Engagement | Bruce Lewenstein

Bruce Lewenstein is Professor of Science Communication at Cornell University and a widely-known authority on public communication of science and technology–how science and technology are reported to the public and how the public understands controversial scientific issues and “emerging technologies” such as biotechnology and nanotechnology. You can watch this short video, download the full transcript, and get highlights from the interview below.

“I think engagement is important—whether you’re thinking about it as educational, democratic, or institutional engagement—for educational purposes.”
– Bruce Lewenstein, Professor of Science Communication, Cornell University

2018 Interview Highlights:

What is your working definition of “engagement,” and how does your concept of engagement potentially differ from that of others?
I definitely have a very specific meaning or set of meanings regarding engagement. I think one of the big challenges in our field is that people don’t realize that there are multiple meanings. Some people think of engagement in terms of educational engagement: getting people engaged in the material and excited by it, having their attitude change as they interact with the material and so forth. 

A second kind of engagement is democratic engagement. This involves the governance of science: Who decides what counts as an interesting scientific question? Who decides where we allocate resources and what kind of grants we fund? Are those decisions that only scientists should make, or in a democratic society, which many of us believe in despite all of its challenges, should we have more citizens and more people in the overall community participate in governance? That’s democratic engagement and policy engagement. Education is about empowering people, and part of empowerment is having the authority to make decisions. So that ties it to the democratic ideal.

There is a third kind of engagement, institutional engagement. At a practical level, most institutions want people to be engaged with them. So a particular science museum may feel that yes, they want you to learn, and they may articulate that this is all about democracy, but “by the way, would you become a member, and would you please come back three times a year?” 

If you go into a meeting of senior museum staff and they start talking about engagement, it’s likely that they mean engagement with that institution rather than educational engagement. So when the head of education of that museum says, “Yeah, we work really hard to get people engaged,” which meaning is he using? I think it’s important to think about those three different kinds of engagement. They can overlap, and the same project can address multiple meanings of engagement, but they are different meanings.

How do you measure engagement in your work, and what are the tradeoffs of your approach?
One of the challenges in measuring engagement is coming up with some operational definitions of what you’re going to measure. I tend to get very frustrated with scales. I’m trained as an historian, and I like qualitative data. I think that there’s a lot to be understood by looking in a more holistic way at what people are doing. We had to be willing to step away from our scales and see what was going on that the scales couldn’t measure. And we had to figure out how to ask interesting questions. There are also problems with scales because people will give you the socially desirable answer. If you’re asking them which of these topics they’re interested in, they say, “of course, I’m interested in science.” But they aren’t especially interested in science, not compared with sports or politics. So you have to be a little careful about how you interpret some of the scales. While I do use scales, my goal is to be not so stuck in a scale that I don’t step back and say, “What am I now seeing? What’s happening here that I didn’t think to measure? And what’s not happening here?” That’s a really hard one. It’s the classic Sherlock Holmes concept of the dog that did not bark in the night: how do you suddenly notice that you were expecting to see something and it’s not there? It’s one of those things you have to constantly remind yourself about.

What are the big questions in informal science education, science communication, or formal science education for the next five to 10 years regarding engagement?
We shouldn’t just be talking about individual science literacy; we also should be talking about community science literacy and broad societal literacy. I think this is critical and one of the most exciting developments in the field, and it’s new and we don’t yet have very good ways of assessing community science literacy or figuring out what its implications are.

Download full interview

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This material is supported by National Science Foundation award DRL-2229061, with previous support under DRL-1612739, DRL-1842633, DRL-1212803, and DRL-0638981. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations contained within InformalScience.org are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.

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