Connecting with Scientists: The Needs and Opportunities

November 12th, 2014

The Diving Deeper, Looking Forward session topics at the 2014 AISL PI Meeting emerged from a pre-meeting survey of AISL-funded Principal Investigators; discussions with PIs and others who have participated in CAISE convenings over the past two years; and input from CAISE staff, co-PIs, and NSF Program Officers. These sessions were intended to catalyze discussions about cross-sector topics and issues that can continue beyond the meeting and generate new ideas for future projects and collaborations. The following blog post is a summary of questions, issues and ideas expressed by the participants in this session.

For as long as there has been an informal science education (ISE) field, institutions, programs, projects and individuals working in this space have interacted with natural and physical scientists and STEM-based professionals, as well as students and professionals charged with public outreach in a wide range of ways. From scientists serving as advisors to museums and science centers on exhibit content to researchers engaging audiences in informal settings with their disciplines and questions to ISE institutions establishing MoUs with academia to establish joint appointments for faculty, the variety of relationships and collaborations continues to expand.

A session at the National Science Foundation Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program Principal Investigator meeting in August 2014 attracted over 30 attendees to discuss the following questions:

  • What is the current knowledge that the scientific community has about informal science education?
  • What are scientists’ attitudes about informal science education/engagement?
  • What are the logistics of communicating, collaborating, and working with scientists?


A panel of three facilitators including two natural scientists (Nalini Nadkarni from the University of Utah and Bruce McFadden from University of Florida) and one scholar of science communication (Bruce Lewenstein from Cornell University) shared data, observations and thoughts based on their experiences working in and studying public engagement with science writ large.

With regard to the first question, panelists and participants discussed a general lack of awareness by the scientific community of the growing body of knowledge about how people of all ages are learning in informal settings such as museums science centers, zoos and aquaria, a range of cyber learning, gaming and media platforms, public and citizen science programs and science festivals and events. Evidence from the learning sciences and findings from evaluations of individual ISE programs and projects are not on the radar of researchers and STEM-based professionals who need to stay on top of literatures related to their own disciplines. NSF and other federal and private funders have and are funding efforts to further develop and make accessible the knowledge and resources from projects like the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISENet) and Portal to the Public.

There is a sense that institutions of science are beginning to pay attention to science communication, engagement, outreach and ISE as evidenced by the ever-expanding related sessions at scientific societies like AGU, AAAS, ACS and American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) conferences/meetings. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has also devoted significant resources via two Sackler Colloquia on the Science of Science Communication and Learning Science in Informal Environments report.

How do Scientists View ISE?

One session participant observed that scientists, even neuroscientists, sometimes have little understanding of how people learn. They often think it’s just a matter of finding the right words that will lead to a learning outcome. A little bit of knowledge from ISE could go a long way in these instances.

Another question raised during the discussion is whether the science education and communication worlds are speaking appropriately to scientists, or are they ships passing in the night? (The NAS Sackler colloquia are meant to partially address this.) What strategies and techniques are currently being employed to assess the effectiveness of the communication?

In terms of the perceptions and attitudes question, there was ample evidence shared and a sense expressed by the facilitators and participants that there has been progress towards more positive regard for communication, outreach, education and engagement activities on the part of scientists, their colleagues and students. An admixture of generational change, trends in public policy, the growing ubiquity of public forums and platforms available to researchers and funding priorities like the new emphasis on broader impacts by NSF and others is having a positive effect on attitudes.

With an “n” of about 1000 and a 26% return rate, a survey of science faculty, post docs and grad students conducted at the University of Utah was used to extrapolate that 20% of campus scientists enthusiastically, regularly engaged in education and outreach activities. About 40% either didn’t or didn’t return the survey, leaving another 40% who may be at various points along a continuum of support for/interest in/curiosity about benefits and outcomes of such engagement (assuming that respondents were more positively predisposed towards such activities).

Survey results from Utah and Cornell also seem to expose the myth that it’s only young people—post docs, and young profs, e.g.—who are more open and interested in getting involved in engagement and education activities. An analysis of the Utah survey showed highly tenured and senior faculty were interested and/or engaged. A discussion point became the notion that senior figures may be disproportionally more important in terms of engaging with ISE because they are the role models who grant permission for how their students and younger colleagues spend their time.

A report that CAISE commissioned to determine the perceptions and attitudes of a sample of research scientists about broader impacts and the potential of informal science education to help develop proposals, plans and activities revealed that although ISE and its broad nature were described in the invitation and preamble to the interviews, the term “informal science education” was used by only a few of the 21 participants. The term “outreach” was used most frequently, and sometimes synonymously with “broader impacts”. CAISE designed its own portal into the repository of related resources “Outreach for Scientists” partially with this report in mind.

One scientist observed that scientists and (informal) educators have different frameworks of thinking, hence there needs to be time and effort spent solely for the purpose of better understanding each other. While there is an increasing emphasis on accountability (for example, at NSF), scientists don’t typically understand different approaches for evaluation and assessment. Because the new NSF Grant Program Guidelines (GPG) place increasing importance on accountability, ISE can play a role in helping the scientific community with strategies for addressing this through the decades of work that have gone into developing evaluation strategies, sharing data and reports, and building capacity for evaluation in informal learning.

Several participants mentioned the need to replace and/or build on funding mechanisms like the discontinued NSF Connecting Researchers and Public Audiences (CRPA) program, which are crucial to catalyzing and sustaining relationships between ISE organizations, professionals and the research community.

Topics for further Conversation and Consideration

Topics and considerations raised during the open discussion that ended the session included:

  • Awareness of all federal and private foundations that have mechanisms for supporting outreach and broader impacts efforts
  • Awareness/inclusion of scientists working in non-academic settings such as national parks and industry, a growing number of whom are engaged in education and outreach activities
  • Awareness that education/engagement/outreach/communication activities can get started by scientists whose research is already funded going to their own research directorates and program officers when they ask for a supplement to take advantage of a public engagement opportunity/idea related to the research
  • Awareness/acknowledgement that there are relatively few tenured people [in the world] compared to graduate students, so it may be quite appropriate that more young scientists are involved in engagement activities. If we knew we were getting 30% of tenured faculty and 30% of grad students, e.g., we would know we’re doing really well. A need for more research here.
  • Need for more research on the effects and outcomes of collaborations between ISE and scientists on the scientists and their research (if any) and more and better evaluations of professional development and training programs for scientists on communication and engagement skills and approaches.


Related Resources

These resources were mentioned during the presentation by contributors and participants.

  • Portal to the Public summative evaluation. Shows that scientists’ communication skills in general improved as a result of participation in the program, especially posters presentations
  • NSF GK12 Program evaluation findings point to benefits to scientists doing engagement work
  • NSF Research Traineeship (NRT), a cross-directorate training program to address the 80% of grad students who will not go on to work in academia
  • Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) Similar National Institute of Health (NIH) program
  • American Chemical Society (ACS) study of preparedness of chemistry grad students for engaging in engagement and communication
  • In-progress research (on AAAS members) that shows that age is less correlated with willingness to engage in public engagement than expected
  • 24 National Park Service (NPS) Research Learning Centers, designed to help the public understand how research going on in parks is affecting management decisions, as well as understanding of the broader ecosystem/environment
  • Network for Broader Impacts (N4BI). Recently NSF-funded Resource Coordination Network (RCN) that is inclusive of resources from informal science education institutions, programs and projects

Selected Resources from the Informal Commons