CAISE Workshops on Professional Development and Sustainability Science in ISE

March 1st, 2012

The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) convened two workshops in February 2012, on Professional Development (PD) and Sustainability Science in Informal Science Education (ISE). The workshops are part of an ongoing series of gatherings to explore topics and themes that have broad representation and cross-sector relevance in the National Science Foundation (NSF) ISE Program portfolio. They were designed in collaboration with NSF program officers to explore the state of the field with regard to these areas, and to catalyze new thinking and conversations that will continue at the 2012 ISE Principal Investigator (PI) Meeting and beyond.

On February 2-3, 11 projects from a variety of ISE sectors shared their work in professional development, compared notes, and thought together about the future of PD in ISE. PIs, Co-PIs, evaluators, program officers, and outside experts participated in discussions and activities designed to identify common issues involved in training, mentoring, and adult education. Background readings for the workshop suggested by guest experts Joy Frechtling of Westat, and Professor Karen Watkins of the University of Georgia, Athens addressed phenomena such as “incidental” and informal adult learning and transfer.

While the PD projects represented a range of audiences, from youth explainers to pre-service teachers, the challenges of matching approaches to outcomes and evaluating effectiveness and sustainability of efforts provided common ground for rich dialogue and resource sharing. Designing for, and capturing moments of incidental learning, as well as creating the conditions for audiences to develop identities as informal science educators and professionals, were other challenges that resonated among the workshop participants.

In a discussion about methodological and pedagogical approaches, the idea that professional development providers embrace the two “F words” (i.e. failure and frustration), was introduced and recognized by participants as something integral to the learning process that many had grappled with. Another shared resource was a format called “Ventures and Vexations,” which is a protocol that can be used for sharing and collaborating using PD case studies. In this model an individual presents a problem (the “vexation”) and specific solution (the “venture”) to the problem, and then invites input from a small group. (1)

The workshop ended with a brainstorming session where participants identified PD issues that need further attention from the ISE field, CAISE, and NSF. One outcome was the design of a breakout session for the ISE PI meeting in which representatives from the CAISE PD workshop will invite PI meeting attendees to engage in an examination of the issues of collaboration and sustainability in PD. If you are attending the PI meeting this week and this is your primary area of interest, please consider joining the “Nascent to Burgeoning Communities of Interest” breakout session or another PD-related one called To Think, To Write, To Publish  on Thursday afternoon, March 15, at 1:45 pm. (2)

On February 6-7, 11 different projects met to forge a collective understanding of sustainability science, and to explore how ISE can build capacity in this area. A convening with a wide cross sector group of PIs and evaluators, the Sustainability Science and Informal Science Education (SSE) workshop drew on the expertise of Marina Moses and Emi Kameyama from the Science and Technology for Sustainability Program at the National Academies of Science, Clifford Duke from the Ecological Society of America, Christine Kelly from the Midwest Regional Collaborative for Sustainability Education, and Ilan Chabay from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies. These experts shared approaches and insights from their projects on the role that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning can play in preparing a workforce and society with the interdisciplinary understanding and knowledge to address issues of sustainable living. A common theme was the need to strengthen the strategic connections among scientific research, technological development, economics, education, public engagement, and decision-making.

The invited guests and NSF program officers provided a wealth of background literature prior to the workshop, including an overview of NSF’s Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) activities (3), which served as a starting point for discussions. SEES addresses the urgent and sometimes controversial area of sustainability, where STEM knowledge is growing rapidly amidst ever changing social and political dynamics. An NSF goal for the initiative is to generate more, better learning science research on sustainability.

The need for an ISE workshop on this topic grew from a recognition that while there is scattered activity in ISE and science communication around sustainability, there are more unexplored opportunities to develop coherence and to explore new models, such as public engagement with science (PES). The SSE workshop interspersed project presentations and reflections from program officers and experts with discussion and activities where small groups used graphics, film, drama, and music to portray the complex interdisciplinary nature of sustainability issues. Participants presented a range of ISE strategies to address issues such as energy, climate change, water, biodiversity, conservation, and species preservation. Several participants commented that the notion of sustainability is sometimes rooted in ideas of limits and scarcity, and as a result can be viewed as coming from a fundamentally negative perspective. This catalyzed a conversation in which each attendee examined the perspectives that their projects embody and what the potential implications are for their audiences.

One evaluator observed the need for translational work around sustainability ( i.e., efforts that look beyond one study or project at the messages emerging from multiple projects and identifying ways that those messages can be communicated to different audiences). By the end, a theme of the workshop became that while sustainability is a “super wicked problem” with no single definition, informal STEM learning institutions, programs, and projects have an important role to play in helping the public understand pieces of the puzzle and how they are interconnected.

Looking ahead to the ISE PI Meeting, workshop participants brainstormed ideas for taking the conversation forward. A group agreed to facilitate a breakout session based on these questions:

1) How can the ISE field continue to develop a more sophisticated understanding of, and increase its participation in, sustainability education research and development activities?

2) How can ISE professionals better network with researchers to position themselves to be partners in NSF proposals related to sustainability?

3) What are the new models in sustainability education?

If you are attending the PI meeting March 14-16, and this is your primary area of interest, please consider joining this “Nascent to Burgeoning Communities of Interest” breakout session. Other PI-led convenings will also be sharing the results of their sustainability-related work and invite further conversation during this time, including gatherings such as the Carbon Smarts Conference: Learning Climate Change Science Anywhere Anytime (4) and The Hurricane Science and Education Symposium.” (5)



(2) To think, to write, to publish.


(4) Carbon Smarts Conferece