The Project Lifecycle
Planning for the life-cycle of a knowledge-building informal STEM education or science communication project starts with an innovative idea and proceeds through the dissemination of products, outcomes and findings for others to learn from. However, project development is often a non-linear process that involves serendipity, synergies and many types of existing and potential collaborations. Organizational context and field trends are also factors in how a project idea is generated in the first place. In an ideal sense, a successful project developer has engaged in these “steps,” not necessarily in this order:
- Review current research or practice related to your topic idea, and/or conduct front-end evaluation study to determine the need for your project
- Consider how your passion, expertise and capacity for realizing the project idea will build on the related work of others and/or address gaps in current research or wisdom from practice
- Assemble and/or reconfigure an existing development team with complementary, diverse perspectives that will broaden the potential impacts of the project.
- Invite external advisors as needed for content, pedagogical or design expertise
- Include an evaluator or external review body as part of the team from the beginning of the project development
- Prototype proposed activities or products and/or conduct efficacy or effectiveness studies to determine feasibility
- Study funder guidelines carefully and contact funding program officers directly with any additional questions
- Draft a proposal
- Be ready to hit the ground running
- Document process and progress
- Report promptly & disseminate strategically
Start with Intended Impacts and Audiences
Designers of informal STEM learning experiences and settings often work in organizations where content, audiences and learning goals flow from a larger organizational mission and expertise. In order to develop a new, fundable project that will achieve measurable learning goals with a specific audience while building knowledge for the larger field, considerations may include developmental appropriateness of content, approach and activities for intended audiences and which learning or other social science theories could inform design.
Learning goals and intended impacts can be mapped to National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Learning Science in Informal Environments report’s six “learning strands” or the impact categories outlined in the National Science Foundation’s Framework for Evaluating Impacts of Informal Science Education Projects. Other constructs such as identity, curiosity or activation are growing areas in scholarship and practice with opportunities for further study. Science communication goals can be strategically aligned with tactics as found in research by Besley, O'Hara and Dudo (2019) and in other studies summarized and synthesized in the Communicating Science Effectively consensus report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Other things to consider are the expertise, strengths and affordances of the lead organization and collaborators as well as gaps in the research literature and STEM education ecosystem and science communication “curriculum”.
Assemble a Team
A successful project team includes members with a complementary set of STEM content expertise, design skills, pedagogical knowledge, audience familiarity and cultural competencies. The Find Project Partners and Developing Equitable Partnerships pages are starting places. These guides from the NOISE project may also be helpful: Partnerships for Impact for informal science educators and outreach specialists working with diverse communities Meaningful Collaborations for community leaders, educators and advocates working with science institutions.
While each project will have its own specific needs in assembling a project team, here are some common roles to consider:
- A Principal Investigator (PI) or Project Leader is responsible for the vision and overall plan and execution of the project. The PI is typically a designer, practitioner or researcher.
- Co-Principal Investigators (co-PIs) share responsibilities with the Principal Investigator. For some projects, co-PIs are from the PI’s own institution or department, while in other projects, co-PIs are collaborators who bring expertise and resources from outside institutions.
- A project manager oversees the day-to-day operations, milestones, budget and reporting requirements of the project.
- An evaluator measures the project’s impacts on its intended audience, as well as other outcomes and outputs, intended or unintended. The evaluator may also make general recommendations about the effectiveness of the learning approach or other generalizable aspects of the project. Projects sometimes engage external review boards or other evaluative entities to play this role.
- Advisors bring expertise and serve as thought leaders who provide input throughout the project development process.
How can I find an expert to add value to my team?
The STEM for All Multiplex site contains < 3 > minute videos that provide succinct descriptions of federally-funded STEM education research and practice projects and include links to the names of the principal investigators, co-principal investigators and project abstracts. Those tagged as "informal learning" can be found here. The InformalScience.org member directory is a resource that can be used to further identify the expertise and experience of potential project team members, partners and consultants, based on how they tagged their previous work when they created their profiles.
Develop an Evaluation Plan
Evaluation provides information that can guide the project while it is in progress, suggest how it might be improved, and provide evidence to demonstrate the impacts on its intended audience. Working with an evaluator or an external review body from the earliest planning stages helps to guide the project’s development, be attentive to the learning objectives, and conduct rigorous measurements. Browse the "Design Evaluation" section of InformalScience.org and search the collection for evaluation reports on past projects.
Anticipate Project Dissemination from the Beginning
Innovative informal STEM education builds on the collective experience of the community. Sharing the lessons your project team learned through trial and error and in response to formative and summative feedback is vital to improving practice and research for the whole field. Whenever possible, build in funding and time for team members to attend conferences, lead or attend professional development workshops, write journal articles, newsletters or blogs, or for other strategies that will create opportunities for your work to contribute to and gain from the international conversation about innovative STEM learning. The Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education (CADRE) resource center created a Dissemination Toolkit that can helpful whether a project's learning setting is formal or informal.
Developing science communication and engagement activities or events
The Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology pages on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) website includes resources that can be used to align goals with audiences and messages when designing discrete activities that involve direct contact between scientists or practitioners and public audiences and a science communication toolkit.