research center partners can develop deeper, more grounded collaborations by making real efforts share underlying goals and perspectives. Here are some further characteristics of partnerships that have the potential to reach beyond their initial goals.

The partners cultivate cross-cultural insight and understanding. University science and engineering research departments on the one hand – and science museums on the other – each have particular and somewhat idiosyncratic organizational structures and values. They operate on different calendars, use different vocabularies, respond to different hierarchies and different motivating forces, and have wholly different arrays of staffing. For the most part, the individuals that inhabit these distinct types of organizations come from very different backgrounds; their assumptions, pathways and agendas don’t necessarily intersect. Thus the science museum participants in such a partnership should do their best to get to know and to understand the culture of the university research center. [Section One in this guide can help.] They should also do a very good job of communicating to the research center participants the culture of the science museum and the field of informal science education. To help with that, the NISE Net offers for university researchers the guide Bringing Nano to the Public: A Collaboration Opportunity for Researchers and Museums, by Wendy Crone. It provides a primer on science museums and on the practice of informal science education. It is available from the NISE Network at

The partners open more doors to each other.
Sometimes the simple courtesies of providing hassle-free access can help build friendship and familiarity, as well as advancing the work. The research center PI can be recognized by the Museum director and invited to participate in special events. Museum memberships, passes, and parking vouchers might be offered to partners and frequent guest researchers so that they and their graduate students can become familiar with all the museum has to offer. In turn, university research centers can provide campus website and wireless accounts for the museum staff who visit them frequently. A consultant-level university ID card can help the museum educator gain access to campus libraries and scientific journals to help them do background research. A parking pass provided for on-campus meetings is often a necessity. If the research center has an email list and online calendar, museum staff can be put on it and kept informed of seminars and other activities in the area of research they are reporting on. The more deeply the museum staff understands the university partner’s research field, they better they will be at translating it for broader audiences. They can attend the research center’s conferences and symposia when possible. They can also contribute to them by bringing posters, demonstrations and multimedia about the center’s education outreach efforts. A study by Randi Korn & Associates concluded that if partnerships involve extensive volunteer programs for scientists, these relationships succeed better when the science museum commits “requisite staff time, money, and resources” to their volunteer programs. [RK&A 2006, 6.] We have found, that lunch vouchers for graduate students who volunteer are very much appreciated.

Collaboration on educational content. The science museum partner owes the research partner a high level of professionalism in ensuring the accuracy of the content it develops and presents. Museums should be able to guarantee that the staff they hire or assign to the project have the proper training and the necessary skills to do a good job. These of course include science education and communication skills, but if the job involves interpreting current research for broad audiences, then the staff assigned should have or quickly acquire a somewhat sophisticated understanding of that field of research. Ideally they would have some research background of their own, which would help them quickly learn the key issues and terminology of the field they will be covering, so as to better consult with the partnering researchers, and they should also understand the field’s broader impacts and relevancies. Training in journalism or science journalism is often helpful. The staff should make every effort to be in touch with research and activities at the research center, getting to know scientists and students and learning about their ongoing research, while being a resource for them when they are addressing school or public audiences.

On the other hand, the science museum should maintain a level of editorial independence over content that ensures they are not merely acting as public relations liaisons for the university. A science museum’s integrity and the public perception of that integrity is one of its most valuable assets. Eighty-four percent of respondents to a 2008 Reach Advisors–ASTC study described information presented by science centers as “very trustworthy.” (Reach Advisors 2008). It’s our job to keep it that way. Most university partners will understand that this public trust is what makes science museums such ideal education outreach partners.

Many university researchers will be surprised at the level of simplification required for sharing scientific research effectively with broader audiences. In discussing strategy, I always make it clear to researchers that for most audiences, we need to be able to start at a very basic level of explanation. We often need to provide a broad contextual scope of work being done in the field – including work being done by other researchers and research centers. Otherwise, we risk doing the public a disservice – we risk distorting their view of the full breadth and depth of a field of research and becoming merely a public relations arm of the university. Our goal is to collaborate with the research group on increase public awareness and engagement in a field of science, with a particular up-close and personal view into the exciting research activities of a local team of researchers.

It is also the science museum’s job, of course, to ensure that the experiences they create are successful in engaging and educating their audiences, and that their exhibits and programs are safe, appropriate and accessible.

Professional development in science communication. Some researchers are happy to be content advisors and to leave the education outreach to the science museum experts. They do not want to have to try to teach or entertain public audiences, or to attend workshops to learn new informal science education or science communication skills. Others want very much to be involved, in making presentations, designing exhibits, and being part of special events, and may be quite eager to get some guidance from museum staff and even to attend some training sessions. Three museums involved in the NSF-funded Portal to the Public project have reported getting excellent feedback from scientists who were willing to attend even multi-week informal science education training programs. [Schatz, et al, 2010]. The RK&A study found, however, that “most scientist interviewees resisted being formally trained in an informal environment,” and preferred “learning through collaboration. … They envisioned a partnership where they could contribute knowledge and passion about content, and museum staff could contribute knowledge of learning theory, exhibit design, the public, etc.” (RK&A, 2005b. and June 2006, p. 5). At the Museum of Science, we try to approach these options flexibly. We offer one-on-one consultation on upcoming guest researcher appearances, as well as “sharing science” workshops and practicum and week-long internships for graduate students and post-docs, and we offer afternoon science summer communication workshops for REU and RET students associated with our research center partners. (REU stands for Research Experience for Undergraduates and RET stands for Research Experience for Teachers – two popular NSF grant programs.) The research center faculty are extremely pleased that their museum partner is also helping them cultivate the research communication skills of their students. [Donahue Institute, 2009, 2010].

One of the biggest frustrations for university partners is the relatively high staff turnover rate at science museums. It’s easy to see why, given that successful partnerships rely on building long-term relationships and museum staff becoming quite familiar with the research area at the center. As a museum manager, it is frustrating to invest time and resources in mentoring and coaching new staff – these are never “cookie-cutter” jobs – they require a unique combination of skills that need to be cultivated over time – and then see that person walk away to another position in another year or two. But for the university research center partner, it is also very frustrating that once their researchers have taken the time to welcome and bring a new person up to speed on their research and to plan collaboratively together, they then have to start the process all over again. Science museums not only need to have a fairly senior level person at the museum to be the primary liaison – someone who is not likely to leave in a couple of years, but also need to ensure that the work is funded well enough to attract and hold quality candidates and, if it is a long-term collaboration, that they come committed to stay for at least a few years.

Evaluating the partnership. Just as the educational activities the partnership produces can and should be subject to evaluation, so can the partnership itself. A true collaboration should be perceived by the partners as benefiting their own organizations as well as their intended audiences. Every so often it makes sense to deliberately reflect on and communicate about what is working and what could be improved, and to check whether expectations on both sides are being met. You don’t want stresses to build up that go unnoticed and un-communicated. One way to do this is to have an external evaluator conduct “stakeholder interviews” to help you assess the health of the partnership and to collect new ideas for improving both the collaboration and what it produces. Such interviews can be included as part of the evaluation of a large project the partners have undertaken together. Sometimes just a good reflection and brainstorming session over coffee and refreshments can freshen the collaboration with new ideas to explore. And since the media and technology landscape is always evolving, it’s always good to check whether the partners are availing themselves of the best current means of connecting with new audiences.

Next, in Section Three: Recruiting a Partner, we will look at how museums can evaluate what they have to offer prospective research center partners and how they can be proactive in recruiting a partner.

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