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Overlapping Magisteria: Learning, Communication and Engagement

Posted by
James Bell
July 17, 2017

With apologies to the late Stephen Jay Gould for the title, Science Communication, Public Engagement with Science, and Public Outreach are areas of activity whose outcomes frequently overlap with those of Informal STEM Education (ISE). While each of these terms has a definition, they are sometimes used interchangeably, even if designers of experiences and settings have distinct goals in mind, or identify with different professional fields. Regardless of terminology or disciplinary silos, participation in these activities can result in an appreciation of, curiosity about, understanding of, or identification with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Until recently, research in these domains has enjoyed less common ground. This is also true of science communication and formal (classroom) education, a fact that was the impetus for a 2015 special issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (JRST) which sought “some form of rapprochement” between scholarship in formal science education and science communication (Baram-Tsabari & Osborne, 2015).  The thoughtful articles, editorials and a position paper in that issue (which are all available for free download via the hyperlink provided) describe the contrasting research priorities and an evolving landscape of opportunity for greater synergy.

In the informal learning realm, the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) and others have been exploring existing and potential synergies between knowledge-building in science communication and ISE. Applying knowledge gained from providing mutual learning spaces and developing new resources for the ISE field, CAISE, with funding from the National Science Foundation, aspires to connect and extend networks of researchers, practitioners and evaluators whose work can inform, challenge and improve related knowledge and practice.

Beginning with the new Science Communication, Public Engagement and Outreach page on InformalScience.org, we plan to collect, curate and tag materials from a wider range of sources on learning and engagement and create additional landing pages that will provide new entry points for those with specific areas of interest. Publications such as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Press’ Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda,  Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts and Consequences and Effective Chemistry Communication in Informal Environments will be starting points for in-person and online discussions, as well as new for web content and tool development. Throughout this process CAISE will attempt to parse and clarify terminology and concepts for shared understanding and wider use. CAISE will also leverage and link to the related efforts of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Public Engagement with Science Group on the Trellis website, the National Informal STEM Education Network, and the National Alliance for Broader Impacts whenever connections can be made for greater collective impact.

By interviewing and surveying leading practitioners and researchers in science communication, CAISE has identified three priority areas that are challenges common to science communication and informal STEM learning: firstly, connecting research and practice in appropriate and generative ways, secondly, enhancing capacity for understanding and using evaluation and measurement, and thirdly, broadening participation of underrepresented groups in STEM and STEM education. These challenges might be addressed more effectively through knowledge sharing and greater awareness of each other’s work. These three priority areas will provide focus for CAISE’s work going forward. CAISE also heard clearly that science communication, to the degree that it is bounded as a field, has sub-communities of practitioners such as journalists, science writers, public information officers and media producers as well as researchers who study science, technology and society, many  of whom have their own professional organizations and conferences. CAISE will be attentive to these identities, distinctions and related issues as we develop resources and events.

Overall, look for InformalScience.org and CAISE’s monthly newsletter to feature more blogs, interviews, forums and related resources designed to strengthen connections among scientists, educators, communicators, evaluators, students and other stakeholders whose larger purpose is to elevate the role of science, technology, engineering and math in culture and in the workforce. To read more posts in CAISE's science communication blog series, click here. If you join the CAISE website here you will have immediate access to the EBSCO Education Research Complete database which contains journals and articles related to CAISE’s charge and the topics mentioned in this blog. And, as always, if you have ideas or suggestions for resources, publications, professionals or networks that CAISE should be aware of, please e-mail us at caise@informalscience.org.