University-Science Center Partnering in Ohio

Labs in Life in action header

December 15th, 2014

COSI logo

The Ohio State University (OSU), one of the country’s largest public research universities, and COSI, one of the nation’s largest and most innovative science centers, have formed a deep partnership. Since the 2006 conceptualization and first agreement, COSI & OSU have created a “center of science” at COSI where research, science, and university outreach are embedded into everyday public, student, and family experiences. Guided by formal institutional co-commitments at the highest level, university researchers, faculty, and students engage daily with the 600,000+ on-site guests to COSI and an audience of tens of thousands through interactive video conferencing.

OSU logo

Through research labs, a public media studio, and special events, the public engages in ongoing real and relevant research not only as observers, but also subjects. University researchers and faculty gain the ability to conduct studies with hundreds of willing participants, far above the typical numbers available working in their campus labs. For example, through the Labs in Life program, OSU researchers have found that they have been able to expand their typical annual access to subjects from 30-40 total when on campus, to “unprecedented numbers” as one lab reports—6000 total just for the language lab in their first 2-1/2 years at COSI. Subject pools for a single study frequently now range 200-400 (over a much shorter time period) when conducted on site at COSI; but data collection has included over 1000 subjects for a few studies. Simultaneously embedding a joint learning research center at COSI provides the capacity to routinely test the effectiveness of this ongoing and growing experiment while informing the field about what the collaborators are discovering about its learning impacts.

Guiding Principles and Elements

In initiating this partnership, COSI has made a fundamental shift in concept to become a “center of science” rather than a standalone education center. Our goal was to continue doing what we have been doing well for years, but to add the resources of the university to the richness, depth, and variety of the COSI experience. A key element of this new way of operating is that we are now a “relationship-based” institution. We thrive on deep and rich relationships (partnerships) with the university, its researchers, our members, and the community.

Drawing upon my doctoral research in museum-community partnerships, we applied research-informed best practice to our approach with the university. The framework used to implement this partnership ensures that there are benefits for each participating organization, as well as the public. The best practices include:

  • A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed with the President of The Ohio State University (OSU) that creates a President-to-President commitment to the major expectations of the partnership between OSU and COSI.
  • An understanding in the MOU and in practice that we are always looking for the “sweet spot” of win-win-win (the university, COSI, and the community).
  • Multiple levels of interaction and engagement between OSU and COSI, including researchers, department heads, and college deans.
  • An understanding that it is “real and relevant” science with passionate practitioners who can connect with the public where COSI wanted to see the university resources integrated into our public and program experience.

Lastly, we take a systems approach to the integration of scientist, researcher, and learner. All partners and activities are cultivated to align with strengthen our system of public engagement with STEM that connects people intellectually and emotionally, inspires them to learn, and helps them become better informed to make healthy and sustainable personal and societal choices.

Partnership Activities

There are now a wide number of embedded “nodes” of the university integrated into COSI’s learning ecosystem. An overarching principle is that when university functions integrate into COSI’s footprint, they are compatible with our mission, their functions integrate into our public experience, and we see a mutual benefit in each partnership.

Elements of OSU that have been integrated into COSI include:

OSU Labs in Life @COSI: COSI and OSU jointly invested in building three working research laboratories into our public space. The research labs are totally glassed in, equipped with wireless microphones and large external monitors that afford researchers the opportunity to interact with and explain research to the public. Current researchers are in the areas of pharmacology, optometry, and linguistics. Working with Dr. Caroline Whitacre, OSU’s VP of Research and a COSI Board member, we jointly select researchers and their projects that are interesting and accessible to the public, as well as projects that enable the public, if they meet the criteria, to be engaged in actual research as subjects. Remedial and summative evaluations of the Labs have informed their design, and in general, findings suggest that users engage with and make personal meaning from the Labs in Life activities.

Labs in Life at COSI

COSI’s Center for Research and Evaluation (CRE): Established in partnership with Ohio State Extension, COSI’s CRE was created to promote, organize, and support research and evaluation activity at COSI. Housing eight researchers, the Center focuses on research, service, and capacity building for COSI as well as externally for the local arts and culture sector and the informal learning field.

WOSU@COSI: Licensed to The Ohio State University in 1920, WOSU is the university’s multi-faceted public media outlet. In 2006, WOSU digital media built a new HD TV studio within COSI. The flexible space allows for exhibits and interactions to help the public understand the technology principles behind HD TV media and to view shows while in real time production. We also have the ability to transform the space into a live audience-based studio. Together, we’ve worked hard to take advantage of the location and profile of COSI to offer it for community celebrations and conversations—for example, an annual discussion about the intersection of religion and science featuring national speakers and hosted by a national PBS talk personality, or hosting one of NASA’s 50th anniversary celebrations discussing the future of space travel. We’ve also made systematic enhancements to this space based on evaluation data.

Public Understanding of Science: Through several OSU Communication in Science courses, co-created by OSU and COSI, 20+ graduate and undergraduate students per course work in the lab each term to strengthen their science communication skills with COSI’s visiting public. COSI also has a multi-faceted training session modeled after the NSF-funded Portal to the Public initiative to better prepare scientists, researchers, and engineers to share their interests and passion with the public.

COSI supports OSU by providing the following:

Institutional Review Board capacity: All research with human subjects requires a review board approval. We’ve worked with the university to extend their “campus” into COSI to obtain all the approvals and reviews necessary to conduct research and a process to expedite through COSI.

COSI as an “Official” Research Site: We’ve worked with the university to extend their campus into COSI by establishing federal-wide assurance for COSI, verifying COSI as an appropriate site for human subjects’ research and hastening the reviews and approvals necessary for OSU researchers to conduct research at COSI.

“Science in Action”: Researchers not affiliated with the Labs in Life can set up stations in our large hallways and public areas and capture quick responses from our daily crowds. Our public has become so accustomed to being engaged in the dozens of research projects conducted annually with COSI guests that they readily accept opportunities to be part of studies.



Interactive Video Conferencing: We have a large (40,000+ interactions annually) interactive video conferencing program, which taps university experts and medical professionals to share their work with students around North America. This award-winning capacity also assists researchers and scientists in meeting broader impacts requirements for certain federal grants, as well as exposing the public to medical procedures and the jobs, innovation, and issues around them, such as OSU’s Wexner Medical Center’s Kidney Transplant program with COSI.

Researcher/Scientist/STEM Professional Engagement Science Days: Themed days fill our atrium, hallways, WOSU exhibit area, and other spaces with scientists, engineers, and researchers, giving them the opportunity to highlight their work and interact with our public.