All your advance preparation comes to bear when you begin to reach out to prospective research partners. It can be a very rewarding experience, whether or not it results in a specific collaboration in the short-term.
It’s nice to know that most scientists and engineers have a natural affinity for science museums and the people who work at them. They may have had inspirational experiences at science museums as youngsters; and, if they have a family now, they may already be members or frequent visitors. They tend to appreciate these public institutions that celebrate the inquisitive and inventive mind and that showcase natural as well as man-made wonders. They probably share the conviction that science education and science literacy are important elements of a successful democratic society, especially these days, when so many policy decisions depend on consensus around the uses and abuses of technology.
So, it is not too difficult to pick up the phone and call a researcher or department head and ask if you might schedule a half-hour to 45 minute meeting to explore whether there might be ways to build stronger ties between the museum and the researchers in their department. Let them know you’ve heard about their work and are interested in finding out more. Offer to brief them on what’s new at the museum, or how they and their students might want to get involved there. Let them know if you see the potential for a future collaboration on an exhibit or program in their area of expertise, and that you’d be interested in working with them on any upcoming funding proposals that may involve an education and outreach or public engagement component.
You might bring prospective research partners complimentary passes to the museum, and invite them to call you when they plan to visit. You might plan a faculty day for university researchers and their families, and provide them with informational brochures about education outreach partnerships. Perhaps the museum director could host a reception for researchers in your area, including board members and senior staff. Invite prominent university department heads and senior faculty. Let them know you are eager for their ideas on ways to collaborate with the research community, in advancing public and student engagement with science locally. If your museum has a goal to create more capacity to interpret areas of current research for your audiences, ask the researchers advice on what may be the most important and interesting areas to address with the public, and which of these areas might best capitalize on the special resources of the university and the surrounding community. Let them know the museum has a particular interest in education outreach partnerships that may be associated with upcoming grant proposals, especially those planned collaboratively. Let them know whom to contact and give them a sense of the timelines your organization requires to act on a grant proposal.
Don’t be intimidated. Sincere interest is always welcome. It’s okay if you don’t know the lingo or aren’t up on the latest. You’ll never know what may come of it if you don’t try. We did an open house meeting for faculty at [Ohio State University], issuing them an invitation from a high-level university executive to come spend time [at our museum] and tell us what we could do better and imagine how we could work together. We gave their families passes for the day while we held the meeting and over 200 faculty came on an August weekday. Many of our partnerships have grown directly or indirectly from this event. It was also at this event that we gave guidelines for working together, which includes the timelines for grants, etc.
– Kim Kiehl, COSI
Remember that these efforts are about building relationships, sowing seeds for the future. The seeds may take some time to germinate. You many not connect the first or second time. Keep in contact, and check back every so often with those who have potential to help you serve your audiences and with those who have already shown some interest. Just reach out; open a door.
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