ISE Networks, Infrastructure and Resources

October 7th, 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 stimulate 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.

Over the years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has made significant investment in networks and resource centers that have connected and facilitated the work of informal STEM learning projects, institutions and people as a strategy for achieving learning, audience, and professional development goals. What have leaders and participants learned from these networks, and what impact have they had on practice and learning research within the field? Furthermore, what are the next steps for extant networks and infrastructure, and what are the new developments on the horizon? The 2014 AISL PI Meeting session described below was the latest installment in a long thread of CAISE-convened discussions on these issues that began in 2011.

From left: Jason Brenneman-Black, Karen Peterson, and Larry Bell.

From left: Jason Brenneman-Black, Karen Peterson, and Larry Bell.

In this session, leaders of three networks facilitated a group discussion centered around the following questions: 1) What are the basic needs that are required to sustain a network? 2) What are current funding mechanisms, and what might future mechanisms be, at NSF and other agencies to ensure that networks can sustain themselves? and 3) What might a “master network” learn about the intricacies of doing “net work”? The three projects that seeded the discussion were KQED QUEST, represented by Jason Brenneman-Black, Executive Producer at KQED; the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP), represented by Karen Peterson, PI of the current NSF award that funds the NGCP; and the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net), represented by Larry Bell, Senior V.P. for Strategic Initiatives at the Museum of Science, Boston.

What are the basic needs required to sustain a network?

Networks grow out of a variety of complex impulses, needs and inputs, and as a result, require different efforts to sustain them. However, all networks have some things in common, e.g. local or national partners. Leveraging the resources of these partnership connections can help to sustain networks. For example, the National Girls Collaborative Project is written into grants as a disseminator/outreach arm for its partner organizations. In the future, and for other networks, such dissemination and distribution efforts could be supported through grant funding.

Another commonality among networks is that partners should feel that they have a stake in the work of the larger ecosystem. Developing common network assets and products can help build a sense of identity and recognition. Within KQED QUEST, partners in the network rely on one another—science content creators need the development and dissemination expertise of media organizations, and media organizations need quality science content produced by experts. The robust NISE Net, with over 500 national partners organized around seven regional hubs originally had the potential to feel disparate and distributed, but common resources—such as kits that contain educational and professional development materials—have helped users feel that they are a part of a national initiative.

It is important for networks to think about sustainability throughout their lifecycle—early and often. For example, the NGCP commissioned a feasibility study that found some goals of the network partners were outside of the scope of what NSF could sustain. Those findings were helpful in starting stakeholders to think about ways to continue, and goals for the network over the long term.

What are current mechanisms, and what might future mechanisms be, at NSF to ensure that networks can continue?

Networks are successful when they are driven by common needs within a community. The National Science Foundation has provided initial funding for professional organizations like the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), and the nascent Citizen Science Association. Both of those communities had local leadership that served as a catalyst for collaboration.

The three projects provided examples of questions and strategies to consider when forming a network that might be funded by NSF:

  • Take advantage of NSF $50,000 workshop grants, which can bring people together for initial brainstorming around forming a network. Part of that award can be used to disseminate and build on results of the meeting.
  • Web infrastructure—what infrastructure will you be using or building to sustain your network? Are there existing infrastructure assets funded by NSF, or elsewhere (for example,, that could be leveraged?
  • If you have a current NSF AISL award, does it warrant being scaled up into a network?

What could a “master network” learn about the intricacies of “network”?

Here, the discussion centered around what knowledge needs to be synthesized to best understand how to leverage networks. Some questions to consider here include:

  • Is there a way to structure or scaffold a “network of networks” as individual networks reach maturity?
  • What are the key strengths that each network is able to provide?
  • What is the right scale—should we start, for example, with regional convenings?

This conversation will continue at the 2014 Association of Science-Technology Centers annual conference in a session called “Networking the Networks: Connecting national networks at the local level”, organized by Bob Russell.

Special thanks to Trevor Nesbit for documenting this session.