Discovering science center & museum career pathways using a professional learning framework

By Lesley Markham, Margaret Glass, Kris Morrissey, Dennis Schatz, Joe Heimlich, Martin Storksdieck, Nancy Staus, and Cat Stylinski

We’ve all seen amazing people who got into the science center and museum field through many different routes and then grow to love and thrive in their work. But they may struggle to move forward because they lack a clear sense of possible career pathways. This career may not have been what they studied or prepared for. How do they move forward? How do they create a career versus a job? How can they be supported as they consider choices in their chosen career?


The Collaborative Research: An Evidence-based Informal STEM Learning (ISL) Professional Framework (ISL Framework) is an ongoing research project to understand what kinds of skills and knowledge (or competencies) lead to success for those professionals working in science centers, science museums, and children’s museums. As a team of researchers and practitioners, we’ve been interacting with and learning from ISL professionals and moving toward something potentially very valuable and useful for the field. Funded by the (U.S.) National Science Foundation, this project is a collaboration between the Association of Science-Technology Centers (DRL1514815; Margaret Glass and Lesley Markham); the Lifelong Learning Group of COSI in Columbus, Ohio (DRL1514884, Joe Heimlich); Oregon State University (DRL1515315, Martin StorksdieckNancy Staus, and Cat Stylinski); Pacific Science Center (DRL1514890, Dennis Schatz); and the University of Washington Museology Graduate Department (Kris Morrissey).

Development of the ISL Framework

After an extensive review of other professional learning frameworks, we used a process called DACUM (Developing A CUrriculuM) to identify the competencies for the ISL field. A DACUM workshop is structured to allow people to reflect on what it takes to perform well in their job. We held a series of workshops that included different kinds of professionals from science centers of different sizes and in different locations, and verified the results through surveys with over a thousand ISL professionals to create DACUM panels.

There was broad representation of the ISL field at the DACUM workshops and during the validation process. We built this ISL Framework from the ground up rather than from the top down. People in different roles and at different stages in their careers participated, and each voice was considered equally. It is important to note that we did not develop, nor do we intend to develop, work or performance standards.

The ISL Framework has four domains (institutional operations, institutional impact, general expertise, and job-specific expertise). Within each domain are three “levels” of competencies that reflect a progression from understanding, to influencing, to creating, within one’s own career, institution, and the field. By focusing on competencies, we hope the ISL Framework provides a tool for individuals to be deliberate and successful in their learning path and to integrate experiences that might come from classes, workshops, mentors, or reflective practices.

Explore the framework here:


Four Highlights from our Findings

  1. ISL Professionals Are Not in a Career Pipeline. The richness and diversity of backgrounds and experiences is one of the most interesting aspects of the museum world, and especially describes the subset of people who work in informal STEM learning settings. People from widely diverse backgrounds – e.g. education, engineering, museum studies, youth programming, experience design, marketing, communications, business administration, academia – can be equally passionate about working at places that engage with the public around topics in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Whether these informal learning settings represent a lifetime career—or are used as training for other fields of endeavor—we hope that the individuals who work there can be empowered to intentionally construct their own professional experiences to match their needs and expectations.

  2. Moving Along or Going Deeper. The ISL framework provides two directions for career growth. One is to move forward in responsibility and leadership and the other is to go deeper and become an expert in your current position. One professional may see herself moving into a supervisory or management role, while another might want to become the field expert in a certain type of exhibit design. This finding shifts the focus of professional development depending upon the career direction, from perhaps increased soft skills knowledge for management positions to deeper expertise training for individuals who want to focus on specialized skills.

  3. Generalizable Competencies. As people respond to the ISL Framework through focus groups and workshops, we are finding that the search for generalizable competencies hasn’t flattened our ideas of professionalization but instead pushed our thinking around expertise and excellence and, in particular, about informal learning. We are pushing toward principles and perhaps theoretical underpinnings of how we as a field facilitate and promote informal learning experiences.

  4. Equity and Inclusion. We have been asking, “How can we create a tool that empowers individuals to advance their capacity and to pursue their learning goals without creating standards that may reflect biases or power hierarchies that are based on criteria other than competency?” Here are two examples of how we are trying to address this

    • Structure and Language: We deliberately structured the ISL Framework to focus on competencies, not on credentials. We avoided words such as standards and we refer to “efficient” and “effective” practices rather than “best” practices. The concept of “professionalism” has historically focused on credentials which are often tied to access to cultural resources. (Consider the lively debate about unpaid internships in the museum field.)

    • Process: In our research, we attempted to hear from as many different voices as possible. At the 2018 American Alliance of Museums conference we had a session called “Equity at the Heart of Professional Learning” with a panel of researchers and practitioners engaged in equity work, and we asked them to review the idea of a framework, and the specific content of this ISL framework, and to identify areas that could potentially advance or inhibit equity work.

Next Steps

In its current iteration, presents the knowledge generated from this project on an open website that shows the competency domains and related proficiency levels; research papers are accessible on a Resources tab. Materials to guide both individual and organizational users are included, and additional resources are in development. Future work involves defining indicators to help users recognize competencies, and to identify what progression along levels looks like. Aligning existing resources from the ISL field with these competency progressions will provide concrete examples about how to develop expertise in specific domains of practice. We are also planning to develop a web-based method for individuals to assess, document, and strategically plan their personal learning pathways.