Small steps; big impact

One good way of testing the waters for a potential partnership is to invite local research centers to participate in a short-term project or activity that will serve to break the ice.

A good example of this approach is the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network’s NanoDays model, initiated in 2008. []. NanoDays is a designated week, typically in late March/early April, targeted as a time for informal science education organizations, nano research centers, and others to collaborate together on special outreach events with a focus on nanotechnology. The NISE Net helps by providing a free physical NanoDays kit to the first couple of hundred takers, and a downloadable digital version. The kit is designed as a self-contained core set of materials around which other local activities can crystallize. It contains proven hands-on demonstrations and activities, media, graphics, guides, and supporting materials. The focus is on hands-on learning activities that can be shared in a festive manner.

This has been awesome actually. …We got this great kit; we had all these ideas. We actually got about 50 volunteers – undergrads, grad students, faculty – all reeled in to help with this thing. And put together our whole package of open house and school visits and museum visit. Just doing it we learned a lot. Our open house had 250 people on a Sunday afternoon, over 3 hours, that came out on their day off and we had a wonderful time, building nanotube balloons and great demos and multimedia. And we went into an elementary school the next morning with 63 5th graders and we had this choreography of 9 stations with groups of kids rotating every five minutes and it worked swimmingly. It was brilliant. 5 minutes just captured their attention span; we were perfectly matched and it went off without a hitch.

– Jerry Floro, University of Virginia
(Partnered with the Science Museum of Virginia]

The NanoDays concept and the NanoDays kits have proved extraordinarily successful at catalyzing new relationships between science museums and research centers and research centers interested in reaching out to their communities. Indeed, that was one of the hoped-for outcomes (Alpert, 2008) Hundreds of science museusm and research centers participated. Google NanoDays and you’ll find webpages all over the country describing local events. Some single-event NanoDays collaborations have already begun to develop into more robust partnerships. Christine Roman and her team at the Saint Louis Science Center Christine Roman organized NanoDays collaborations with several nano research centers at local universities and medical schools:

The importance of NanoDays was well-understood by these faculty researchers, as was our ongoing collaboration with them on other programs, such as science cafes and SciFest. We have already partnered with one of the nano research centers on three grant proposals that we hope will provide funds for training museum staff in their labs, support for guest researchers volunteering here, and, of course, future NanoDays collaborations.

– Christine Roman, Saint Louis Science Center

Many science museum and research center partners begin their NanoDays efforts with a clearly defined focus, a targeted spot on the calendar, and a set of initial resources. The simplicity of this focus gave them a well-defined opportunity to meet each other, test the waters of collaboration, and begin to recognize new opportunities.

It’s relatively easy to think of other short-term activities that could function similarly to NanoDays, as a catalyst for further engagement. There are already numerous special science and engineering weeks on the calendar that could spark ideas for new museum-research center partnerships. Some museums make their own special events. For instance, in 2006, with funding from their NSF ISE “Portal to the Public” grant, the Pacific Science Center in Seattle sponsored a four-day Polar Science Weekend in partnership with the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington, featuring several dozen researchers with activity stations and demonstrations. This grew into an annual event, coupled with professional development workshops for the participating scientists, preparing them for face-to-face interactions and inquiry-based ISE approaches with hands-on activities. In December 2009, the partners received a collaborative grant from NASA that will fund the weekend for several more years and provide for a permanent museum display on polar science. The NASA grant also funds a cohort of 14 scientists to participate in the Portal to the Public’s professional development course each year, and to engage with museum staff in personalized hands-on-activity development mentoring. Then the relationship expanded even further. Says senior vice president Dennis Schatz,

This relationship has now developed into a broader relationship with the UW. This coming weekend [April 10-11 2010] is our first “Paws on Science”. This is a UW research weekend that involves researchers from the entire campus. (The name comes from the UW mascot – the husky dog.) What is most exciting regarding this event is that it is funded directly by the UW marketing department and alumni association rather than depending on grant funding. The goal for both institutions is to make this the first of an annual event. UW has also embraced the idea of including professional development in these programs and has funded workshops for participating scientists.

What started as a good idea for a fun weekend with museum-goers and a plan for working more closely with a single university research center group, has now expanded into a more robust university-wide partnership that will allow the two organizations to celebrate and share scientific research more broadly in their community. It may also power up the recruitment of local students to university-based pathways to careers in research.

Small steps often do lead to big impact.

Next, in Section Four: Getting Grants, we’ll take a look at ways to win funding to support research center – informal science education partnerships.

back | next: Getting grants…