SCIENCES: Supporting a Community’s Informal Education Needs: Confidence and Empowerment in STEM


April 18th, 2017

This Spotlight was co-written with Sarah Breen Bartecki, Lisa-Anne DeGregoria Kelly, & Michael Howard

What happens when two organizations with similar missions partner to focus all of their informal science education programs in an under-resourced neighborhood in ways local residents want to be supported to improve their community? SCIENCES, Supporting a Community’s Informal Education Needs: Confidence and Empowerment in STEM, is a partnership of Chicago Zoological Society (CZS), which operates Brookfield Zoo, and Eden Place Nature Center.  

The goal of the project, funded through the National Science Foundation Advancing Informal STEM Learning Program (NSF AISL Grant #1323280), is to create a STEM ecosystem in a severely under-resourced urban community in support of lifelong environmental science learning and community empowerment. To help answer this question, the University of Illinois at Chicago is examining how CZS and Eden Place work together to support project goals through case study research; and ExposeYourMuseum, LLC is conducting project evaluation within the community and between the partners.


The Partners

The mission of the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages Brookfield Zoo, is to inspire conservation leadership by connecting people with wildlife and nature. Located 20 miles west of Chicago, the Zoo is visited by more than 2.3 million people annually and has an operating budget of more than $60 million. Eden Place Nature Center, located in Chicago’s Fuller Park, has an operating budget of less than $400,000 and was created on the site of a former illegal dump. The Fuller Park population is approximately 90% African American. The neighborhood has one of the highest poverty (around 50%) and unemployment rates (around 35%), lowest per capita incomes (around $10,000), and is among the highest crime areas in the city of Chicago.

The Chicago Zoological Society and Eden Place Nature Center have partnered together for more than a decade and have a strong relationship built on mutual trust and respect. The relationship started in 2006, when CZS provided nature programming for an Eden Place event and has blossomed into CZS involvement in expanding the prairie, building a wetland, and installing raised beds. These efforts created the foundation for Eden Place’s farmers market, expanded educational opportunities for teachers, students, and families around these mini-ecosystems, the distribution of free passes to Brookfield Zoo, and increased Zoo attendance by Fuller Park families.



SCIENCES, launched in August 2013, provides an ‘ecosystemic,’ geographically-centered approach to sustained learning opportunities. The learning ecosystem draws on the strengths of program portfolios at CZS and Eden Place and provides environmental conservation-focused programs for professional, student, and public audiences of a variety of ages.  After a year of planning that included guidance from a community advisory board, SCIENCES is offering nature-based programming that supports lifelong learning around community-driven themes, such as pollinators and gardens, water, and nutrition and sustainability.

Over the first two years, program attendance was 2,700. Preliminary evaluation results show that participants are reporting increased connections to the environment and comfort with science, and that programs are good ways to connect with the community. Specifically, SCIENCES served teachers and early childhood educators through professional development. Students enhanced their learning through Zoo and Eden Place classes, participation in Brookfield Zoo’s annual science fair, and CZS’s teen volunteer program. The public participated in Community Conservation Action Days and Festivals at Eden Place, family programs, afterschool programs, and summer day camps.  



Defining community is complex: Community is not necessarily only defined by geography or census data. SCIENCES has shown us that there is fluidity in the definition of “community” and the users of a community’s resources or assets are not just the residents. In addition, neighborhood resources may not be accessed by local community residents, and resources that define community may not be present in the neighborhood. For SCIENCES, we quickly learned that “community” includes not only the location and community residents, but also resources located outside of the Fuller Park neighborhood, as well as individuals who reside in other areas and use Fuller Park neighborhood assets.

External factors outside your control will affect development: The flexibility and agility of your individual, program, and organizational response is critical. From the beginning, the project has encountered challenges that required the partners to shift and change programs and schedules. In the first year, the City of Chicago remediated, due to lead contamination, the soil at Eden Place, ripping out the mature woodland, mini prairie, and wetland; and, ongoing state, city, and school budget deficits have negatively impacted both Fuller Park and Eden Place assets causing an increased focus on meeting day-to-day needs, such as child care.

Figure out the key functions and skills needed: When developing informal STEM learning programs strong principal investigator (PI) leadership and skilled educators are important and evaluation is essential. Consider which evaluation model is best for your project so you can effectively and authentically monitor and measure goal achievement. Also, with community-focused, complex, federally funded projects, consider what else is needed, for example how you will construct and develop your team to be persistent, consistent, and always listening. And, don’t overlook the importance of both project and community relations coordination.

Partnership development is continuous:  You and your organization will change and grow. Over the course of a complex project, you will not only learn more about yourselves as individual organizations, but also as partners and colleagues. SCIENCES has been an opportunity for each partner institution to reflect on how we’re both similar and different; and, more importantly, what it means for a large, long-established, non-profit organization and a small, family-founded community based organization to work together. Each organization has its own set of systems and processes, and the organizations have varying capacities to be nimble while working within the necessary complexities of a large-scale federally funded project.

Next Steps

SCIENCES is now in its third program implementation year, and we are using the lessons learned as we continue to support lifelong environmental science learning and conservation in Fuller Park. This means not only program development and implementation, but also continued capacity building and partnership development. Further, we are focusing on strategic and sustainability planning beyond the grant-funded period through the SCIENCES “National Amplification Network,” where we share our story and engage in dialogue about ecosystemic models of community learning and engagement. We welcome the opportunity to share SCIENCES and to hear your experiences and stories. Please give us a call or stop by and talk at an upcoming conference.  And, if you’re in Chicago, visit Eden Place Nature Center and CZS’s Brookfield Zoo.

Photos © Chicago Zoological Society