How can science museums serve the research community?


We know that many university-based researchers are aware that connections with science museums can help them achieve “broader impacts” type requirements; however, they don’t often contact museums early enough in the research grant proposal development process to develop a true collaboration with a well thought-through plan and a budget that will support it. If you have decided it is in the best interest of your organization and your community to proactively seek strategic partnerships with university-based research centers, so that come proposal writing time, you are on the playing field instead of in the stands, you’ll want to develop what in most industries would be called a marketing plan. In the case of your non-profit organization, what this really means is that – having already thought hard about how such a partnership will contribute to the pursuit of your organizational mission – you now think hard about what your organization has to offer potential university research partners. Here’s a look at what science museums can offer in general and in some specific examples; it’s up to you to customize these possibilities in a way that’s a reflection of your own organization.

The overall gestalt: celebrating the culture of science
Science museums are conveyors of culture – the cultural quest for scientific understanding of our world – and the culture of wonder, discovery and invention. They help us honor these key aspects of the human spirit and human achievement. Science museums celebrate visionary scientists, explorers and inventors the way art museums celebrate visionary painters and sculptors, and the way symphonies celebrate visionary musicians and composers. For practicing researchers and for the many professions and industries based on STEM expertise, science museums are the monuments, showcases, and playgrounds championing the scientific worldview and civilization’s constant quest for new knowledge and new technology that can better our lives.

Science museums inspire youngsters to learn more science, to be curious and explore, to tinker, and to think scientifically. They enrich the student and teacher experience of the world of research in ways that cannot be so readily accomplished in the classroom. They help to recruit a new generation of innovators. And they help to form ties between the university and its surrounding community.

There are also very specific resources that science museums can provide to researchers who want to pursue broader community outreach, resources not readily available on university campuses.

The Venue
Many universities offer public science lectures and programs; however, the fact that most of these events are held on the university campus, often in a lecture hall, can limit the kinds of audiences who will attend.

Physical as well as social and cultural considerations filter potential attendees. Often by design, the campus signals an aura of exclusion to the surrounding community; it is meant to provide an oasis of intense scholarship where students and faculty focus on the production and sharing of knowledge, protected from the buzz of daily business and commerce. The university must protect its undergraduates, many of whom are minors. Thus, the borders of the campus tend to be only semi-permeable: local community members aren’t exactly banned; but neither are they entirely welcomed. Parking can be scarce. Campus maps are complex. The layout of buildings and laboratories can be confusing, designed for pedestrians who live on campus. Many doors are locked or require an ID card. Publicity for on-campus events tends to stay on-campus, in the form of banners on buildings and posters tacked on bulletin boards or taped to utility poles. It is not surprising that science “outreach” events held on campus tend to collect familiar audiences – faculty families, students, alumni, and elder community members who have long participated in campus lectures and concerts as a form of continuing education and culture.

Science museums, by contrast, are designed as destinations for public audiences – that is their very reason for being. They have already worked out the parking, the scheduling, the marketing to the community, the access to refreshment and restrooms and coatrooms, the variety of offerings that facilitate the diverse needs of families, school groups, and other various groupings of visitors. There are convenient infrastructures in place for essentials like volunteer services, van and bus pick-ups and drop-offs, welcoming areas, storage of coats and backpacks, information and security services, reservation-taking, family-friendly restrooms, carts and demonstration tables, and after-hours audio-visual needs. Most everything is designed to be touched, and, if necessary, can endure the play and enthusiastic release of youthful energy.

Science centers and museums are simply better places to engage community audiences – and especially youthful audiences – than are most school, university, or industry campuses.

The Flexibility
There are so many creative ways that a science museum can work with a research center partner to engage people in science and engineering. There are programs, exhibits, special events, workshops, media, websites, classes, lectures, school programs, van programs, professional development training, and so on.

Researchers who do not relish the idea of being face-to-face with public audiences can instead work with science museum presenters and explainers and with hands-on activity designers to find unique approaches to share their experiences and insights. They can also work with museum educators to help train their students how best to communicate their research to broader audiences.

In the past, many researchers sought to target the majority of their education outreach energies and resources toward direct work with neighborhood schools and K-12 educators. These opportunities are less abundant these days, as K-12 systems have had to focus more closely on standardized frameworks, curricula, and testing. Teachers have fewer days to bring greater numbers of students to higher levels of achievement on state-mandated requirements. They also have less time to spend with individual scientists helping them understand how to work successfully with particular groups of students.

The Audiences
Along with the appropriate venues, and flexible formats, science museums provide access to significant and extensive audiences. Indeed, the Association of Science–Technology Centers reported over 60 million visits to its 343 U.S. science center and museum members in 2008. [Ruffo 2010] In the 2008 National Science Board Science and Engineering Indicators, researcher Jon Miller cites statistics that “indicate that about three of five American adults visited an informal science education institution in the year preceding the survey.” About twenty to twenty-five percent of adults visited science and technology museums, many of them accompanied by children. [Miller 2008, c.7s.1]. It seems extraordinary, but the Museum of Science in Boston, is the most highly visited cultural destination in all of New England – after Fenway Park, of course – entertaining about 1.4 million visitors a year.

Science museums are also one of the few destinations where families can safely and relatively inexpensively spend their leisure time and learn together, particularly when indoor activity is called for. All generations can be engaged, and the conversations that occur between generations have been found to catalyze further learning and engagement.

The fact that people who enjoy science seek out science museums, and that kids go to them expecting to have fun, is a great boon for the success of the educational mission. It means that people enter the science museum environment open to learning and exploring. They expect to engage and to be engaged. These expectations, when well met, create a positive feedback loop for further learning and inquiry. One other factor that helps significantly is the levels of confidence visitors have in the reliability of the information they receive in science museums. Eighty-four per-cent of respondents in a 2008 Reach Advisors – ASTC study described the information presented by science centers as “very trustworthy.” [Reach Advisors / ASTC 2008].

Science museums regularly host regional school field trips and labs, enriching science and engineering curricula at all grade levels. Many museums help K-12 educators plan visits that help them address specific U.S. and state and local curricula framework standards. Some science museums also have their own school traveling van programs and community outreach programs. They provide free family passes for borrowers at public libraries and community centers. Many museums provide accommodations for people with disabilities; in some communities they’ve begun to introduce bilingual and multilingual signage.

Science museums can also reach well beyond their local community. Some produce popular websites and podcasts, accessible worldwide. Some have YouTube channels. The Museum of Science, Boston provided for many years twice-weekly live science news reports to a New England cable news station that reaches tens of thousands of television and Web viewers, a model that might be more broadly shared.

The bottom line is that science museums can reach many more people, and more diverse communities of people, than can researchers and education outreach directors on college or corporate campuses. Science museums reach teachers as well as students; adults as well as kids; suburbanites and urbanites; English majors and auto mechanics; doctors and patients; civic leaders and taxpayers; tourists and long-time residents; the science-attentive and the just plain curious, all out for a learning adventure.

The Expertise
It is sometimes difficult to explain to research professionals, especially those who are already successful university instructors and mentors, that success in these realms won’t necessarily translate to the world of informal science education and to the task of engaging public audiences in science.

University teaching involves one set of skills, K-12 teaching another range of skills, and informal science education requires almost an entirely different set of skills. A science museum can provide great venues and excellent audiences, but the lecture or activity or exhibit developed by research professionals will likely have little impact if it is not designed with these audiences and environments in mind.

Science museums are often defined as “free-choice” learning zones, a term coined by John Falk and Lynn Dierking. They must rely on stimulating curiosity, excitement and engagement in order to attract and hold their audiences; in contrast to the K-12 litany of homework requirements, tests, and grades. Most museum visitors would rather learn through inquiry and hands-on engagement than through lectures and reading. Families, with members at different stages of cognition, experience, and interest, look for experiences that can provide something for all.

Designing “free-choice” science education experience for broader audiences is both an art and a craft, with a theoretical underpinning in theory and research. It’s not for amateurs. It’s a profession that requires training in both science and education and often a long apprenticeship in the practical arts of winning hearts and minds through the construction of engaging stories, experiences, and activities. While many people, including scientists and engineers, have a real knack for these skills, and others have the potential to develop them with practice and training, most STEM researchers have not had the time to pursue the acquisition of these skills through training, persistent experimentation, prototyping, and evaluating with real audiences. It takes a lot of time even for skilled ISE professionals to go through these iterative processes, repeatedly, until they have something that works. Like engineers, ISE professionals use evidence-based knowledge and experience, explore a variety of materials and approaches, experiment with various combinations of concepts and activities, language, sensory media, and delivery methods in their quest to spark the visitors’ imagination and engage their minds and hearts.

This gets to the heart of the partnership concept between science museums and research centers. It’s a collaboration aimed at inspiring people. Researchers bring the scientific knowledge and scientific expertise, the authenticity, and often the funding. Science museum staffers bring the educational insight and expertise for shaping engaging and meaningful experiences around the scientific research. The museums provide suitable venues, multiple approaches and ready audiences.

For researchers interested in or required to participate in education and outreach activities, partnering with a science museum and its professional staff can truly enhance and magnify their impact.

Preparing plans for a new NSF-funded Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center based at Harvard, it was clear that we must actively engage the public. Many professors would like to inform the public about nanoscience, but aren’t always sure how to do this in an entertaining way. On the other hand, science museums are keen to get people’s attention, show them what is happening, and get them to think about the big ideas. An active collaboration between academic researchers and science museums is an excellent way to involve the public.

– Bob Westervelt, Harvard University

If you are going to do science outreach right, you need to be under the tutelage of the science museum community. We live in a short-attention span world, and although science is engaging by itself, scientists may not be the best candidates to come up with attention-grabbing ideas. Science museums are highly skilled at capturing the attention of young people. They do it all the time and do it well.

– Ainissa Ramirez, Yale University

How do you actually represent things that are at the billionth of a meter, and how do you do that effectively? In K-12 education, we often think about teaching, but we don’t have the time and resources to think about things like art and design and how to use those to best advantage. And the informal science education world, is a great way to help those of us who work in other areas of science think about education in new ways.

– Gail Jones, North Carolina State University

The reason we’re partnering with a science museum is that they are experienced, and they do very well in communicating with the public and presenting science in a simple way that the public can understand … they’re like our segue to the public, they’re our conduit. … Because, we don’t do that very well, we’re not experienced in making sure that our presentations appeal to the public; we’re not good at making exhibits, we’re not good at making events that are public-focused, that appeal to everyone, not just scientists or students that have science background.

– Ahmed Busnaina, Northeastern University

Our ongoing collaboration and partnership with The Franklin Institute has been both a pleasure and an inspiration for both myself and for numerous students, postdocs and other faculty in the MRSEC, and it’s been beneficial to us on many levels. Our students, postdocs and faculty can see – and participate in – museum outreach from the inside. The museum staff is very knowledgeable about how to present science to children and families, how to develop a show, how to obtain feedback and assessment of the effectiveness of the shows, and also how to distribute the products of our collaborative efforts to a broader audience (including a network of other museums). As the noted by a visiting NSF Advisory Committee, “The work with the Franklin Institute represents impressive national visibility.”

– Tom Mallouk, Pennsylvania State University

A living laboratory for developing science communication skills
Partnerships with science museums can also provide research centers with a living laboratory for their students to engage in skill-building exercises in science communication. Several science museums have partnerships with research centers focused primarily on providing this specialized opportunity; others integrate it into a wide spectrum of education and outreach partnership or sub-award collaborations.

Fueled with an NIH “Partners in Research” grant for their new Genome Diner, the Museum of Life + Science in Durham works with the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy to develop researchers’ skills in participating in conversational encounters with community members and students.

Funded by a sub-award from an NSF integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) sub-award made to Washington University in Saint Louis, the Saint Louis Science Center collaborates with faculty and graduate students from the Interdisciplinary Cognitive Computational Systems Neuroscience program. They provide summer science communication workshops, coaching in the design and implementation of a “themed brain science experience” and practical experience interacting with visitors at NeuroDay and SciFest events.

Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, together with Explora in Albuquerque and Pennsylvannia’s North Museum, have been using their “Portal to the Public” NSF ISE award to help build the capacity of a larger group of science centers to offer hands-on demo training for local researchers and to organize opportunities to bring them in for face-to-face encounters with museum visitors.

At the Museum of Science, the Strategic Projects Group offers our research center partners six-day intensive graduate student internships in science communication. The students complete and test a prototype presentation, demonstration, or media piece with our visitors within the six days. We also provide afternoon workshops in inquiry-based learning and a practicum in designing and using hands-on demonstrations, as well as a summer science communication workshop for the REU students associated with the research centers.

Where outreach and communication to the general public and non-scientific audiences are concerned, the museum has a certain credibility level with students that is hard to match at the university. Just having it at the museum and run by museum personnel already just adds an extra layer of credibility to the process that they really pick up on.

– Glen Miller, University of New Hampshire

These workshops focus not only on helping researchers engage non-scientists, but also on helping them absorb communication skills that will help them collaborate with others and advance their careers in an increasingly interdisciplinary research environment. In highly interdisciplinary fields like nanotechnology, the ability to communicate more broadly is becoming an ever more essential part of day-to-day research.

Something that will become increasingly important, and that we’re working on developing most closely right now: scientists and engineers learning to speak each other’s language. … And for those of you who don’t work in science and engineering and for whom we don’t do a particularly good job of communicating what we do, and who feel that all science and engineering are the same so why bother with nuances and dialects – well, those nuances and dialects ARE important and those nuances and dialects that we all speak ARE impediments to the sharing of ideas.

– Evelyn Hu, Harvard University

Increasingly, the vanguard of researchers value the importance of programs that help develop science communication skills, not just so their students can serve as ambassadors for science to the public, but also because broader communication across the various scientific disciplines is intrinsic to the progress of the research itself.

Ahmed Busnaina, director of the Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing headquartered at Northeastern University, argues that faculty as well as students can benefit from these professional development opportunities.

It’s not just students; the faculty can benefit. We want them to know how to communicate science to the general public. But, actually, there’s an additional benefit, a tremendous benefit that may not be obvious to them, which is, once they know how to do that, then they’ll be able to write better papers and be able to write much better proposals. Most proposals are not reviewed by experts. Maybe 10 percent of reviewers, or 20 percent of the reviewers are actually in that specific research are, but the rest of them are not. And so, faculty will tremendously benefit from writing a proposal that is certain to resonate more broadly, at least in the introductory part, and the proposal will get a much higher rating. So, just from learning how to communicate, or how to explain research to the general public, that can have tremendous benefits to the research career later on.

– Ahmed Busnaina, Northeastern University

Communication skills, of course, include listening skills, and sometimes these professional development opportunities can also help researchers learn to hear a broader range of perspectives surrounding the areas of research they pursue.

This is especially helpful now that many of us in the ISE field have become more interested in transforming the nature of education and outreach into more of a dialogue, a conversation, in which non-scientists learn about research from scientists, and scientists learn about community concerns and societal aspects of technology from various stakeholders in the community. For instance, the Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) at the University of Arizona works with the Arizona Science Center to offer training to graduate students in methods and techniques to engage with diverse audiences. The students then have the opportunity to work with the public at the science center, with continued mentoring from CNS and museum staff. They work at least four hours a week during the science center’s busiest hours. Faculty member Jameson Wetmore says: “When forced to answer questions about the value of their research, the experience also compels graduate students to think about the broader social and political implications of their work.”

Bob Westervelt, director of the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center at Harvard, argues that the quality of self-reflection these encounters can stimulate are vital to the long-term career development and satisfaction of youthful graduate students.

I think it’s very useful to [graduate students] to sort of back off from the immediate concerns of solving whatever problem is they’re trying to solve, and ask why are they doing it? You know, five or ten years from now, what is somebody going to get from this? What’s really the benefit, or what’s the whole big idea? That’s extremely beneficial for the students to think about. Sometimes it actually changes what topics that they want to go into.

-Bob Westervelt, Harvard University

Indeed, the Donahue Institute evaluation study of the Museum of Science’s Science Communication Workshops for REU Students, found that 100% of the 60 participating students reported that the experience had “significantly increased my interest in seeking out and understanding the broader impact of my own and other’s research.” [Levine 2009]

A living laboratory for research
Some researchers come to a science museum seeking permission to use it as a site to conduct their research. Working in the museum environment with its large concentration of visitors, they can often collect a more robust and diverse set of data in a shorter time period than they would if they stayed on campus and tried to recruit people to their lab. COSI Vice President Kim Kiehl, a former tenured faculty member at Ohio State, reports that COSI has found these types of arrangements to be of real benefit to the science museum and its visitors as well.

Our guests see this participation in the science research process as an added value to their experience in the building. For example, we recently had a researcher looking at allergies collect data here on whether children and adults could even identify the various types of nuts that cause common allergic reactions. In the nine days he was set up he collected data from over 1100 people!

– Kim Kiehl, COSI

In one Museum of Science exhibit space, the Human Body Connection, researchers regularly work with the staff to collect data. A scientist seeking thousands of images of irises built into her research budget funding to support the museum staff’s time in setting up the research station and protocols and working with the visitors.

As discussed in Section Two, all such arrangements require review and approval by either the museum’s or the university’s Institutional Review Board, which is charged with overseeing the safety, privacy, and ethics of research involving human subjects, according to federal and state standards. Each IRB has its own process and schedule for vetting human research proposals, and will also ask to see the specific instruments involved, the protocols, notifications of rights, permissions, and detailed descriptions of what the human subjects will be told and what they will be asked to do. Protection around minors is of special concern.

Acing the Funding Requirement
As discussed in Section One, many researchers are seeking ways to impress funders with well-designed education and outreach plans. Science museums, able to provide many of the various resources we have just delineated, can do a better job of communicating these capacities to potential partners who will be writing funding proposals in the years ahead. The message is that science museums can help provide a successful professional solution to a challenge that many researchers have difficulty meeting on their own.

What else?
What else do we have to offer a potential education outreach partner? We looked at some of these things in Section Two when we were discussing the process of assessing our organizational capacity. We know we have venues, flexibility, audiences, expertise, living laboratories for the practice of communication skills and for the conduct of research, as well as the ability to help partners meet a possible research grant requirement. What else might a research center partner be interested in?
• Can we help them be better known in the community?
• Can we help them communicate their research beyond the local community?
• Can we help them connect with schools and community and minority-serving organizations?
• Can we help them meet other community leaders interested in science and education, or museum supporters involved with licensing and investing in newly patented intellectual property?
• Can we conduct research and evaluation and inform the field what the collaborating partners have learned through publications and presentations?
• Can we leverage the grant-funded investment by disseminating the successful educational experiences we develop to other informal science education organizations?
• Can we help the researchers show their funders that they are as deeply committed to achieving significant “broader impacts” as they are to advancing science and technology?

Make a briefing sheet
A full understanding of what your museum has to offer a potential research center partner will be especially helpful if you are going to try to proactively recruit one. You may even want to prepare a briefing sheet, a web page, or a brochure to assist you in communicating what you have to offer.

A briefing sheet can provide information about the numbers and types of audiences the museum can reach through its various programs on and offsite, including the number of annual visitors and their demographic diversity, sometimes broken down into audiences for exhibits, evening lectures, school groups, van programs, website visitors, and the like. These numbers will be helpful to the research partner as they outline the potential impact of the education outreach plan to their targeted funding agency. Of special interest may be your museum’s ability to reach out to traditionally underserved communities.

Your partner will also want evidence of the museum’s impact on these audiences. How will the proposed collaboration augment existing exhibits and programs and bring greater value to the community? What kind of research and evaluation do you conduct to assess impact? Do you publish or participate in conferences? What awards and recognitions has the museum won? What kind of leadership role does it play in the informal science education community, and in the local schools? What examples can you provide of other successful partnerships of this type? Are there testimonials made by previous research center partners as to the value of working with your institution? A nicely laid out presentation of these factors will be something you can send out to prospective partners or leave with them when you meet.

Develop a menu of options
Having taken the time to assess your institution’s audience needs and desires, as well as your institutional capacity for working with a university partner, you may also begin to think of fashioning a menu of options that you can offer to a prospective partner if they come calling. Having a sense of what kind of budgetary support you will need for various menu options, can help guide the discussion.

And, of course, generic-sounding menu options can be further tailored to the prospective partner’s needs and the resources they think they will have to contribute. Going through the exercise of defining and budgeting these options will help you be prepared to begin the conversation, especially if, for one or both organizations, a proposal deadline is looming. At that point, you have the option of calling upon the procedures and capacities you developed (see Section Two) in order to be able to analyze and respond to externally-generated proposals quickly and efficiently.

The Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota has an entire web page on its site devoted to “public understanding of research,” with an overview of “Broader Impacts” and a menu of fourteen different education outreach options that can be customized to fit the needs, subject areas, and budgets of potential research partners. These range from Cafes Scientifique and field trips, to K-12 educator workshops and school visits, and on to multimedia kiosks and national traveling exhibits.

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