Communication, Public Engagement, Broader Impacts: What Does it All Mean?

March 3rd, 2015

Engagement, outreach, education, communication, broader impacts–all of these terms were used in more than 20 sessions related to education and public engagement at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting.

But what did the wide variety of presenters mean when they talked about “public engagement?” Who are “public audiences,” in what ways do researchers and STEM-based professionals interact with them, and what are the impacts for all involved? Since all of these phrases often mean something different (although AAAS does offer a definition and examples of “public engagement”), it’s instructive to unpack them and explore how they relate to each other. In this post, I will discuss some of the varying definitions and implications of participating in “public engagement” activities, and make some suggestions about how they are and can be supported by the informal STEM learning field.

How are we engaging the public?

The CAISE Informal Science Education (ISE) Evidence Wiki article on public engagement recounts the history of the term and how it relates to dimensions of educational engagement. The education-related effects of public engagement activities can occur in academic, behavioral, emotional/affective/psychological, and cognitive realms. The term also has deep roots in participatory democracy (which is echoed in the co-creation of research questions and application to community activism sometimes seen in citizen science projects. In the ISE field, however, “public engagement” tends to mean activities focused on interactions between scientists and the public in settings like museums, festivals, afterschool programs, and others. In these activities, there is a direct encounter implied—the scientist and the audience interact directly with one another or through a mediator, like a museum educator or exhibit designer.

These types of activities are sometimes also called science communication. Among tech-savvy researchers, science communication is a hot topic—just check out Twitter’s #scicomm hashtag. But what gets called “science communication” by its proponents can vary widely; as Ben Lillie (director of the StoryCollider science storytelling program) outlines, anything from giving a media interview to producing a TV show to speaking at a sci-fi convention can count as “science communication.”

While broader impacts is a narrower concept than the two above—specifically, it refers to the Broader Impacts requirement of US National Science Foundation (NSF) funded grants—its definition refers to a range of activities found in labs and research sites around the world. Since 1997, NSF has evaluated “the potential of the proposed activity… to benefit the Nation.” However, the exact language used by NSF to describe this criteria has evolved over time, and the agency prefers not to provide prescriptive examples. Instead, they have encouraged the community to think conceptually about how to share research more broadly—through traditional academic routes like publishing papers and presenting at conferences, but also communicating with journalists, providing research experiences and information for children and adults, or improving the infrastructure for research and education.

In one session at the AAAS conference, we learned about a working group of AAAS and Einstein Fellows at the NSF who have produced a Broader Impacts Working Guide (currently under review) that helps proposers think about their broader impacts activities through a series of questions like: why is my research important? How might it impact communities beyond my discipline? What resources and goals do I currently have? What do I want to accomplish, and how will I know when my goals have been met? Even if you’re not working on or proposing an NSF-funded project, asking these questions can help you define and shape the scope and impacts of your public engagement activities.

What’s in it for Scientists?

Clearly, there are many options for engaging with the public. But beyond altruistically educating others about science, what’s in it for the scientists? Doing public engagement and science communication takes time and money, and it’s not always easy to put together an effective public program. Several sessions at the AAAS meeting explored this idea, and set the stage for more work to be done.

That public engagement experiences lead to marketable, transferable skills for scientists is a point that emerged throughout the sessions. In a session on visualizations in science museums, Carol Lynn Alpert of the Museum of Science reported on how their “Sharing Science” workshops have helped participants become more confident and skilled communicators. At another session on alternative careers in the sciences, a diverse group of panelists talked about how their PhDs and activities outside of the lab have led to careers in policy, advocacy, education, and outreach. Especially for graduate students and postdocs, developing communication skills and expertise in education through public engagement activities can lead to career tracks at science societies, museums, schools, media organizations, and others. And, in a session on the impacts of public engagement on scientists, Jessica Sickler shared findings from the Science & Engineering Ambassadors public engagement program, in which participants reported applying their newfound communication skills to other areas like informal mentoring and developing better presentations for academic audiences.

Several sessions at the conference focused on the venues in which engagement takes place, particularly on how science communication on social media can lead to career benefits for scientists. Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin, Madison presented on the wide variety of ways that scientists at UW engage online—by editing Wikipedia articles, posting updates on Facebook, writing blogs, curating videos on YouTube, and Tweeting. She found that scientists are not only using these methods to communicate with the public, but also to network with other scientists. Research shows that scholars’ interactions with reporters and peers on social media can amplify the impact of their research.

While evidence to support the tangible benefits of public engagement work is emergent, many presenters emphasized that there are still varying goals and perceptions about public engagement among scientists and other stakeholders. Researchers John Besley and Anthony Dudo shared results from a pilot survey of AAAS members (most of whom are based at universities) that showed most public engagement effort from that audience focused on the traditional goals of “education” and “defending science” rather than to more emergent goals like “exciting the public about science,” “building trust,” and “setting context” for science understanding. In another survey of science communication trainers, they found that scientists are generally more focused on building communication skills than they are on developing communication or outreach goals. Besley and Dudo emphasized in the Q&A portion of the session that scientists need to think more critically about what they want to achieve in public engagement, and that strict communication efforts might not be the best way to achieve that (for example, research on role models shows that just being a part of an educational effort may help to improve attitudes toward, and self-efficacy in, science for learners).

Another session on funding for science communication—which had representation from industry, government, and private foundations—demonstrated that there is little consensus about how to best fund public engagement efforts. While all panelists agreed that supporting this work is important and discussed multiple pathways to funding it (such as through the NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning program), there was a general recognition that there is somewhat of an “unfunded mandate” when it comes to public engagement and communication efforts.

How can the Informal STEM Learning Field Help?

No matter what you call it, there are a lot of ways for scientists to interact with the public. To someone new to public engagement, these options may sound overwhelming. The good news is that scientists are not alone. There are many ways that the informal STEM learning field can support and contribute to public engagement and communication efforts:

Partnering with an ISE institution. Museums, afterschool programs, media outlets, and other informal learning venues already have deep connections to their communities. Scientists looking to reach a wide audience can partner with these organizations to help communicate their research to the public in effective, engaging ways. There are numerous examples of informal learning outreach programs—check out CAISE’s Scientists and Public Engagement page and Spotlights series for example projects. These partnerships can also help maximize grant funds; for example, large research centers can make subaward agreements to ISE institutions to support broader impact work.

Drawing on learning research to design effective programs. Informal learning is lifelong, life-wide, and life-deep, and provides many opportunities to connect with public audiences. There is a growing, interdisciplinary body of knowledge about how we learn in informal environments. For example, research on informal learning can help answer questions about how to engage girls in STEM or strategies for communicating complex science topics.

Incorporating evaluation strategies to demonstrate impact. NSF-funded projects that research and develop informal learning experiences and strategies have long been required to produce evaluation reports. These projects are evaluated for their stated goals, which range from increasing knowledge on a particular subject to providing STEM career tracks for underrepresented youth. Evaluations have been conducted in diverse learning environments like science festivals, lab experiences, radio programs, and much more. Scientists participating in public engagement activities can borrow strategies and methods from the ISE evaluation field—check out the PI’s Guide to Managing Evaluation in Informal STEM Education Projects to start—and work with a professional evaluator to fully develop and assess the impacts of a public engagement effort.

How have you supported public engagement? Share with us by submitting a Project page to, or tell us about it in the Comments section.

Image (top): Young women participate in a conference at the Argonne National Laboratory. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Image (post): Kellie Irwin, a science instructor with the Ocean’s Institute, teaches a student how to touch sea life at a science fair during the opening of the Iridescent Science and Discovery Center. The science center is part of an outreach program with the Office of Naval Research to help engage underprivileged and urban at-risk youth.