Centers for Chemical Innovation – Informal Science Education Partnerships


March 20th, 2013

In September 2012 the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded supplemental funding to five Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCI) to partner with professional informal science education (ISE) providers to expand their education and outreach efforts with innovative strategies outside the classroom. These projects reflect a growing movement of STEM researchers whose work is achieving broader impacts through creation of engaging and meaningful educational activities, requiring a level of intellectual rigor comparable to that of the scientific research. The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) has launched an initiative to support these types of collaborations by providing connectivity and resources to researchers seeking to begin informal science education collaborations, as well as those already involved in them.

The NSF CCI Program supports research centers focused on major, long-term fundamental chemical research challenges. The overall goal of the Centers is to address challenges that will produce transformative research that leads to innovation and attracts broad scientific and public interest. While the Centers each had existing public outreach activities, the supplemental funding gave them/images/uploads/ the opportunity to develop new programs in partnership with the ISE community.

In 2012 NSF CCI Program Director Katherine Covert began a 20% part-time detail with the NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program. Covert began attending the AISL program’s Lifelong Learning Cluster meetings, exploring questions with AISL program officers about how to improve the integration of research and what the CCI program termed “public science outreach.” Dennis Schatz, the AISL Lifelong Learning Cluster Coordinator, and Dr. Covert worked together to identify opportunities for large NSF research investments (centers and facilities) to work with the ISE community. Together they recognized areas of need including: supporting informal science education awareness and expertise among Center staff charged with leading broader impacts efforts, providing resources to improve the quality of evaluation of education and outreach efforts, and catalyzing opportunities for collaborations between public outreach staff and informal STEM learning professionals.

Through AISL, Dr. Covert was introduced to CAISE, whom she invited to conduct a day of informal science education presentations and activities at a CCI leadership meeting of managing directors and directors of education and public outreach. Discussions begun at this meeting seeded new ideas for ISE strategies to address broader impacts needs and led to changes in CCI proposal solicitation language that emphasized partnerships with ISE providers. Dr. Covert attended the 2012 AISL Principal Investigator (PI) Meeting, where she perused the work of some 200 informal science education PIs, project staff, learning researchers, and evaluators, and CAISE Co-PI Kirsten Ellenbogen attended the CCI PI Meeting to learn about the range of the Centers’ research and to share resources for evaluating broader impacts efforts. In mid 2012, the supplemental solicitation for CCI-ISE partnership funding was announced (DCL, NSF 12-056).

There are currently five funded partnership activities around the US, including:

  • Center for Enabling New Technologies through Catalysis (CENTC), University of Washington, Seattle, and the Liberty Science Center, Jersey City, NJ. CENTC participated in the Pacific Science Center’s “Portal to the Public” program, which included an exhibit and science communication training for scientists, and is now working with the Liberty Science Center (LSC) to develop and implement an innovative interactive learning platform using a multitouch table to engage groups of visitors to LSC’s “Energy Quest” exhibition. The multitouch table is designed to allow users to create chemical pathways that take raw fossil fuel materials and turn them into a variety of familiar products (e.g., aspirin, dolls, shampoo, lipstick, shoes, etc.) One of the big ideas that CENTC and LSC are trying to communicate is the role of catalysts in speeding up reactions. The synergistic partnership meets the needs of CENTC to broaden the reach of its communication about the ubiquity of petrochemicals in everyday life and LSC’s desire to update its energy exhibition to include current scientific research. An evaluation of the multitouch exhibit is being conducted by Randi Korn and Associates.
  • CCI Solar, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, CA, Wildwood School, and the Westside Science Club. CCI Solar’s research on the efficient and economical conversion of solar energy into stored chemical fuel provides an entry point for informal science education activities designed to introduce pre-high school participants to basic chemistry and related STEM concepts such as physics and plant biology. These activities are largely participant driven (the young Club members assist in activity development) and are being developed to be chemistry-focused “maker-type” experiences that allow the Club members to follow their own interests and questions. High school students from the nearby Wildwood School are serving as peer mentors to help guide the Science Club participants’ investigations and assist in the program’s development. In addition, Caltech students from CCI Solar are active participants in the program, developing and delivering activities while honing their science communication skills with the young Science Club audience. The Westside Science Club is an out-of-school time opportunity that brings participant-directed STEM activities to under-resourced late-elementary and middle school students in low-income housing units in Los Angeles. CCI Solar plans to adapt the Science Club projects for use by other teachers, adult hobbyists, scientists, and engineers, as well as to provide a replicable plan to grow additional Science Clubs in other locations. Kimberly Burtnyk of Science for Society is evaluating the project.
  • Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit (CaSTL) and the California Science Project of Irvine (CSPI) at the University of California, Irvine, and the Boys and Girls Club (BGC) of Santa Ana. CaSTL’s research goal is to develop the essential science and technology to probe single chemical events in real space and time with tools that are designed to unravel elementary steps in chemistry. To expand and diversify outreach in the Santa Ana area, the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Ana was chosen as a strategic partner because over 90% of their participants self-identify as Latino, and 93% are on free and reduced lunch. Because Latinos are underrepresented in STEM professions, and many of the local schools lack regular science instruction, CaSTL created this partnership to expose students to more opportunities to engage in science learning in the afterschool environment. The CaSTL outreach team, in collaboration with CSPI, is developing hands-on, standards-aligned experiences that expose program participants to the particle nature of matter, forces, optics, and microscopy, as well as engaging them in thinking and discussion about what it means to be a scientist.  The activities are being evaluated by Lauren Shea, from the Center for Educational Partnerships at the University of California, Irvine.
  • Center for Chemical Evolution (CCE), Emory University, Atlanta, GA, and Ari Daniel Shapiro, independent radio/multimedia producer and science journalist. The scientific objective of the Center for Chemical Evolution is to study the chemical origins of life using models of prebiotic chemistry that can self-assemble into polymers that resemble RNA and proteins. The partnership with Mr. Shapiro draws on his experience producing podcasts for the Encyclopedia of Life and other narrative strategies to integrate multimedia, live performance, and chemistry. Together they are developing a series of audio pieces entitled “Small Matters,” which explore current chemical research in the context of stories. Approximately one-quarter of their audio pieces will tell the story of prebiotic chemistry occurring within and outside of the Center, while the remaining stories will be focused on interesting chemistry research occurring in the Atlanta region.  These stories will be disseminated on the Georgia Public Broadcasting Education website, the Public Radio Exchange, and various public radio shows, such as Living on Earth. In this project, Shapiro and CCE Education & Outreach Director Meisa Salaita are also planning on exploring how these stories will present live on stage. They have partnered with The Encyclopedia Show (Chicago) and Story Collider (New York) to experiment with how these chemistry stories can best be incorporated in to a live performance.  The project is being evaluated by the Goodman Research Group in Boston.
  • Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry (CSMC), Oregon State University, Corvallis, and Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), Portland. CSMC’s research is focused on enhancing the sustainable chemistry toolbox with new methods and techniques that will advance the scientific enterprise and transform the next generation of products, while preparing students to become the next generation of green chemists. OMSI’s current content focus areas of Energy and the Environment, and Innovation and Engineering provide a platform for developing a partnership between CSMC researchers and OMSI educators. The goal of the partnership is to build a deeper understanding of each other’s profession through professional development activities, and with a strong partnership in place, develop a pilot ISE project to engage the public with topics of CSMC science and chemistry. The pilot project will be developed in context of a broader plan to support long term collaboration. The program evaluation will be led by OMSI’s internal evaluation department.

The University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out of School Environments (UPCLOSE), Karen Knutson and CAISE Co-PI Kevin Crowley are conducting an evaluation of the five partnerships, aimed at investigating elements of sustainable, mutually-beneficial collaborations between STEM researchers and informal science education institutions, programs, projects and professionals, as well as impacts on intended target audiences. One of CAISE’s roles over the next two years is to apply what is learned from the CCI model to provide resources and opportunities for new collaborations and partnerships to develop between STEM researchers and the informal STEM learning community.

CAISE, in addition to providing and refining resources to support the evolution of these and other STEM-ISE partnerships, is studying models of building university-wide infrastructure for supporting broader impacts efforts by strategically aligning the work of university STEM researchers with that of the university’s social and learning science researchers and outreach and engagement professionals, among others. Examples of this model include current initiatives at the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University initiated by CAISE Co-PI John Falk and at the University of Utah Center for Science and Math Education, led by CAISE Senior Advisor Nalini Nadkarni.

For more information about the Centers for Chemical Innovation-Informal Science Education partnerships, or about the CAISE Broader Impacts initiative, contact CAISE Project Director Jamie Bell.

For some examples of successful partnerships with STEM researchers from the museum and science center field, see the following websites: