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Next Steps for CAISE Initiative on Broader Impacts & Informal Science Education

For the past several years, one of CAISE’s initiatives has been to explore how our resources can better support scientists and STEM-based professionals who wish to interact with the informal science education (ISE) field to engage the public, communicate their research, and develop educational and outreach activities. With the renewal of CAISE's cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program in June 2012, we are focusing this initiative on the audience of research scientists and directors of education and outreach at NSF-funded Centers and Large Facilities and universities that are planning or considering ISE-related activities as a part of their broader impacts plans. All NSF-funded research projects are required to describe the "broader impacts" of their research, which can be addressed through a variety of strategies—training graduate students in communication, partnering with local school districts or teachers, expanding project teams and audiences to include women and underrepresented minority groups, and, increasingly, through partnerships and educational activities with informal learning institutions such as museums, libraries, zoos, or community organizations. For more information about the NSF definition of broader impacts, see the FAQs about the merit criterion by Richard Tankersley and Patti Bourexis.

Last month, CAISE facilitated a convening on Broader Impacts and Informal Science Education for practitioners and researchers who have been working at the nexus of scientific research and ISE. The group included ISE professionals, research scientists who currently lead education and public outreach efforts through science societies and professional associations, and NSF Program Officers who are interested in encouraging principal investigators (PIs) of projects in their portfolios to participate in or develop ISE strategies and partnerships as a part of their plans for addressing broader impacts. With the redesign and launch of InformalScience.org this past summer, CAISE recognizes a unique opportunity to support the work of this community by enhancing our open online resource to provide information about the breadth and depth of ISE projects, the learning research that informs them, and the lessons learned from their evaluations to scientists and their education/outreach/communication staffs. Our theory of action is that by raising awareness, enhancing accessibility and facilitating connectivity, CAISE can support investigators and STEM-based professionals in developing intellectually rigorous broader impacts plans that exploit the rich opportunities that ISE can add to their palette.

Among the background materials that framed and informed the agenda and activities for the convening were papers by CAISE advisor Nalini Nadkarni and Carol Lynn Alpert of the Museum of Science, Boston, which explore different aspects of the broader impacts problem space and, in the case of the Alpert paper, how ISE can broker solutions through innovative partnerships. CAISE also requested a front-end survey and report from the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University, the goal of which was to get a sense of how investigators currently respond to the broader impacts criterion requirement. Conducted and authored by Julie Risien and myself, the survey and resulting report summarizes responses from a sample of scientists from a variety of disciplines and institutions who described how they currently think about broader impacts, what strategies and processes they use to address the criterion, the resources and supports they have at their disposal (or would like to have), and how they think the ISE community might "market" itself as a potential partner when planning and implementing broader impacts activities. Convening participants also prepared by reading current theory on approaches to metadata standards, content creation and curation, and marketing and communication strategies.

With this framing in mind, the group met to:

  • Brainstorm ways to expand and build out the metadata framework and controlled vocabulary on InformalScience.org to better reflect the needs, interests, and language of scientists and university/lab directors of education and outreach
  • Provide examples of potential CAISE collection development activities and ideas for how to identify quality source material for the InformalScience.org repository of ISE project descriptions, evaluation reports and reference materials
  • Draft a marketing and communication strategy that promotes InformalScience.org to scientists and education and public outreach officers

CAISE staff, co-PIs, and our external evaluators at Inverness Research are currently working with ideas and inputs from the participants that emerged before, during, and after the convening, and strategizing next steps and priorities for the initiative. CAISE has already made updates to the InformalScience.org page that is designed to help scientists and education and public outreach staff begin to familiarize themselves with ISE. Additional content will be added in the coming months. Other planned activities include:

  • Additions to the metadata framework used in the InformalScience.org Informal Commons search engine to facilitate efficient and successful searching and browsing of ISE resources
  • Strategic, communications-related relationships with science societies, NSF Centers, and NSF Large Facilities
  • Spotlights on ISE projects and activities created in collaboration with scientists and education, outreach, and/or communication staff as part of their broader impacts plans (please email Kalie Sacco at ksacco@astc.org if you have an interesting example or case study to contribute as a Spotlight

As part of this initiative CAISE Co-PIs, staff and advisors have been tracking and participating in the efforts of others engaged in projects designed to enhance professional development and strengthen the resource infrastructure for scientists, graduate students and STEM-based professionals who value communication and engaging the public with scientific research. One current example is COMPASS, a team of nationally-distributed science-based communication professionals who work at the boundary of academic science, policy, and the media. For the past year, COMPASS has been assessing the landscape of science communication training and creating a community-sourced database of workshops and courses trainings available to U.S. graduate students in the STEM disciplines. COMPASS convened an NSF-funded workshop on December 5th & 6th at the National Academy of Sciences where a group that included natural and social scientists, university administrators, federal agency staff, educators, communicators and graduate students began to develop a roadmap for building national capacity for communication skills as a subset of the professional skills that graduate students need. To follow the progress of COMPASS' work in this arena, visit their blog.

On December 9th, another related workshop also held at the National Academies titled Sustainable Infrastructures for Life Science Communication addressed the question, "What institutional barriers are keeping life scientists from communicating to the public about their work?" May Berenbaum, entomologist and public communicator gave a keynote address on why a science communication infrastructure is important from a scientist’s perspective and CAISE advisors Nalini Nadkarni and Bruce Lewenstein gave presentations on panels and sessions on Day 1. Originally designed to be a two-day workshop, Day 2 was postponed due to inclement weather and will be rescheduled in the near future. For documentation of the workshop and future developments visit the Public Interfaces site.

Both of these projects include and embrace informal science education partnerships and strategies that address core communication competencies in innovative ways. CAISE’ next steps will be implemented over the next year and a half, and major developments will be highlighted in future newsletters. For more information, please contact CAISE Project Director and PI Jamie Bell at jbell@astc.org or myself at falkj@science.oregonstate.edu.

Posted by John H Falk