Things We Heard in 2016

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December 13th, 2016

“I’m a science communicator first and a filmmaker second.” So spoke independent producer and director Sonya Pemberton at the Science Media Awards & Summit in the Hub (SMASH) in Boston this fall. SMASH was one of a variety of conferences and meetings this year that provided rich ideas and useful findings for those working in informal STEM education and science communication to reflect upon. Ms. Pemberton’s clear statement of identity was noteworthy among others that resonated  throughout a number of sessions, discussions and posters on roles, goals, content, audiences, methodologies and platforms at SMASH and elsewhere.


The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) provides resources, news and connectivity for informal STEM learning designers, evaluators and researchers. With an expanding multiplicity of informal STEM learning experiences and settings our antennae are always attuned to insights that can be applied to media-making, exhibit and program development, event and game design and beyond. This blog piece shares a few of the signals we picked up in 2016 that we found either inspiring or thought-provoking.


Sonya Pemberton was speaking as part of a SMASH panel with Sean B. Carroll, Education Director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, independent producer Jared Lipworth and Chris Filardi, Senior Scientist at Conservation International called  Scientists Taking a Stand, where much of the discussion explored how STEM media producers and the scientific community can work together more harmoniously and effectively with beneficial outcomes for each other, their peers, audiences and publics.  While there are many models of collaboration, those where scientists and producers vet each other for integrity and track record, and take the required time to build relationships result in work that satisfies and benefits both parties. The panelists agreed that these types of productions can also balance the sometimes misleading, less thoughtful or thorough treatment that science receives in mainstream media. Some advice for best practices for producers that emerged from the conversation were to: balance scientific “talent” featured in productions with independent, related disciplinary expertise, be honest with researchers about the benefits and risks of participation; and recognize when those at the beginning or end of their careers may be motivated by having “something to prove”.  


Working with scientists was also a strand throughout museum and science center gatherings in 2016. During a European Network of Science Centres and Museums (Ecsite) conference session titled Re-thinking Collaboration with Scientists, audience member Matteo Merzagora observed “We used to invite scientists [to museums and centres] for what they know, and these days we invite them as often for what they don’t know.” Matteo was referring to the growing trend to involve researchers in science communication and engagement professional developmental activities vs. engaging with them mainly for content knowledge to inform exhibit and program design. Investments in infrastructure for these types of efforts over the past decade have resulted in an evolving landscape of expertise and opportunities available to STEM researchers, directors of education and public outreach, and science communicators. A CAISE report released in May of this year provides a snapshot of this landscape, with descriptions of networks, professional associations and organizations who offer a range of trainings, resources and other supports for developing engagement, learning and broader impacts activities for diverse audiences based on evidence-based approaches.


Ever-evolving new technologies and media platforms offer scientists, producers and educators ways to connect with audiences increasingly “native” to them. Another SMASH session, Beyond Clickbait: Creating Smart, Strategic & Irresistible Online Content, looked at the affordances and appropriateness of particular forms of media for storytelling, based on the psychological orientation of their target audiences. Joe Hanson from PBS Digital Studios, Erin Chapman from the American Museum of Natural History and James Williams from National Geographic shared and compared how “ecosystems of content” provide producers with different angles on a story. Joe showed a YouTube video about bats from his It’s OK to be Smart series that is scripted, paced, produced science storytelling that lives on the series website, which he contrasted with an ephemeral Snapchat video he made to provide users with the opportunity to have a real time, behind the scenes, personal experience on their phones as they “come along” with him to Bracken Bat Cave in Texas. While the panelists all gave examples of stories that can be experienced across platforms, moderator Anna Rothschild from WGBH encouraged producers and communicators to experiment,  but to stick to ones that they love and not feel obligated to use every new media tool at their disposal. As Joe Hanson put it, “these are some of the smartest audiences in the world” who know what they like and don’t like and have the ability to give immediate feedback via comments or ignore the content all together. The entire panel session can be viewed here.


Immersive experiences was another theme that ran through sessions at media and science center conferences this year. A SMASH panel titled Experiential Media and Immersive Storytelling provided perspectives on how augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) and gaming are creating opportunities for asynchronous as well as real time “aha” and meaningful learning moments. From crowdsourcing exploration projects like the search for Genghis Khan’s tomb to role playing games to learn lake conservation to a VR dive to experience the Great Barrier Reef, the discussion explored the state of the field with regard to content (and lack thereof), ethics and emerging norms of interaction at a distance, and how blending these technologies can democratize experiences with natural and physical phenomena for learners and audiences wherever they are. Anthony Geffen  from Atlantic Productions and Alchemy VR, Kurt Squire of University of Wisconsin-Madison, Peggy Wu from Smart Information Flow Technologies and Albert Yu-Min Lin from National Geographic and University of California, San Diego shared observations, findings and predictions. While Anthony pointed out that at its inception VR was like an iPod without any tunes, panelists agreed that the field is at pivotal point where putting participants at the center of learning narratives with compelling content has the possibility to inspire on topics such as environmental,  earth and space science and empathy. Peggy spoke about the power of agency and the potential of the “co-presence” of multiple participants in VR and noted that one of its strengths with regard to the learning process is that “failure is always an option”.  Looking to the future, Albert Yu-Min Lin talked about the need for learners to be able to participate in content creation on these platforms, so that they can grow from being micro-taskers to heroes of their own narratives pursuing their own questions.


Beyond giving learners powerful experiences and communicating the utility, relevance and implications of research on people’s lives, an increasing focus of STEM media production, exhibit development and experience design has become the mainstreaming of science. An Alan J. Friedman Science Center Dialogue session at the  Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) conference this year addressed this trend and provided an opportunity to reflect on the almost  2-decade old shift from Public Understanding of Science (PUS) to Public Engagement with Science (PES). Panelists John Durant of the MIT Museum, Peter LInnett from Cultural Kettle  and Andrea Bandelli from Science Gallery International presented 3 views of where the science center and museum field currently is in the context of this history and where it might look for examples of those who are also working  to elevate science to what Sean Carroll referred to at SMASH as “the right place in our culture.” While acknowledging that some progress has been made in moving from PUS (“the deficit model) to PES (“the dialogue model”), John spoke to the gap that sometimes exists between rhetoric and reality in terms of actual two-way dialogue between scientists, communicators and their publics vs. one-way information delivery reframed as engagement. Peter’s work on the “evolving culture of science engagement” was reflected in examples he shared of scientists, communicators and platforms whose goal seems to be to embed science into daily living via stand up humor, mixed panels of experts, non-experts and celebrities and personal meaning-making. Some of these include Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk radio show, Emily Graslie’s The Brain Scoop video series, comedian Steve Cross’ Never Explain podcast and live storytelling events like Story Collider.


Andrea shared observations and recommendations based on his work as a researcher. He pointed out that scholarship from museum and science center work is poorly reflected in peer-reviewed journals, e.g. between 1992 and 2011 the journal Public Understanding of Science published 13 papers about museums (out a total of 465 published articles) and during the same period the journal Science Communication only 10. His own dissertation found an inverse relationship between levels of education and the public’s interest in and willingness to participate in dialogues in science centers and other informal settings. The good news is that museums and science centers are playing a “democratizing role” for those who haven’t had these kinds of engagement opportunities in higher education or graduate school. Andrea also noted the sometimes self-referential nature of professional conferences in our fields. Here he echoed Joe Hanson’s advice for media, learning and communication professionals at SMASH to “get out of their own campfire” and seek outside perspectives and expertise to inform and enrich how we think about and approach our work. A good note to begin 2017 on. Happy holidays everyone!