5 Things Scientists Recommend about Working with the Science Communication/Informal STEM Learning Sector

We asked scientists who have previous experience working on science communication (SciComm), public engagement, and informal STEM education (ISE) projects to weigh in on what they would wish they had known before working and collaborating with the SciComm and ISE sectors. Here are five things they recommended for scientists new to SciComm or ISE or for those partnering with scientists or science organizations for the first time.

  1. Go with the flow.
    A core professional strategy for many or most scientists involves controlling the variables.This practice is key to success, validity, and building the knowledge base. While it may be complex and messy in many scientific experiments, in “natural” social settings it is often impossible. Learners come to engagement interactions with a wide variety of prior experiences, understandings, interests and motivations. Sometimes they may simply be having a bad or a good day. Most educational settings — from classrooms to festivals to museums — are subject to a vast number of unexpected and competing and sometimes compounding factors that may be out of the control of your educational partners. For instance, school district policies may change. The expected number of participants may suddenly double or else evaporate. Because many informal and formal settings operate on shoestring budgets, the equipment or apparatus that was expected may not materialize. It is key, in science engagement, to “go with the flow.” Changing, adapting, and compromising — as opposed to controlling for variables — are core professional practices and capacities of effective educators, and key to success in education and public engagement.  
  2. Find your favorite theoretical framework.
    Science communication and informal STEM educators, particularly those who are successful at securing grants, develop and work with theoretical frameworks that are used to design, implement, and evaluate efforts. These are essential to building the knowledge base in science communication and are the equivalent, perhaps, to working scientific models that you may have internalized in your own studies. Because theory links practice and research in science communication/ISE, the language often reflects work in the social sciences and can be new or disconcerting. Understanding and articulating the theory of learning/engagement, theory of action, and theory of change — three different things — is critical to both communicating with your partner and pursuing a successful collaboration.
  3. Watch the language.
    Research shows that when engaging the public it’s important to introduce technical terms only after people have an understanding of the phenomenon being described.  That is, first you provide experiences, insights, and questions about the ideas or phenomena, and then — when people grasp the general idea and why they should care — you can provide technical terms as a means of both “shorthanding” your conversations and of engaging participants in scientific discussions and work. That said, with your partners, you may similarly encounter language barriers. You may in fact be using the same term for different phenomena, or different terms for the same phenomena. This means both defining what you mean as you go, trying to minimize technical terms, and engaging in active processes that surface the ideas behind the terms as a way of building shared language. A tool like value mapping is a good way to do this.
  4. Build on tradition.
    As a scientist you are aware of centuries of scientific work that have led to the current state of what you know about your area of expertise. You not only know what we know, but you also know what we don’t know. The same is true in science communication and informal science education (except for the “centuries” part). It is important to understand that when you partner with science communicators and informal science educators you are working with people who are building on many decades of evidence about how to do this work. This includes what is known and not known about how to engage the public with science. There are several syntheses of the research evidence that have been published, starting in 2009, by the National Academies of Science. It may be useful to review these volumes, or see research briefs that summarize them, to better appreciate and understand not only what your partner may know or wonder, but how your work together may address gaps in the knowledge of the field (and thus be more likely to be funded by external agencies).
  5. Learning is lifelong and life-wide.​
    Traditionally learning has been conceptualized as knowledge acquisition, and if you are a practicing scientist you probably have excelled at that aspect of learning. Scientific concepts and skills are central to learning in science, but decades of research (summarized in the National Research Council reports mentioned above [LINK]) point to the idea that learning involves more than that: It involves the development of interest and identity.  It involves understanding the purpose and use of scientific ideas. It involves understanding the nature of scientific knowledge — e.g. the evidence-based, falsifiable, and tentative nature of science.  It’s also important to know that learning develops and occurs across the lifespan — across time and setting. This means that no one single engagement with science is the beginning and end of learning, but rather advances learning from wherever the learners started to a new place in their relationship with science. Understanding this means that you don’t need your audiences to understand everything there is to know about your science. But you want them to develop interest, questions, and ways of going deeper based on the experiences you have provided them.  This also suggests that you need to design your science engagement so that you can recognize where learners are starting. A child generally knows less than an adult, but not always. Not all people of the same age know and think the same things. Moreover, there is ample evidence that learning is a cultural process, and that we learn in different ways.  For example, research finds that in the US Latinx heritage young people are much more likely to engage in activities and construct knowledge collaboratively, whereas Caucasian young people are much more likely to engage independently. Both approaches are a resource for learning, but learning experiences must be designed so that the cultural (familial, community) ways of engaging are positioned as ways into the experience, such that learning is successful because of who participants are (and not despite who they are).

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