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Review of Digital Publication: Our World in Data

 

 

Our World in Data is an online publication that will be of interest to many readers of Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal. It brings together in one location data about a number of different topics related to how the world is changing. The site is produced at the University of Oxford by a team led by Max Roser, an economist at the university. Amazingly, the entire project is available free of charge as a public good!

Roser began the project in 2011 and for several years was the sole author until grant funding allowed him to add team members. The long-term goal is to create 275 distinct entries in the site. Entries are gathered into thematic sections; as of January 2018, these include Population, Health, Food, Energy, Environment, Technology, Growth & Inequality, Work & Life, Public Sector, Global Connections, War & Peace, Politics, Violence & Rights, Education, Media, and Culture.

There are several features of the site that make it attractive to educators. The Energy section, for example, is divided into a number of subsections—energy production and changing energy sources, fossil fuels, renewables, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The section on energy production and changing energy sources is further divided into sections titled “Empirical View,” “Correlates, Determinants, and Consequences,” and “Data Sources.”

There are numerous visualizations for topics such as energy production by source, energy production over time, energy intensities of the economies in various parts of the world, access to electricity, and per capita energy consumption, among many others. Some visualizations present the data over time and allow one to focus on a particular year. Other visualizations provide the option for changing from a graph to a map or changing the axes on a particular graph. Images can easily be downloaded as .png files for use in presentations or other documents. Data used in a particular visualization can be downloaded as a .CSV file that can be opened in Excel. All data are clearly identified regarding point of origin, and the sources appear to be reliable—academic sites, United Nations agencies, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and others—and one section of the website explains how the team chooses the data that are presented. The site also contains an essay that explains the rationale for Our World in Data: to support better understanding, involvement, and policy making by presenting an accurate picture of global progress in development. Overall, the site conveys a commitment to transparency that is commendable.

I have used some of the visualizations from the site in three different courses this semester: information on energy consumption (per capita and by source) in General Chemistry II and in a course for nonscience majors focused on sustainability, and information on malaria in my biochemistry class. They added a dimension to the classes that would have been very difficult for me to accomplish otherwise.

For educators who want to bring a global dimension to their incorporation of civic engagement into a course, Our World in Data will be an invaluable resource. I highly recommend it.

-Matt Fisher, Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal

 

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Building a New Translational Research Program with Undergraduates: A Student-driven Research Class

Abstract

Course-based undergraduate research is an effective active, inquiry-based pedagogical tool. In many cases, these research experiences build on established research programs. This project report describes a research course designed to establish a new translational research program in epilepsy and to test the feasibility of engaging students early on in the research process. The outcomes of this class, including research deliverables and student learning gains assessments, indicate that engaging students in research at a very early stage in project development is a meaningful and productive pedagogical framework for student and faculty development. This high-risk model for course and research development is a novel and exciting method for engaging students in mentored research at the undergraduate level.

Introduction

Mentored research at the undergraduate level is considered a high-impact pedagogical practice (Kuh, O’Donnell, & Reed, 2013), and many STEM courses incorporate students into established research programs and projects. The benefits of course-based research are not limited to students, as faculty research progress can be boosted by the concentrated student collaboration found in these courses. Moreover, students can bring fresh perspectives and make important contributions to research at the point of new project development. Involving students in “early” research (e.g. establishing research aims, refining protocols and procedures, and collecting and analyzing background data) can be a context for simultaneously robust student learning and faculty professional development. However, the risks of failure associated with early research may make faculty reluctant to consider building a research course specifically centered on developing a new and untested project. The course described below provides evidence in favor of building a course around a new research program, using the example of a successful pilot of course-based translational neuroscience research at the undergraduate level. The work of this course, offered at a small liberal arts college, set the stage for a robust, student-centered translational research program that also advanced the instructor’s research agenda.

Translational research: From basic science to disease intervention

The confirmation in humans of the results of basic science research using cell and animal models is a critical step in developing patient-centered interventions to improve human health (US Department of Health and Human Services [USD HHS], 2015). Translational research, which bridges basic science and clinical research, is a major focus of NIH funding and support through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. However, it can be challenging to implement translational research at small colleges and universities, as many of these institutions are not in a position to conduct clinical and patient-centered translational research. These shortcomings may be circumvented through the use of publicly available online databases that provide students and faculty with the opportunity to work directly with human data collected under IRB approval from large research institutions. As funding for basic science research decreases, engaging undergraduate students in the process of translational research is critical to the enhancement of their understanding and appreciation of the fundamental role of basic science in improving the health and well-being of the broader population (Hobin et al., 2012).

Epilepsy and EEG

Approximately two percent (+/- 0.11) of Americans suffer from epilepsy (US DHHS, 2017), a family of disorders in which a person who has previously had a seizure is likely to experience another unprovoked seizure (Fisher et al., 2014). The etiologies of epilepsy are varied and, in many cases, still unknown (Shorvon, 2011). Thus much of the effort in the clinic is aimed at seizure management and prevention.

The monitoring of the epileptic brain via electroencephalography, or the recording and analysis of the electrical signals of the brain, is critical to the management of epilepsy. In particular, many patients with intractable epilepsy, i.e. epilepsy that is resistant to management by medication, undergo long-term intracranial electroencephalography in the inpatient hospital setting to collect electroencephalogram (EEG) signals from up to hundreds of locations across the cortex of the brain over the course of several days. The signals are analyzed to determine whether surgical resection of the epileptic locus, or the portion of the brain implicated in the start of seizure activity, is a possible epilepsy management strategy. Yet EEG analysis is time-consuming and subject to low inter-observer reliability, especially regarding the precise timing and location of seizure onset in the brain (Abend et al., 2011; Benbadis et al., 2009; Tatum, 2013). Therefore, research on the development and use of automated, standardized, and quantitative EEG analysis through computer is an expanding field of inquiry (Acharya et al., 2013; Halford et al., 2011).

Course structure and implementation

Translational research towards understanding how EEG analysis is similar or different among rodent models of epilepsy and human epilepsy in the clinical setting serves as the foundation for the research course described in this report.  An advanced topics course (BIOL 373, Advanced Neuroscience Research) was developed and implemented in spring 2017 to model a translational EEG research laboratory environment for eleven undergraduate students. The three goals for this course were to: (1) engage multiple students in a semester-long mentored research experience, (2) determine whether student learning gains through engagement with an early research project are similar to those of students in established research projects, and (3) determine the feasibility of conducting and developing the background work for translational epilepsy research at Beloit College, a small liberal arts college with no clinical research affiliation. In this model, students were full partners with the instructor in the research process to determine the goals and direction of the project. Students gained experience with the research process and its challenges, became familiar with the procedures and outcomes of a basic science investigation of seizure detection in mice (Bergstrom et al., 2013), identified and mined a publicly available human intracranial EEG database, revised and tested a MATLAB-based algorithm—originally developed for seizure identification in mice—on human EEG signal, and established and validated a procedure for quantitative analysis of human intracranial EEG signal.

The course began with a review of research in the analysis of rodent EEG (Bergstrom et al., 2013) and a discussion of the function of translational research. The students and instructor collaboratively identified a strategy for goal-setting and reflection-based assessment that would be completed every two weeks throughout the 15-week semester, with one single-week goal-setting and reflection cycle before the mid-term break. Major assessments for the class were: (1) a public works-in-progress seminar at the Beloit College Student Research Symposium and (2) smaller weekly student-driven lecture/discussion presentations on timely research-related questions of neuroscience and epilepsy in the literature, e.g. neuron and brain anatomy, the action potential, the contribution of interictal spiking brain activity to epileptogenesis, and automated EEG analysis tools. Additional assessments included (1) pre- and post-course Course Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) survey (Denofrio et al., 2007; Lopatto et al., 2008), (2) Student Assessment of Learning Gains, or SALG survey (Carroll, 2010), (3) and completion of the standard Beloit College end-of-semester course evaluations. Data collection and reporting procedures were approved by the Beloit College Institutional Review Board, and students provided informed consent for their participation in this study.

Students self-identified interests within the project and formed small groups to develop and accomplish sub-goals for the research project. Groups of two to six students were fixed for each two-week goal-setting/reflection period in the first half of the term and worked on goals within the broader research aims, such as identifying data sources, learning basic seizure analysis in EEG, and annotating and implementing MATLAB code. At the midterm, students re-organized into stable groups for the remainder of the semester. These groups were focused on preparing a literature review (four students), establishing a strategy for manual scoring of EEG signals (three students), and revising and analyzing MATLAB algorithm code (three students). One student served as an official liaison between the manual scoring and code revision groups (eleven students total). The two-week reflection cycle was maintained through the second half of the course.  Class time (twice a week for 110 minutes per meeting) was used primarily for weekly lab group meetings, student presentations of relevant neuroscience topics, and individual and group work interactions with the instructor.  Students were expected to be largely self-directed and to allot additional time outside of class, though logs of work were not required.

Preliminary observations and outcomes

Seven of the eleven course participants completed both the pre- and post-course surveys. Their responses indicate that students in this course made similar learning gains in relevant research skills to those of the CURE survey comparison groups (Denofrio et al., 2007; Lopatto et al., 2008) (n ≤ 9603, Figures 1 and 2, two-sample t test, p > 0.05 for all comparisons). This indicates that engaging students in a course-based project at a very early stage is a meaningful mechanism for research at the undergraduate level and also performs an important role for faculty interested in establishing a new research project or trajectory.

Student responses from the SALG survey and Beloit College course evaluation seem to indicate that students, even while doing translational research, did not make significant connections between the concepts of basic science and translational research. For example, they did not mention translational research in any of their long-form comments. However, students did report in the course evaluations and the SALG that they made clear gains in self-directed learning (Box 1). It is important to note that, while most students had little or no prior experience with neuroscience, epilepsy, EEG, or the MATLAB programming environment, they were junior- or senior-level students who had already had extensive experience with student-driven learning and research design through the broader Beloit College curriculum. Thus it is possible that students at an earlier level of academic development might not have made similar learning gains (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).

Figure 1: Students reported learning gains in skills associated with research.
In this class, students were responsible for starting and defining a new research project that would continue beyond the course. Because starting a new project is, in many ways, different from continuing an established project, learning gains were assessed in areas similar to those made by students engaging in established research programs through course-based research activities. Students in BIOL 373 Advanced Neuroscience Research (blue bars) made learning gains similar to national averages (gray bars) in skills related to project management and design (A) and scientific research (B), indicating that engaging students in the research process early in a new project is a meaningful way to involve students in faculty research and development (two-sample t test, p > 0.05 for all comparison). Though there was no statistically significant difference between this course and national averages for these assessment categories, gains associated with project management and design (A) were slightly higher than national averages, perhaps because the students were deeply involved in determining the progress and trajectory of the research plan. A larger gain was also noted in skills related to oral presentation of results (B) because one of the main assessments for the course was a public works-in-progress presentation as a part of our institutional student research symposium. 1 = little gain, 5 = great gain. Error bars represent 95% CI.
Figure 2: Course benefits.
The benefits of mentored research extend far beyond learning basic scientific content. These CURE survey results indicate that students make valuable learning gains related to scientific research, even at a very early stage in the research project. Students in BIOL 373 Advanced Neuroscience Research (blue bars) made learning gains in personal development (A) and understanding the process of science (B) similar to national averages, indicating that engaging students early in the research process can be an impactful research experience (CURE survey). Together, these results suggest that undergraduate educators should consider engaging students at all stages of the research project, especially including the evaluation of project feasibility and the gathering of background data and information. 1 = little gain, 5 = great gain. Error bars represent 95% CI.

Establishing a new research project: Engaging students in faculty development

In many course-based research projects, students are inserted into an already-established research project and are given a single task or experiment to complete by the end of the class. This course was different, in that the students were involved in establishing a new research program from the ground up and therefore were required to consider not only their role in the project but also how the project fit into a much broader context of sustained research. This challenging authentic research experience provided students with many opportunities to develop cognitive skills and resilience around the challenges of research and learning, especially self-directed learning and identifying research and educational resources.  Assessment of the learning outcomes of this project indicate that involving students in research at a very early point in the process, even before research aims and procedures are fully developed, can be a powerful learning tool for students.

Involving students early in the development of a new research project can also be an efficient mechanism for increasing faculty research output. The translational research outcomes of this course were significant; the deliverables completed in the class which are relevant to starting a new research project are summarized in Box 2.  Further, this preliminary work set the stage for three of the eleven students in the course to continue work with the faculty member on this project after the course, including serving as mentors for two new student researchers. Additional students will be recruited to this project in the future and will eventually see it through to completion and publication.

Together, the research deliverables and learning outcomes analyses suggest that situating early research project activities and goals as the context for a structured undergraduate course is an effective mechanism for faculty to test-drive or establish a new research program that extends beyond the course and, at the same time, engage more students in mentored research.

Challenges and Recommendations

The overt link to the unique niche of translational
research within the biomedical community did not come through in the analysis of student responses, even though students were actively engaged with the process. The concept of translational research is new to most students, and so more careful attention to highlighting the important role of this type of work is needed in models like this. Because this was a laboratory course designed to focus on analysis of EEG signal, the student presentations were primarily focused on the neurological concepts relevant to the project. However, more attention could have been directed to the impact and structure of the bench-to-bedside research model.

A future course is planned around this research project, but it will be situated at a different point in the research process than the course described here. This new course could provide additional opportunities for students to engage with the research process and to gain a broader understanding of the clinical aspects of epilepsy. Three potential additions to the course could include (1) inviting a physician to meet with the class to discuss epilepsy and EEG in the clinical context, (2) including a conference call or in-person meeting with an epilepsy researcher at a large research institution to provide additional input to the project and to model effective research collaboration, and (3) assigning students to prepare patient-centered documents or presentations to explain epilepsy, EEG, and the analysis tools that they are developing.

Finally, it is important to note that this model requires significant buy-in and trust from the students, as it is a high-risk project for both the students and the faculty member, and many students expressed uncertainty regarding their progress at some point in the course. For instance, one student commented on a lack of typical “classroom-like” learning (Box 1) while also noting clear gains in experience. While a neuroscience “crash course” or more regular lectures and activities centered on the concepts of neuroscience might have been useful for content acquisition, it is important to help students recognize that these may be common feelings as they transition from a more typical undergraduate lecture-discussion course format to a student-centered project in which students themselves are responsible for identifying and structuring their learning content. It was useful to have regular check-ins with students to help to normalize feelings of frustration and uncertainty as they encountered research roadblocks and conflicting information from published reports. Still, it is possible that recognizing the emotional investment inherent in research can help students at this stage of their academic career build resilience for future challenges. This hypothesis must be tested as we build new models for engaging students in research at the undergraduate level and in preparation for broader participation within the STEM fields.

Conclusion

Mentored research is a high-impact undergraduate education practice (Kuh, O’Donnell, & Reed, 2013), and STEM educators in particular must therefore be creative and develop more opportunities for students to be involved with and learn from the process. Students can and do make important learning gains through the process of investigating the feasibility of a translational research project and gathering background data and material in support of a larger project. The dual purpose of this course, to engage students in research and to develop a new avenue for a faculty member’s research, situates it as a model through which instructors can recognize and harness the power of students at this stage of the research project. These results should encourage faculty to consider course-based research as a powerful tool that they may wish to use to develop new lines of inquiry, and student contributions to faculty work at all other stages of a research project should be considered an essential component of research at undergraduate institutions.

About the Author

Rachel A. Bergstrom

Rachel A. Bergstrom is an assistant professor of biology at Beloit College in Beloit, WI. She is a SENCER Leadership Fellow with two major arms to her research agenda: 1) identification and quantification of ictal and interictal events in EEG, with a focus on seizure diagnosis and prediction, and 2) the intersection of identity and education in STEM, specifically how group work impacts the student experience in the classroom and is related to persistence in STEM.

References

Abend, N. S., Gutierrez-Colina, A., Zhao, H., Guo, R., Marsh, E., Clancy, R. R., & Dlugos, D. J. (2011). Interobserver reproducibility of electroencephalogram interpretation in critically ill children. Journal of Clinical Neurophysiology: Official Publication of the American Electroencephalographic Society, 28(1), 15–19. https://doi.org/10.1097/WNP.0b013e3182051123

Acharya, U. R., Vinitha Sree, S., Swapna, G., Martis, R. J., & Suri, J. S. (2013). Automated EEG analysis of epilepsy: A review.

Knowledge-Based Systems, 45(Supplement C), 147–165. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.knosys.2013.02.014Benbadis, S. R., LaFrance, W. C., Papandonatos, G. D., Korabathina,
K., Lin, K., Kraemer, H. C., & For the NES Treatment Workshop. (2009). Interrater reliability of EEG-video monitoring. Neurology, 73(11), 843–846. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181b78425

Bergstrom, R. A., Choi, J. H., Manduca, A., Shin, H.-S., Worrell, G. A., & Howe, C. L. (2013). Automated identification of multiple seizure-related and interictal epileptiform event types in the EEG of mice. Scientific Reports, 3, 1483. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep01483

Carroll, S. B. (2010). Engaging assessment: Using the SENCER-SALG to improve teaching and learning. In R. D. Sheardy (Ed.), Science education and civic engagement: The SENCER approach (Vol. 1037, pp. 149–198). Washington, DC: American Chemical Society. https://doi.org/10.1021/bk-2010-1037.ch010

Denofrio, L. A., Russell, B., Lopatto, D., & Lu, Y. (2007). Mentoring: Linking student interests to science curricula. Science, 318(5858), 1872–1873. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1150788

Fisher, R. S., Acevedo, C., Arzimanoglou, A., Bogacz, A., Cross, J. H., Elger, C. E., … Wiebe, S. (2014). ILAE official report: a practical clinical definition of epilepsy. Epilepsia, 55(4), 475–482. https://doi.org/10.1111/epi.12550

Halford, J. J., Pressly, W. B., Benbadis, S. R., Tatum, W. O., Turner, R. P., Arain, A., … Dean, B. C. (2011). Web-based collection of expert opinion on routine scalp EEG: Software development and interrater reliability. Journal of Clinical Neurophysiology, 28(2), 178–184. https://doi.org/10.1097/WNP.0b013e31821215e3

Hobin, J. A., Deschamps, A. M., Bockman, R., Cohen, S., Dechow, P., Eng, C., … Galbraith, R. (2012). Engaging basic scientists in translational research: Identifying opportunities, overcoming obstacles. Journal of Translational Medicine, 10, 72. https://doi.org/10.1186/1479-5876-10-72

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

Kuh, G. D., O’Donnell, K., & Reed, S. (2013). Ensuring quality & taking high-impact practices to scale.  Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Lopatto, D., Alvarez, C., Barnard, D., Chandrasekaran, C., Chung, H.-M., Du, C., … Elgin, S. C. R. (2008). Undergraduate research. Genomics education partnership. Science, 322(5902), 684–685. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1165351

Shorvon, S. D. (2011). The etiologic classification of epilepsy. Epilepsia, 52(6), 1052–1057. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1528-1167.2011.03041.x

Tatum, W. O. (2013). How not to read an EEG: Introductory statements. Neurology, 80(1 Supplement 1), S1–S3. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0b013e318279730e

US Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). (2015). Translational science spectrum. Retrieved January 17, 2018, from https://ncats.nih.gov/translation/spectrum

US Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). (2017). NIH categorical spending – NIH research portfolio online reporting tools (RePORT). Retrieved January 17, 2018, from https://report.nih.gov/categorical_spending.aspx

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Civic Engagement and Informal Science Education

Introduction

The following article by Larry Bell (Museum of
Science, Boston) represents reflection and analysis generated by the National Science Foundation project “Maximizing Collective Impact Through Cross-Sector Partnerships: Planning a SENCER and NISE Net
Collaboration” (DRL-1612376). This National Center for Science & Civic Engagement grant was the latest in a series of efforts to explore partnerships between higher education institutions and informal learning organizations based on civic engagement strategies. As Bell points out, one of the challenges in such collaboration is arriving at a common understanding of the meaning and implications of that term. In this piece, he suggests ways for science centers and children’s museums to think about civic
engagement and its future role in their activities.

Fruitful connections between SENCER and informal learning were discussed in earlier articles in this journal (Friedman & Mappen 2011; Ucko 2015). They became the basis for grants from NSF, the Noyce Foundation, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services that funded 15 cross-sector partnerships. As noted in a
recent overview of those projects, “collaboration between
informal science organizations and higher education institutions based on civic engagement offers potential benefits for the partners, the students, and the public” (Semmel & Ucko 2017).

In deconstructing its definition, Bell emphasizes the value of a civic engagement focus in providing tools and knowledge that prepare individuals for future participation, both nationally and locally. At the same time, it can enhance learning among students by increasing motivation and demonstrating the relevance of  STEM content to their wider interests and concerns. This complementarity and its positive impact on faculty practice became a basis for characterizing SENCER as a “community of transformation” in STEM education reform (Kezar & Gehrke 2015).

Many avenues exist for participation in civic activities that complement and enhance STEM knowledge and understanding . For example, community-based citizen science projects often have been the platform for higher education-informal learning partnerships. We hope that this article and its proposed model for civic engagement will encourage new strategies for effective collaboration involving informal learning organizations.

—David Ucko

Civic Engagement and Informal Science Education

Leaders of the National Informal STEM Education Network (NISE Net) were fortunate to be part of a collaborative planning grant led by the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement to explore a strategic collaboration between Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities-Informal Science
Education (SENCER-ISE) and NISE Net, two extensive STEM networks with overlapping missions, but with distinct organizational assets and constituencies. One of the challenges NISE Net leaders had from the original conception of the project was to get a clear understanding of what “civic engagement” might mean for science and children’s museums. It is not unusual for museums, steeped in the approaches of informal science education and oriented toward supporting K-12 formal education, to be unfamiliar with related but different approaches to
engaging learners in science and technology. As an
example, the Center for Advancing Informal Science
Education (CAISE) led an inquiry group nearly a decade ago and wrote a report about “how public engagement with science (PES), in the context of informal science education (ISE), can provide opportunities for public awareness of, and participation in, science and technology” (McCallie et al. 2009). The field is exploring its potential roles in PES today.

Similarly, engaging with the leaders of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement and the SENCER initiative raised questions about what “civic engagement” might mean for science museums. Initial discussions revealed that “civic engagement” might encompass a wide range of activities for which SENCER model courses might provide examples, but NISE Net leaders felt that they needed some kind of working model to understand how “civic engagement” relates to a variety of activities that NISE Net partner organizations already engage in. We also wanted to understand how characteristics of civic engagement might be differentiated from current practices in informal science education.

Deconstructing a Definition of Civic Engagement

As a way of thinking about this question, we searched for a variety of definitions of civic engagement and decided for this exercise to use one we found in the New York Times (2006), which was actually an excerpt from Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, edited by Thomas Ehrlich:

Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. (Ehrlich 2000, vi)

A first step in exploring this definition required further examination of some of its components. A key question for ISE organizations is who is “working to make a difference”? At the workshop in March, some NISE Net leaders noted that they had been interpreting the SENCER initiative incorrectly since their first exposure to it several years ago. They thought SENCER was an acronym for “science education through new civic engagement and responsibility” and that SENCER courses involved students in civic projects in the community during the course of which they learned the science they needed to carry out the projects. But at the March meeting, David Burns clarified that SENCER was the acronym for “science education for new civic engagement and responsibility.” The learning did not necessarily take place by participating in a community-based civic engagement project (although it might) but rather was designed to provide students with tools that they might need for their own future civic engagement. Similarly for ISE organizations, the question thus arises whether the civic engagement work of ISE organizations might be designed around preparing members of their audience for carrying out future civic engagement activities or whether the ISE organizations would organize civic engagement activities of their own in which members of their audience might or might not participate.

Civic Life

The next term in the definition of civic engagement that needed exploration was “civic life.” For this the
National Standards for Civics and Government provided a definition.

Civic life is the public life of the citizen concerned with the affairs of the community and nation as contrasted with private or personal life, which is devoted to the pursuit of private and personal interests. (Center for Civic Engagement 2014)

NISE Net leaders felt that science museums had a long history of focusing on the personal life of their audience members. This includes both personal opportunity (children should have the opportunity to pursue careers that involve science and technology) and beneficial choices in their personal life (people should have nutritional food choices). NISE Net leaders were less clear on the extent to which science museums focused explicitly on “affairs of the community and nation” but recognized that recent developments in the governance of the country raised questions about the connections between scientific evidence and sound policy decisions. That was causing some members of the ISE community to ask questions about whether the field was doing enough about science and public policy.

Values and Motivation

Another term in the definition of civic engagement that raised questions was “combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation.”  Many ISE organizations are familiar with a set of potential ISE impacts outlined in Framework for Evaluating Impacts of Informal Science Education Projects (Friedman 2008), which NSF references in its solicitations for Advancing Informal STEM Learning proposals. That document identifies the following potential impacts: awareness, knowledge, understanding, engagement, interest, attitude, behavior, and skills. Values and motivation are new potential impacts of ISE for civic engagement. The Framework speaks of “motivation” as a characteristic audiences bring to their ISE experience rather than as an impact of the experience.

Civic Responsibility and Higher Education describes motivation for civic engagement in this way:

A morally and civically responsible individual
recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger
social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own; such an individual is willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate. (Ehrlich 2009, introduction, xxvi)

The CAISE report on PES explicitly identifies the following values in connection with the goals of public engagement activities in ISE for individuals or communities:

Recognition of the importance of multiple perspectives and domains of knowledge, including scientific understandings, personal and cultural values, and social and ethical concerns, to understanding and decision making related to science and to science and society issues. (McCallie et al.  2009)

Making a Difference

The final element to note in the definition of civic engagement that the New York Times pulled from Ehrlich is that the purpose of civic engagement is to “make a difference.” Several sources describe what making a difference might mean:

“Civic engagement is… individual and collective action designed to identify and address issues of public concern.” (American Psychological Association (APA) 2018)

It can be defined as citizens working together to make a change. (Wikipedia, 2017)

It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes. (Ehrlich 2000)

Constructing a Model for Civic Engagement in ISE

What emerges from the definition used here and the
exploration of some of the terms is a potential model for civic engagement in informal science education. Civic
engagement starts with a public concern; requires motivation to make a difference and the acquisition of relevant knowledge, skills, and values; and proceeds with taking action to make a difference.

Furthermore, ISE organizations motivated for civic engagement have some options related to the question raised earlier about who is taking action to make a difference:

The museum provides members of its audience with knowledge, skills, and perhaps values and motivations to support their civic engagement activities.

The museum develops civic engagement projects of its own to make a difference in the community.

The museum and other community organizations partner to carry out civic engagement projects.

Perhaps the aspects of civic engagement identified on this page can help ISE professionals think about civic engagement in terms of the things ISE organizations currently do or do not do.

Science and Children’s Museums Themselves Are Civic Engagement Activities

On the most fundamental level, the very existence of science and children’s museums is a kind of civic engagement. Their classification as 501(c)(3) charitable organizations is recognition that their purpose is to “promote the quality of life in a community” principally or exclusively through non-political processes. Science museums may consider several different public concerns as the ones that drive their mission. For example,

The talent pool for STEM innovation is too small, resulting in lower national achievement and prosperity.

Opportunities in STEM are not equally distributed among those in the community.

Many of the complex issues that shape our daily lives and our future require an understanding of basic science, math, engineering, and technology in order to make informed decisions.

As science and technology pervade our lives, our societal challenges become more complex.

There is a lack of communication between the scientific community and various publics.

The school system alone is not adequate for stimulating children’s interest and self-efficacy in STEM.

Individuals are motivated to address these concerns though science museums in a variety of ways. Some work for science museums and develop a career doing so, working in a variety of ways to strengthen the effectiveness of their own organization and other similar organizations. Many volunteer their time and talents without financial compensation, working for science museums because they find the work meaningful and fulfilling. Others donate money in small amounts or in very large amounts because they feel the organization is doing good for the community and addressing specific public concerns at both national and community levels.

Science museums work to gain the knowledge and skills needed to be effective in their work. Grants from National Science Foundation, Institute for Museum and Library Sciences, and other sources acknowledge the efforts to advance the knowledge and skills of individual organizations and of the field as a whole. Organizations like the Association of Science-Technology Centers, the Association of Children’s Museums, the American Association of Museums, the Visitor Studies Association, and the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education all support the efforts of the field to advance its knowledge and skills and to support the values of the profession.

Science museums also take action to address the public concerns at the heart of their missions. Furthermore they recruit individuals, corporations, and other organizations in their communities to work together with them in addressing those concerns.

In addition to the overall work of such organizations, science and children’s museums also undertake projects that are aimed at addressing specific community needs.

The Computer Clubhouse (http://www.computerclubhouse.org), for instance, originally developed by The Computer Museum in Boston, is aimed at a gap in opportunity for youth from underserved communities and now supports a global community of 100 Clubhouses in 19 countries.

The Engineering is Elementary curriculum and teacher support activities (https://www.eie.org) developed by the Museum of Science are aimed at a significant content gap in formal elementary education.

Science museums conduct a variety of teacher training programs, because elementary and middle school teachers often have little training in science or science education. (Association of Science-Technology Centers [ASTC] 2014)

Not everything science and children’s museums do is in fulfillment of civic engagement goals, but on a fundamental level they can be seen as civic engagement efforts for the purpose of stimulating youth in areas of STEM learning.

But now we step aside from this fundamental perspective and look at other more specific ways in which science museums can support civic engagement.

Support for Visitors’ Future Civic Engagement

First we explore the idea that the museum is not organizing a civic engagement activity in the community itself, any more than it is conducting a wide range of scientific research itself, but is helping to prepare its visitors for civic engagement (or scientific research roles) in their future, much in the way that SENCER courses do for students.

In this regard, comments in NISE Net’s Nanotechnology and Society Guide (Wetmore et al. 2013) outline societal concerns that explain the motivation behind the Guide, which seems to come from a civic engagement perspective.

The decisions we make about science and technology have profound effects on people.… nanotechnology is poised to have a significant impact on our lives in the coming years, and as such it is very important that we engage in open conversations about what it is, what is possible, and where we would like it to go. But sometimes people’s voices about science and technology are muted because it can be difficult to know how to engage in these discussions. Nanotechnology can be especially intimidating, as many people do not even know what it is.  [It is] important to give everyday citizens a voice.

The Guide describes a societal problem and works to motivate everyday citizens to take an active role by participating in open conversations and letting their voices be heard. The Guide and associated hands-on materials, training activities, and other supporting resources all provide knowledge and skills necessary to everyday citizens so that they can play a role. All of this material stops short of the “take action” step. It suggests there is opportunity to take action, but it provides no direct means for doing so, leaving such action to play out in other domains apart from the science or children’s museum, except, of course, for the universal take action plan of such organizations: “learn more.”

Another kind of  “take action” step that ISE organizations often promote is donating funds to the organization itself to carry out its work. An interesting example of incorporating giving to a worthy cause was built into the Bronx Zoo’s Congo Rainforest Gorilla experience almost two decades ago. After walking through the forest, viewing a movie about gorilla research, and seeing the live gorillas, visitors get to decide which of the Zoo’s conservation projects their admission fee should be directed toward. In 2009 the Wildlife Conservation Society reported that the exhibit had raised $10.6 million to fund the conservation of Central Africa’s Congo Basin rainforest and wildlife and turned seven million visitors into conservationists!

A couple of examples of “take action” steps in a temporary exhibition at the Museum of Science decades ago were incorporated by MOS staff into a Smithsonian traveling exhibition about the destruction of tropical rainforests. Evaluation reports about the exhibition at earlier sites noted that the exhibit left some visitors who care about the environment unclear about what they could do about the situation. Museum staff added to the exhibition a small gift shop of rainforest sustaining products along with their stories. There also was an area about environmental organizations that focus on rainforest support actions, with postcards visitors could fill out to get more information or to get on the mailing list of those organizations. Visitors could fill out a card and drop it in a mailbox in the exhibition to get connected with an organization to take action.

These are just a few examples. There are many others. But it is not typical for science museums to get all the way to the “take action” stage in their exhibitions and programs. Most provide support for visitors who can find their own path to action.

Identifying and Addressing Issues of Public Concern

A characteristic of civic engagement is that it involves identifying and addressing issues of public concern. Except for the overall concerns about science education, most science museum exhibits don’t evolve from public concerns. Perhaps the biggest exception to that may be in the area of environmental conservation and climate change.

A scan of a few webites that list high-priority public concerns turn up a number of topics:

United Nations Global Issues

  • Aging
  • AIDS
  • Atomic energy
  • Big data for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • Children
  • Climate Change
  • Decolonization
  • Democracy
  • Food
  • Human rights
  • International law and justice
  • Oceans and the Law of the Sea
  • Peace and security
  • Population
  • Refugees
  • Water
  • Women

Ten Social Issues Americans Talk the Most About on Twitter (Dwyer, 2014)

  • Better job opportunities
  • Freedom from discrimination
  • A good education
  • An honest and responsive government
  • Political freedoms
  • Action taken on climate change
  • Protecting forests, rivers, and oceans
  • Equality between men and women
  • Reliable energy at home
  • Better transportation and roads

There are many lists like these two. Some topics may be more familiar to science museum environments: AIDS, aging, climate change, food, heath, oceans, population, water,  and education to name a few. Science Museum of Minnesota’s Race: Are We So Different? exhibition is a notable recent example. New technologies like nanotechnology and synthetic biology are topics we have covered in forums, but they are generally little known by the public and so usually come not from a current widespread public concern but rather from an anticipated future public concern. One question for any large-scale collaborative project, then, is whether there is a particular global or national public concern that tens or hundreds of organizations would want to work on together, or if organizations would prefer to address their own local concerns.

Role a Science Museum Could Play

Assuming that a science museum, or group of museums, is particularly interested in an issue of public concern and does not want to organize its own civic engagement activity, but would like to support their visitors’ civic engagement capacity, there are a number of things the museum(s) could do. If civic engagement for individuals involves development of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make a difference, then for whatever issue one might choose, museums could, for instance:

Provide visitors with background knowledge relevant to the social issue, such as

  • Awareness of the issue
  • Scientific data related to the issue

Provide visitors with skill development activities
related to taking action, such as

  • Getting further information
  • Talking with others about the issue in
    productive ways
  • Recognizing elements of arguments: scientific evidence, personal experience, social values

Provide visitors with experience related to the range of values associated with the issue:

  • Exposure to the views of others in connection with the issue
  • Visitor activity in which participants explore their own values in connection with the issue

Provide visitors with information about and connections with other organizations through which visitors could get involved in activities related to the issue.

This is similar to what museums have done recently for nanotechnology and synthetic biology, except that they might:

  • Be more specific about the public concern
  • Put additional effort into building motivation for involvement, and
  • Incorporate a “take action” component if appropriate.

If an organization like NISE Net took this approach, it would need to consider if it would tackle one particular concern, spend a couple of years working on it, and then disseminate materials to use in connection with that concern broadly; or if it would try to create tools to help individual partners develop materials of their own for the different specific problems they wish to address. All of this would be done with the ultimate goal of providing members of museum audiences with support for their own civic engagement.

Partnering for Civic Engagement

A different approach to civic engagement that a museum might take is to partner with other community organizations to work on solving societal problems directly, rather than preparing their visitors to be able to do that on their own. The NISE Net submitted a proposal to NSF in 2016, STEM Community Partnerships, which is an example of that kind of civic engagement. The proposal identified a social issue:

To secure our nation’s future in science and technology, the US needs a workforce that has both broad general competency in STEM and deep specialized talent in the STEM fields, and that benefits from diverse perspectives, knowledge, and abilities. Currently, the STEM workforce does not represent the U.S. population as a whole. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that women, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic Blacks have been consistently underrepresented in the STEM fields, and are only half as likely as all workers to hold STEM jobs. The underrepresentation of women, persons of color, and other groups in the STEM workforce is not only a STEM capacity issue but also a social justice issue, reflecting a profound disparity of opportunities and resources across the population. (Ostman 2006)The project description goes on to describe partnerships among science museums and YMCA branches, similar to work that the Children’s Museum of Houston does, to produce and deliver out-of-school-time experiences designed to reach underrepresented youth with engagement in STEM. The project calls for local partnerships in each participating community and a national partnership to support the local ones. The national partnership is designed to support the professionals at museums and YMCA branches in taking action to address the concern.

Unfortunately, the proposed project has not yet been funded.

Certainly science museums have the capacity to form local partnerships to address local issues. Many such partnerships likely already exist. One question about a large-scale network project is how the network could help organizations establish these kinds of local partnerships and initiatives. Perhaps the recent and existing SENCER-ISE partnerships fit within this category.

Conclusions

Thinking about civic engagement and informal science education raises a number of questions for the science museum community.

Would science museums prefer a model where the museum organizations help to build their visitors’ capacities for their own civic engagement? This may be parallel to the main focus of SENCER and is perhaps closer to what museums do now but with a somewhat different focus.

Or would science museums prefer a model where the museum organization partners with other organizations to solve civic problems directly? This may be different from what museums are doing now if the civic problem is beyond access to quality education.

Are there societal issues beyond access to good education that science and children’s museums might be interested in pursuing? NISE Net asked partners in an annual partner survey and at regional meetings a few years ago about topics NISE Net partners might be interested in. The favorite topics in order of priority were energy, new emerging technologies, engineering, convergent technologies, climate change, brain and neuroscience, maker spaces, synthetic biology, societal and ethical implications, computer science, and big data. NISE Net did not, however, ask them about specific public concerns or societal issues related to these topics.

Would science museums collectively want to tackle an issue with national scope and develop resources centrally to support partner organizations in addressing the particular issue selected, with the opportunity for some customization locally? This is essentially what NISE Net has done with nanotechnology, synthetic biology, space and earth science, and other topics, but without a focus on a set of societal issues.

Alternatively would science museums want to tackle specific local issues with partners in their own communities and perhaps get help in doing so from an organization like NISE? NISE Net’s past activities have all supported local partnerships, for instance, between universities doing nano research and science museums, or between community organizations and science museums.

Exploration of these questions could help members of the science museum community and organizations like NISE Net map out possible courses for the future of civic engagement in informal science education.

About the Authors

Larry Bell

Larry Bell is Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at the Museum of Science in Boston and was the principal investigator and director of the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network from 2005 until 2017. Currently he is interested in public engagement with societal implications of science and technology, activities that engage the public in dialogue and deliberation about socio-scientific issues, and in how research in science communication can inform informal science education practices.

 

 

David Ucko

David Ucko has served as deputy director of the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings at the National Science Foundation (NSF), president of the Kansas City Museum, chief deputy director of the California Museum of Science and Industry, and vice president of programs and director of science at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. He is currently vice president for organizational development of the Visitors Studies Association, co-chair for the National Research Committee on Communicating Chemistry in Informal Settings, and president of Museums+more, LLC, where he works on developing innovative approaches to informal learning. He holds a B.A. in chemistry from Columbia College of Columbia University and a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

References

American Psychological Association (APA). (2018). Civic engagement. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.apa.org/education/undergrad/civic-engagement.aspx.

Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC). (2014, November/December).  Reconstructing STEM in our schools. Dimensions. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.astc.org/astc-dimensions/reconstructing-stem-schools/.

Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). (2014). What are civic life, politics, and government? In National standards for Civics and Government, 5–8 content standards. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.civiced.org/standards?page=58erica.

Dwyer, L. (2014, July 12).  Social issues Americans talk the most about on Twitter. TakePart, Participant Media. https://www.takepart.com/photos/10-social-issues-americans-talk-about-twitter-most/.

Ehrlich, T. (Ed.). (2000). Civic responsibility and higher education. Phoenix: The Oryx Press.

Friedman, A. (Ed.). (2008). Framework for evaluating informal science education projects. Report from a National Science Foundation workshop. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://informalscience.org/sites/default/files/Eval_Framework.pdf.

McCallie, E., Bell, L., Lohwater, T., Falk, J. H., Lehr, J. L., Lewenstein, B. V., Needham, C., & Wiehe, B. (2009). Many experts, many audiences: public engagement with science and informal science education. Washington, DC: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE).

New York Times. (2006). The definition of civic engagement. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.nytimes.com/ref/college/collegespecial2/coll_aascu_defi.html.

Ostman, R. (2006). STEM community partnerships and organizational change: Testing a scalable model to engage underrepresented children and families. Proposal to National Science Foundation from the Science Museum of Minnesota.

United Nations.  Global issues overview. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/global-issues-overview/index.html.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). (2009, June 24). Congo gorilla forest celebrates 10 years and $10.6 million raised for Central African parks. WCS Newsroom. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from https://newsroom.wcs.org/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/4891/Congo-Gorilla-Forest-Celebrates-10-Years-and-106-Million-Raised-for-Central-African-Parks.aspx.

Wetmore, J., Bennett, I., Jackson, A., & Herring, B. (2013). Nanotechnology and society: A practical guide to engaging museum visitors in conversations. NISE Net and The Center for Nanotechnology in Society. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.nisenet.org/catalog/nanotechnology-and-society-guide.

Wikipedia. 2017. Civic engagement.  Retrieved February 2, 2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civic_engagement.

References (Introduction)

Friedman, A. J., & Mappen, E. (2011). SENCER-ISE: Establishing connections between formal and informal science educators to advance STEM learning through civic engagement. Science Education & Civic Engagement, 3(2), 31–37.

Kezar, A., & Gehrke, S. (2015). Communities of transformation and their work scaling STEM reform.Los Angeles: Pullias Center for Higher Education, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from https://pullias.usc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/communities-of-trans.pdf.

Semmel, M., & Ucko, D. (2017). Building communities of transformation: SENCER and SENCER-ISE. Informal Learning Review, 146(Sept/Oct), 3–7.

Ucko, D. (2015). SENCER synergies with informal learning. Science Education & Civic Engagement, 7(2), 16–19.

References

American Psychological Association (APA). (2018). Civic engagement. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.apa.org/education/undergrad/civic-engagement.aspx.

Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC). (2014, November/December).  Reconstructing STEM in our schools. Dimensions. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.astc.org/astc-dimensions/reconstructing-stem-schools/.

Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). (2014). What are civic life, politics, and government? In National standards for Civics and Government, 5–8 content standards. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.civiced.org/standards?page=58erica.

Dwyer, L. (2014, July 12).  Social issues Americans talk the most about on Twitter. TakePart, Participant Media. https://www.takepart.com/photos/10-social-issues-americans-talk-about-twitter-most/.

Ehrlich, T. (Ed.). (2000). Civic responsibility and higher education. Phoenix: The Oryx Press.

Friedman, A. (Ed.). (2008). Framework for evaluating informal science education projects. Report from a National Science Foundation workshop. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://informalscience.org/sites/default/files/Eval_Framework.pdf.

McCallie, E., Bell, L., Lohwater, T., Falk, J. H., Lehr, J. L., Lewenstein, B. V., Needham, C., & Wiehe, B. (2009). Many experts, many audiences: public engagement with science and informal science education. Washington, DC: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE).

New York Times. (2006). The definition of civic engagement. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.nytimes.com/ref/college/collegespecial2/coll_aascu_defi.html.

Ostman, R. (2006). STEM community partnerships and organizational change: Testing a scalable model to engage underrepresented children and families. Proposal to National Science Foundation from the Science Museum of Minnesota.

United Nations.  Global issues overview. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/global-issues-overview/index.html.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). (2009, June 24). Congo gorilla forest celebrates 10 years and $10.6 million raised for Central African parks. WCS Newsroom. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from https://newsroom.wcs.org/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/4891/Congo-Gorilla-Forest-Celebrates-10-Years-and-106-Million-Raised-for-Central-African-Parks.aspx.

Wetmore, J., Bennett, I., Jackson, A., & Herring, B. (2013). Nanotechnology and society: A practical guide to engaging museum visitors in conversations. NISE Net and The Center for Nanotechnology in Society. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.nisenet.org/catalog/nanotechnology-and-society-guide.

Wikipedia. 2017. Civic engagement.  Retrieved February 2, 2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civic_engagement.

 

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Winter 2018: From the Editors

We are pleased to announce the Winter 2018 issue of
Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal.

What is the connection between civic engagement and informal science education? This important question is thoughtfully examined in an article by Larry Bell, Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at the Museum of Science in Boston. Beginning with a deconstruction of the meanings of “civic engagement” and “civic life,” the article proposes a model for the development of civic engagement within informal science education and emphasizes the role of museums as civic spaces. This article is introduced by David Ucko, who previously served as president of the Kansas City Museum and deputy director of the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings at the National Science Foundation

Rachel A. Bergstrom (Beloit College) reveals the educational benefits that arise when undergraduate students are engaged as partners in authentic scientific research. She describes a research course in which students participate in a translational research program in epilepsy. The positive impact of this experience was documented with student research outcomes and an assessment of student learning gains

Dr. Pamela Leggett-Robinson and Naranja Davis from Georgia State University, together with Dr. Brandi Villa from Belay Consulting, describe a support and persistence program for STEM students at a two-year institution. The objective of the program is to enhance STEM identity by promoting civic engagement that enabled students to use their knowledge and skills for community improvement. Data collected over several years demonstrates that participation in the program increased student persistence and graduate rates.

A team of educators (Areeba Iqbal, Kayla Natal, Melanie Villatoro and Diana Samaroo) from the New York City College of Technology, City University of New York, have partnered with Servena Narine at P.S. 307 Daniel Hale Williams School to develop a variety of STEM activities aimed at elementary school students. By engaging students early in their schooling, the educators aim to stimulate interest in the study of STEM in college and future STEM career.

Jeff Secor, a teacher at the Dalton School in New York, explains the role of science in democratic decision-making in a volunteer-run community garden. When deliberating the construction of a new greenhouse, the community members had to consider factors such as location, size, and light transmission within the framework of city regulations. By fostering democratic dialogue and utilizing appropriate scientific evidence, the garden community were able to successfully complete their project.

We round out the issue with a website review by SECEIJ co-editor Matt Fisher (Saint Vincent College). Our World in Data is a valuable data resource developed by a team at the University of Oxford. It provides engaging data visualizations and downloadable data sets on topics that include population, economics, and infectious diseases. The website is particularly valuable to educators who wish to integrate a global dimension into their courses.

In conclusion, we wish to thank all the authors for sharing their accomplishments with the readers of this journal.

Matt Fisher
Trace Jordan
Co-Editors-in-Chief

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All images courtesy of article authors.

Summer 2017: From the Editors

We are pleased to announce the Summer 2017 issue of Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal.

Barbara M. Anthony and Kathryn M. Reagan (both at Southwestern University) describe an operations research course in which students partner with local nonprofit organizations. While working with these organizations to optimize their operations, students learn about the issues faced by nonprofits in a real-world context. This article demonstrates that community partnerships can be incorporated into technical filed such as operations research.

Although 22% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, there is a paucity of research on STEM education issues in these environments. Sara L. Hartman, Jennifer Hines-Bergmeier, and Robert Klein (all at Ohio University) provide a review of the research literature on informal STEM education in rural communities, with a focus on early childhood education. Based on their analysis, the authors propose that science educators should create and sustain relationships between rural schools and informal STEM partners.

Kim Trask Brown (University of North Carolina   Asheville) reports on a science methods course for trainee K-6 teachers, which enabled them to develop event activities and serve as leaders for the regional Science Olympiad Competition. Based on written reflections and survey data, the author concludes that the trainee teachers gained scientific content, pedagogical skills, and desirable professional dispositions related to civic engagement.

Kevin Finn (Merrimack College) provides an account of an undergraduate health sciences course that taught research methods through a partnership with an outdoor education program for 3rd and 4th grade students. The undergraduates provided STEM activities for the elementary school students, and developed their understanding of research methodology by conducting their own research investigation.

Jill Nugent and Kelly Thrippleton-Hunter (both at Southern New Hampshire University) examine the challenge of providing experiential learning opportunities for students who are taking online courses. Focusing on an online course for Environmental Science and Geoscience Majors, the authors describe various opportunities for students to gain experience in service learning and civic engagement. Some examples take advantage of technology-enhanced education, such as using the iNaturalist app to organize a collective venture to census local species.

Rae Ostman (Arizona State University) describes a multi-institutional collaborative entitled Nano and Society, which fosters conversations among community members, educators, scientists, and others about nanotechnologies. The author demonstrates how the project supports participant learning within an informal education environment.

The project report by Davida S. Smyth (Mercy College) shows how a faculty member’s research interests can be used as the foundation for providing students with an authentic research experience in an undergraduate course. During an elective microbiology course, students examine the problem of antibiotic resistance using bacteria that are collected on their own college campus. As part of this investigation, they learn various techniques for preparing and characterizing bacteria, including modern methods of microbial genomics. In this manner, students acquire foundational techniques in microbial analysis while learning about an important global health concerns in the 21st century.

In conclusion, we wish to thank all the authors for sharing their educational initiatives with the readers of this journal.

Trace Jordan and Eliza Reilly, Co-Editors-in-Chief

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Read and download the full issue:

 

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The following photographs were used under the Creative Commons license: Horses (Andrei Niemiaki), individuals canoeing (US Fish and Wildlife), and Rural Ohio (Mark Spearman).

The photograph of students studying and the image of DNA are from iStockphoto.

Photographs for articles by Rae Ostman and Jill Nugent were provided by the authors.

 

An Authentic Course-Based Research Experience in Antibiotic Resistance and Microbial Genomics

Abstract

We have designed and implemented a novel microbiology elective course “Microbiology of Urban Spaces” to provide students with a transformative education in microbial ecology and genomics. It champions the values of general education while making sure students are well equipped for their future careers. Infusing my personal research into the course allowed me the time and resources needed to advance my own research, while allowing the students to tackle an authentic and real-world problem that they can be passionate about. Several students who were engaged in the research course developed their own research projects during the summer, based upon their own ideas and questions. These students have taken the first steps towards developing the mindset and confidence in themselves that will enable them to succeed in their future scientific endeavors. Though still in its infancy, this course shows great promise to promote SENCER ideals at Mercy College and beyond.

Introduction

A Capacious and Civic Issue

Bacteria residing in the environment can act as reservoirs for resistance, having been exposed to many antimicrobials such as disinfectants, heavy metals, and antibiotics (He et al. 2014). Frequently encountered in the environment are the Staphylococci, many species of which are human pathogens. Especially problematic are the coagulase negative staphylococci, as they are among the most resistant, the most prevalent in environmental settings, and frequently the source of hospital-acquired infections of immunocompromised patients (Becker et al. 2014).

One of the most recognized and worrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a form of Staphylococcus aureus called MRSA or Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is recognized as a serious threat by the CDC, causing 80,000 infections and 11,000 deaths annually (CDC 2013). About one in three people carry Staphylococci asymptomatically in their noses. Several different mechanisms of transmission have been described for MRSA and it is frequently isolated from the environment (Smith et al. 2010). The recent emergence of community-associated MRSA or CA-MRSA has had a huge impact on the field, as the bacteria are acquired by people with no known risk factors. What is known about transmission of MRSA (Smith et al. 2010), particularly in the built environment, has generated many questions that can be of interest to our students. Such questions can include the following: Is the choice of material used in construction important in how long bacteria can adhere to a surface? Are some types of staphylococci better able to adhere to surfaces than others? Can some surfaces facilitate colonization by bacteria more readily than others?

Many Mercy students are studying to be healthcare professionals, such as nurses and veterinary technologists. As such, they are usually familiar with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Thus, my goal is to help students understand the role of human activity, particularly the role they themselves can play, in driving or tackling this problem. Antibiotic resistance is now being recognized as a global threat (Nathan and Cars 2014). Over the past ten years, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Economic Forum have placed antibiotic-resistant bacteria at center stage. The WHO exclaimed in April 2014 (WHO 2014) that the problem “threatens the achievements of modern medicine. A post-antibiotic era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—is a very real possibility for the 21st century.” The Obama administration released a National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in March 2015 (The White House 2015a). The 2016 federal budget almost doubled the amount of federal funding for combating and preventing antibiotic resistance to more than $1.2 billion (The White House 2015b). Our success or failure in the coming years will depend upon continued support for these initiatives and having a well-educated workforce, ready and prepared to tackle this capacious problem.

Results and Discussion

Students As Researchers

Incorporating research into the classroom, be it the lecture or the laboratory, affords all students an opportunity to be included in and exposed to research, which their economic means, schedule, or background may prevent them from otherwise experiencing (Bangera and Brownell 2014; Gasper and Gardner 2013). Engaging students in undergraduate research can promote retention and career readiness and increase enrollment in graduate studies. It can improve their critical thinking and problem solving abilities as well as their independence (Auchincloss et al. 2014; Harrison et al. 2011; Jordan et al. 2014; Lopatto et al. 2008). Thus, the aim of this ongoing project is to design, implement, and improve upon a novel course-based undergraduate research experience that investigates the prevalence and persistence of antibiotic-resistant staphylococcal bacteria in the environment. By participating in this course, students engage with the literature and keep pace with new developments in antibiotic resistance research; they learn about government-driven and global efforts to combat resistance; and finally, they present their work in a public forum. They begin to understand the dual roles that research and education play in tackling this capacious problem. The course involves isolating and characterizing specific antibiotic-resistant staphylococci colonizing the campus, using a range of classical and next-generation techniques and correlating these findings with metagenetics, a novel technology that allows the researcher to sample all DNA at a site (Blow 2008). This new course called “Microbiology of Urban Spaces” directly ties into my own research agenda and expertise and helps me to recruit and retain a team willing and ready to tackle the problem. Student learning outcomes are presented in Box 1 and specific activities in Box 2. The data generated as part of this project are used as a foundation for further student projects in the summer and have served as preliminary data for federal grant proposals and to obtain funding to support and sustain the course.

Briefly, students isolate individual bacteria using media selective for antibiotic and heavy metal resistance and characterize them phenotypically and genotypically over the course of the semester. They use a BSL2 lab that was recently refurbished for the purpose of microbiological research. The students are then encouraged to design their own phenotypic-based experiments (antibiograms, biofilms, adherence) to be conducted over the summer, and to develop their own research questions while continuing to harness the technologies and techniques learned in the course. The course is designed such that the metagenetic data are available for analysis towards the end, allowing time to expose the students to other characteristics and mechanisms leveraged by environmental staphylococci. The metagenetic component (swabbing, isolating DNA, and sequencing) is entirely at the discretion and choice of the students. In the first meeting of the course, students are introduced to my research questions and the work that  my students and I have completed to date. They then brainstorm what sites would be of interest to target for sampling in view of my research and considering their own research questions. Once they have discussed and planned, the students, working as a team, sample various sites on campus. In Spring 2016, we targeted the new residence hall and sites such as elevator buttons, door handles, and handrails, and in Fall 2016, we targeted various water bodies in the vicinity of Mercy, including the Hudson and East Rivers and the Old Croton Aqueduct. The data we generated in Spring 2016 revealed the impact of human presence on newly colonized buildings at Mercy, and we have begun to design experiments targeting the specific organisms we have isolated and identified on surfaces there. While my original target was antibiotic-resistant staphylococci, we have also used metagenetics to identify the presence of Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas and Streptococcus on surfaces, many species and strains of which are also resistant to antibiotics. We shall adapt and modify our screening in future semesters.

How the Students Are Evaluated

Microbiology of Urban Spaces is designed not only to improve students’ knowledge and understanding of research and antibiotic resistance, but also to train them to be 21st-century citizens. Students are expected to work in teams and build their communication skills. In this digital age we use instant messenger and group chats to facilitate communication. Dropbox is used to store course materials, protocols, and data in shared folders. Digital lab books are used (viewable to all team members) to ensure notes are updated regularly. Students are expected to be able to use and develop their quantitative reasoning skills and develop mastery of basic microbiology techniques such as dilutions, conversions, and basic computational tools and to generate a properly formatted bibliography. Above all else, the course encourages critical thinking and teamwork; students are able to choose their own sampling sites, interpret their findings, and learn from their mistakes. Repetition and iteration ensure mastery. Students are graded on the basis of their participating in lab meetings and lab activities, their detailed lab books, their final papers, and the generation of a scholarly poster. In addition, a survey based upon the SENCER SALG is administered at the beginning and end of the course, as well as the standard Mercy College End of Course surveys.

Student Success, Course Limitations, and Reflections

Since the pilot, I have been able to recruit eight students to participate each semester, and the course has gone through three iterations. Each section has been a success, with students reporting their enjoyment, self-satisfaction with their learning, and demonstrating their improvement in knowledge and skills over the span of the semester. Many had never generated a poster, worked with computational tools, or used molecular biology techniques except in class (if at all). Two students registered to take the course for a second time. Feedback from the End of Course and SALG surveys was positive as indicated in Box 3 and 4 (though not all students responded). In Spring 2016, when asked on the End of Course survey “if they would recommend a course to their friends and why,” students answered, “Sure, opens your eyes to the world of research and looks great when applying to any grad schools,” and “Yes, I personally learned a lot more about microbiology research and improved my skills.”  Limitations and student concerns were also noted in the end of semester surveys, where a student revealed that they didn’t enjoy the lectures. Interestingly, student frustration with backordered/missing lab supplies also manifested itself on the end of semester surveys, indicating that they were indeed having an authentic experience. The minimal budget and modest lab facilities limit some of what can be done at Mercy. Students also learned that working in the lab is frequently frustrating and not always for reasons under our control.

Several of the students who were in the Spring 2016 pilot continued to work on their projects over the summer and developed their own areas of research such as prevalence of enterotoxin genes, detection of bacteria in the gym, natural antimicrobials, and using antimicrobials in building products. At the end of both Spring semesters, students in the class presented their work at a local conference, the Westchester Undergraduate Research conference. In addition, students who continued their Spring 2016 projects into the summer presented their own independent research projects at national and international meetings such as CSTEP (Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program), ABRCMS (Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students) and Microbe (the American Society for Microbiology Annual Meeting). On the basis of their abstracts, one student was awarded a partial travel grant to attend ABRCMS and received an honorary mention for her poster at CSTEP. Another student was awarded an ASM Capstone award to attend and present at Microbe 2017.

One of the most useful aspects of the course was using digital tools to facilitate teamwork and continual feedback. The use of Dropbox to store the digital lab books, though simple, was a successful social experience, as the students and I were able to engage with one another and make comments on each other’s work; it was particularly useful since many of the students had jobs and commuted to school. The students could also make use of pictures and notes taken in class shared via Dropbox to ensure that their own lab books were up to date and not missing details. The groups used WhatsApp to connect with one another and to stay in contact throughout the course. This meant that students truly behaved as if they were on a team and worked as a unit throughout. When working on their poster in Spring 2017, the students took it upon themselves to book a conference room and displayed the poster on the screen as they worked together in order to ensure that their poster was generated collaboratively and collectively.

Summary and Future Directions

Undergraduate research experiences can greatly enhance the career development and readiness of all students in STEM fields, and they have shown substantial impact on the retention of students in STEM disciplines. By integrating my research into a classroom-based research experience, I have enabled students to gain exposure to research while enhancing their critical thinking, communication, quantitative reasoning, and teamwork skills. For three semesters, I have had eight students register and the feedback has been positive. Working with the students has also rewarded me: useful and intriguing data were generated, which now inform my research and further student projects in the lab. In the coming semesters, I will continue to improve upon and modify this course so that it exemplifies a SENCER Model Course and provides a truly transformative and successful experience for our students.

About the Author

Davida S. Smyth is an Associate Professor and Chair of Natural Sciences at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York. A SENCER Leadership Fellow, her research focuses on the genomics of Staphylococcus aureus and the impact of antibiotic resistance in clinical and environmental strains of staphylococci. She is also interested in pedagogical research in the area of student reading skills in STEM disciplines and peer-led team learning in Biology.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to acknowledge the hard work and diligence of the students at Mercy College and her collaborators at CUNY, Prof. Jeremy Seto (New York City College of Technology), Prof. Avrom Caplan (City College), and Prof. Theodore Muth (Brooklyn College). She would also like to thank the members of the library staff, namely Susan Gaskin Noel, Hailey Collazo, and Andy Lowe, who assisted with the generation and printing of the posters. The development of the novel course “Microbiology of Urban Spaces” was funded through a Mercy Senate Micro-Grant for Course Redesign. Additional funding came from a Mercy Faculty Development Grant. Lastly she would like to thank her colleagues at SENCER, namely Monica Devanas, Eliza Jane Reilly, Stephen Carroll, and Kathleen Browne for their guidance and assistance with the projects to date.

References

Auchincloss, L.C., S.L. Laursen, J.L. Branchaw, K. Eagan, M. Graham, D.I. Hanauer, … and M. Towns. 2014. “Assessment of Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences: a Meeting Report.” CBE – Life Sciences Education 13 (1): 29–40.

Bangera, G., and S.E. Brownell. 2014. “Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences Can Make Scientific Research More Inclusive.” CBE – Life Sciences Education 13: 602–606.

Becker, K., C. Heilmann, and G. Peters. 2014. “Coagulase-Negative Staphylococci.” Clinical Microbiology Reviews 27: 870–926.

Blow, N. 2008. “Metagenomics: Exploring Unseen Communities.” Nature 453: 687–690.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2013. Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013. http://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/threat-report-2013/ (accessed June 13, 2017).

Gasper, B.J., and S.M. Gardner. 2013. “Engaging Students in Authentic Microbiology Research in an Introductory Biology Laboratory Class Is Correlated with Gains in Student Understanding of the Nature of Authentic Research and Critical Thinking.” Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education 14 (1): 25–34.

Harrison M, D. Dunbar, L. Ratmansky, K. Boyd, and D. Lopatto. 2011. “Classroom-Based Science Research at the Introductory Level: Changes in Career Choices and Attitude.” CBE – Life Sciences Education 10: 279–286.

He, G.X, M. Landry, H. Chen, C. Thorpe, D. Walsh, M.F. Varela, and H. Pan. 2014. “Detection of Benzalkonium Chloride Resistance in Community Environmental Isolates of Staphylococci.” Journal of Medical Microbiology 63 (5): 735–741.

Jordan, T.C., S.H. Burnett, S. Carson, S.M. Caruso, K. Clase, R.J. DeJong, … and A.M. Findley. 2014. “A Broadly Implementable Research Course in Phage Discovery and Genomics for First-Year Undergraduate Students.” MBio 5 (1): e01051–13.

Lopatto D, D. Alvarez, D. Barnard, C. Chandrasekaran, H.-M. Chung, C. Du, … and S.C.R. Elgin.  2008. “Undergraduate Research: Genomics Education Partnership.” Science 322: 684–685.

Nathan, C., and O. Cars. 2014. “Antibiotic Resistance – Problems, Progress and Prospects.” New England Journal of Medicine 371: 1761–1763.

Shaffer, C.D., C. Alvarez, C. Bailey, D.  Barnard, S. Bhalla, C. Chandrasekaran, … and S.C.R. Elgin. 2010. “The Genomics Education Partnership: Successful Integration of Research into Laboratory Classes at a Diverse Group of Undergraduate Institutions.” CBE – Life Sciences Education 9 (1): 55–69.

Smith, T.C., E.D. Moritz, K.R. Leedom Larson, and D.D. Ferguson. 2010. “The Environment as a Factor in Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus Transmission.” Reviews of Environmental Health 25: 121–134.

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. 2015a. FACT SHEET: Obama Administration Releases National Action Plan to Combat Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/27/fact-sheet-obama-administration-releases-national-action-plan-combat-ant (accessed June 13, 2017).

———. 2015b. FACT SHEET: President’s 2016 Budget Proposes Historic Investment to Combat Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria to Protect Public Health. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/27/fact-sheet-president-s-2016-budget-proposes-historic-investment-combat-a (accessed June 13, 2017).

World Health Organization (WHO). 2017. Antimicrobial Resistance: Global Report on Surveillance 2014. http://www.who.int/drugresistance/documents/surveillancereport/en/ (accessed June 13, 2017).

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Conversations about Technology and Society: Techniques and Strategies to Encourage Civic Engagement in Museums

Abstract

Museums are changing the way they connect with their communities by positioning themselves as venues for civic engagement and multidirectional dialogue. Through an effort known as Nano and Society, hundreds of museums and universities have collaborated to encourage conversations among community members, educators, scientists, and others about nanotechnologies. Nano and Society conversations focus on public audiences’ experiences and values, validating their opinions and identifying a role for them in making decisions about emerging technologies. This article describes how the content and design of Nano and Society conversations support participant learning, shares facilitation techniques that educators and scientists can use to implement the conversations in informal learning settings, and summarizes the professional and public impacts of the project.

Introduction

The National Informal STEM Education Network (NISE Net) is a community of informal educators and scientists dedicated to supporting learning about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) across the United States. Network partners include over 600 museums, universities, and other organizations that work together to develop, implement, and study methods for engaging public audiences in learning about current STEM research and its social dimensions (Ostman 2017).

The Network has experimented with a variety of educational products to engage public audiences in learning about the societal and ethical implications of current STEM research. These include interactive exhibits (Ostman 2015) and hands-on activities that invite exploration and discovery (Ostman 2016a, 2016b); forums that encourage dialogue among experts and citizens (Herring 2010; Lowenthal 2016); museum theatre programs that use theatrical techniques to create and cultivate emotional connections (Long and Ostman 2012); and games to foster play and social interaction (Porcello et al. 2017). Of these approaches to the social dimensions of STEM, to date the most widely adopted products and practices were developed as part of a project known as Nano and Society.

The project included a year of planning and development in 2011–2012 and was launched in 2012–2013 with a series of workshops that involved more than 50 museums and universities across the United States. The project team created a set of key concepts for conversations about nanotechnologies, a variety of conversational activities, and a suite of training materials. In 2013–2016, Nano and Society concepts, strategies, and resources were also incorporated into hands-on activity kits and exhibits that were distributed to hundreds more Network partners.

Early in the project, the team talked to professionals at Network partner organizations, including museums and universities, to learn more about the barriers to and opportunities for incorporating public learning experiences focusing on the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnologies. These discussions indicated what was needed in order for this content to be widely integrated into partners’ programming. First, Nano and Society themes had to be offered through common engagement formats that partner organizations were already using, such as hands-on activities, rather than new formats that were resource-intensive to learn and implement. Second, partners felt that an open-ended, conversational approach focusing on the public’s own ideas and values was more appropriate for their public audiences than a comprehensive discussion of costs, risks, and benefits of complex new technologies. And third, Network partners needed professional development in order to gain the necessary skills and confidence to implement this new approach.

The Nano and Society project team included members from Arizona State University, the Museum of Life and Science, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the Sciencenter in Ithaca, New York. The work was supported by the NISE Network (in its original identity as the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) and the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU), each funded by the National Science Foundation for more than 11 years.

The resulting Nano and Society activities engage museum staff, scientists, and visitors in meaningful conversations about the relevance of emerging technologies to our lives. The conversations are designed to focus on participants’ own experiences and values related to technologies, to validate their opinions and identify a role for them in making decisions about emerging technologies, and to support learning as a social process. They are skillfully facilitated by educators or scientists to help participants apply their ideas to decisions about future nanotechnologies that we face as a society. This article describes how the content and design of Nano and Society conversations support participant learning, shares techniques that educators and scientists can use to implement the conversations in informal settings such as museums, and summarizes the professional and public impacts of the project.

Multidirectional Dialogue

Museums and their community partners represent an ideal location for people to explore perspectives on emerging technologies. Museums serve broad and sizeable audiences across the United States and are perceived as trusted venues for learning and socializing (AAM 2015). Although museums are increasingly interested in serving as community forums and promoting civic engagement, as a whole the field is not yet well equipped to do so in a way that is universally welcoming. In response, the Nano and Society project focused on increasing the capacity of museums across the country to engage their audiences in meaningful conversations about nanotechnologies.

The project is part of a growing movement for museums to provide a space for thoughtful reflection and civil conversation among multiple and diverse public audiences. Leaders, researchers, and practitioners across the field are calling for museums to serve as essential community resources and provide authentic, participatory learning experiences that address relevant and timely issues (Davis et al. 2003; Kadlec 2013; McCallie et al. 2009; Simon 2010). Professional organizations and funders emphasize the convening power of STEM-rich museums and their potential to promote civic engagement related to science-in-society (e.g. AAAS 2017; ASTC 2017; Ecsite 2017; IMLS 2017; NSF 2017; Science Center World Summit 2014).

One aspect of this movement has been the development of programs that address issues that their communities care about, introduce current scientific research, bring together scientists and community members, and provide multidirectional dialogue and engagement among participants. Museums of all types are increasingly experimenting with dialogue-based programming and exhibitions, particularly for addressing complex, contested, or sensitive topics (Bell 2013; Davies et al. 2009; Kollmann 2011; Kollmann et al. 2012; Kollmann et al., 2013; Lehr et al. 2007; McCallie et al. 2007; Ostman et al. 2013; Reich et al. 2007).

The Public Conversations Project defines dialogue as “any conversation in which participants search for understanding rather than for agreements or solutions,” and which is clearly distinct from “polarized debate” (Herzig and Chasin 2011, 3). The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation characterizes dialogue as a process that “increases understanding, builds trust, and enables people to be open to listening to perspectives that are very different from their own” (NCDD 2014, 1). Dialogue allows people to share their values, perspectives, and experiences about difficult issues and to hear from others. It helps dispel stereotypes, build trust, and open people’s minds to ideas that are different from their own. Dialogue can, and often does, lead to both personal and collaborative action, but that action is not an essential outcome of dialogue (Bell 2013; Davies et al. 2009).

As a public engagement process, dialogue has several general characteristics. It involves utilizing facilitators and ground rules to create a safe atmosphere for honest, productive discussion; framing the issue, questions, and discussion material in a balanced and accurate manner; talking face-to-face; considering all sides of an issue; and establishing a foundation for continued reflection and possibly for future decisions or actions (NCDD 2014, 1). Within this general definition, the Nano and Society team focused on creating opportunities for dialogue that could be integrated seamlessly into a regular museum visit, were appropriate for general public audiences, and could be facilitated by any staff member or volunteer.

Nanotechnology and Society Content

Nanoscale science and engineering is a relatively new, interdisciplinary field of research that studies and manipulates matter at the level of atoms and molecules, enabling innovations in materials and devices. Some new nanomaterials and technologies allow improvements to existing products, such as computer chips, sunblock, and stain-resistant fabrics, while others could be transformative, such as elevators to space, invisibility cloaks, and cures for cancer. Because nanotechnologies are still developing, as a society we can influence what they are and how they are used. While the capability to create and use new technologies is based on advances in science and engineering, our individual and collective decisions about which technologies to develop and use are societal issues, with cultural, ethical, environmental, political, and economic dimensions. In order to participate fully in decisions about emerging technologies, Americans need both scientific and citizenship literacy skills (Partnership for 21st Century Skills 2015).

Nano and Society conversations offer participants an opportunity to understand the relationship between technologies and society, consider how emerging technologies will influence our lives, and learn how we can shape the development of new technologies. In other words, these conversations explore our values as individuals and consider the kind of future we want to build. Three “big ideas” provide a conceptual framework for the conversations: (1) Values shape how technologies are developed and adopted; (2) Technologies affect social relationships; and (3) Technologies work because they are part of larger systems (Wetmore et al. 2013).

Nano and Society conversations explore the many dimensions of the relationship between technology and society. They acknowledge that we will always have imperfect information about risks, benefits, and consequences, but emphasize that as individuals and as a society we still must make decisions about what science we will pursue and what technologies we will use. The goal of the conversation is not to solve complex issues on the spot, but rather to give public audiences the opportunity to develop knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are essential to engage deeply with current science and to participate as citizens. This shift to a science-in-society framework gives every visitor a role in the conversation, since the discussion is not about the technical aspects of scientific advances, but rather about the possibilities science and technology raise for our future, and what we want that future to be as individuals and communities.

Design Strategies

Nano and Society conversation are designed to have a flexible format, to include interactive elements, and to focus on accessible key concepts. They are relatively brief experiences that can be offered on the museum floor or incorporated into longer programs. They usually include a hands-on activity, demonstration, game, or other interactive element as a conversation-starter. Educators, scientists, and public audiences with a wide range of background knowledge and experience can participate in them equally, because they focus on the aspects of technologies that everyone has experience with: their own values, possible impacts on their social relationships, and the ways technologies interact as parts of systems in their lives. These design strategies allow the conversations to be used in a variety of ways in informal settings, with diverse participants.

The Nano and Society team uses a “cupcake” analogy to explain how these conversations are different from other kinds of informal learning experiences that focus on technologies. In a typical demonstration about a new technology, a museum educator might focus on the technology, talking about why it is amazing, who invented it, and how it is made. Finally, the educator might conclude by describing the impact that the technology could have on society and ask if there are any questions. In this approach, the societal and ethical implications of the technology are added on at the very end of the experience, like the sprinkles on top of a cupcake. In a Nano and Society conversation, the social dimensions of the technology are baked into the experience, not sprinkled on top. Both society and technology are integral and are considered together throughout the conversation.

For example, in a game called “Exploring Nano & Society—You Decide,” participants are given a set of cards that present a variety of new and emerging nanotechnologies, such as gold nanoshells for treating cancer and miniature military drones. The cards include the kinds of basic information described above, but the interaction does not focus on the technical aspects of the technologies. Rather, the participant group is asked to browse the new technologies and decide which ones they think are most important for society and should be prioritized for development. Usually, participants quickly realize that there are many different factors that determine which technologies are most “important,” and they discover that there are different opinions within their group. Often, participants are concerned that there may be downsides or unintended consequences to these technologies that we cannot predict. They may decide that the potential benefits of some technologies seem worth the potential costs and risks, while others do not. They may even go so far as to “ban” one or more of the options as too risky. Other technologies may be declared cool by some but frivolous by others, with negligible benefits. When the group settles on a scheme (or schemes), the facilitator introduces a character card. These cards present different people from around the world, such as a mother in Mozambique or an Iraqi soldier, and suggests some of the things those characters value and are concerned about. The group is asked to reprioritize the technologies based on the perspective of the character on the card. This re-sorting activity helps the group to see that technologies benefit individuals and countries in different ways and to different degrees, and that different people and countries may be interested in developing and using different kinds of technologies.

The design of the You Decide activity is simple, but it promotes rich conversations. Often, participants raise most of the key learning concepts amongst themselves, with just a bit of guidance from the facilitator. The facilitator joins in at key moments: explaining the game play, helping the group clarify their thoughts about a particular technology, judiciously choosing a character card that offers a different perspective, and helping the group draw some general conclusions from the game. Throughout, the conversation focuses equally on technologies and society, rather than primarily on the technologies themselves. That is, the social dimensions of technologies are baked into the conversation, not sprinkled on top.

Facilitation Techniques

In Nano and Society conversations, the typical roles of the educator or scientist and the participant shift. The educator or scientist takes on the role of facilitator rather than expert, asking questions, offering ideas or information to consider, and providing new perspectives. Meanwhile, participants take on some authority by contributing their values and experiences related to technologies. The facilitator guides the conversation by helping participants reflect on and form their own ideas and opinions and by introducing new perspectives and issues (Ostman et al. 2013; Wetmore et al. 2013).

Network educators have identified several techniques that help them facilitate interesting and meaningful conversations. The facilitator first invites participants to try the activity, demo, or game. “This introductory experience establishes rapport, provides some basic familiarity with nanotechnology, and introduces a topic for conversation. Then, the facilitator initiates a conversation by asking questions or making observations about what participants say and do. This validates participants’ perspectives and establishes a two-way interaction focused on developing ideas, rather than a one-way presentation of information. Then, the facilitator draws out participants’ experiences and values related to technologies. The facilitator might reflect participants’ ideas, ask open-ended questions, make connections to things participants are familiar with from from everyday life, or offer additional information for consideration. The facilitator gently guides the conversation, following participants’ interests and ideas. While the facilitator always has the key concepts in mind, and often has a repertoire of talking points and connections related to a given activity, the conversation never follows a set script. The facilitator also makes sure to involve everyone in the group. Finally, the facilitator follows participants’ cues, recognizing when the group is ready to move on and wrapping up graciously (Ostman et al. 2013).

For example, in the “Exploring Nano & Society—Invisibility” activity, the facilitator starts with a classic science demonstration about the refraction of light in order to spark participants’ curiosity. The facilitator explains that researchers are experimenting with ways of bending light to cloak objects, making them invisible to the human eye or to surveillance devices. So far, they have only succeeded at the nanoscale, but full-size invisibility cloaks could be coming soon. The facilitator then initiates a conversation about what participants would do if they had an invisibility cloak. A child might suggest mischievous activities, such as staying up past her bedtime or spying on her brother. The educator might ask the child how she would feel if someone spied on her using an invisibility cloak, leading to a discussion about privacy rights. A parent might ask what would happen if criminals had invisibility cloaks, turning the conversation to government regulation of technologies. Another child might suggest we need additional technologies—such as a cloak-detector—to deal with the problems this new invisibility technology introduces. The facilitator might point out that many of these issues have come up with previous technologies, and the group might think about how we can learn from some of these previous experiences.

Whichever way the conversation goes, the facilitator can draw out one or more of the Nano and Society key concepts. As they think and talk about the invisibility cloak, participants come to understand some of the ways in which they make and contribute to decisions about technologies. They recognize how this new technology would affect the way they interact with other people. And they articulate kind of future they want to live in and the ways they think emerging technologies may help build or block that future.

In a successfully facilitated conversation, participants enjoy their experience, develop an understanding of one or more of the key concepts of technology and society, connect these concepts to their own lives, and recognize their role as a decision-maker with regard to technologies (Wetmore et al. 2013). All parties in a conversation—educators, scientists, and public participants—explore concepts and practice ways of learning, talking about, and thinking about technologies that they can continue to apply in other aspects of their work and lives.

Another activity, “Exploring Nano & Society—Space Elevator,” asks participants to imagine what would happen if new nanomaterials made it possible for us to build elevators into space and invites them to sketch or talk about their ideas. Among intergenerational groups, children often feel confident drawing, while the facilitator and adults in the group discuss and ask questions. For example, at a community science night, one young girl meticulously drew a picture of a future space elevator, detailing how it would be powered, who could ride it, the route it would take through the solar system, training requirements for elevator staff, and the food they would serve on board. An adult then asked a simple but powerful question: “What’s up there when you arrive?” This led to a imaginative discussion about what kind of infrastructure we would build if we were colonizing space. As the girl started to draw houses, family members wondered, “Would our houses look like houses on Earth or would they have to be different for us to survive in space? Do we need mailboxes in space? Can we get mail? How do we communicate with people on Earth?” The act of drawing in concrete details inspired the group to consider a whole variety of interrelated systems and social structures we have on Earth and make decisions about whether or not they might need or want to recreate them if they were starting fresh somewhere else.

Ideally, these conversations empower participants (educators, scientists, and publics) to come to understand the role we all have in developing and adopting technologies, the ways those technologies affect our personal relationships and our society more broadly, and the ways all technologies work as part of interconnected systems. The three “big ideas” of Nano and Society are a powerful way to engage visitors in learning about nanotechnology. They spark interest and enjoyment, demonstrate relevance by connecting science and engineering with society, and indicate some of the ways that new technologies may affect our lives.

Professional Resources and Training

In order to share the Nano and Society approach across the Network, and to ensure museum staff and volunteers were comfortable with the new approach and resources, NISE Net and ASU-CNS committed to providing a comprehensive range of professional development opportunities and resources.

In 2012–13, the project team offered multi-day, in-person professional development workshops in four locations across the United States. Around 100 professionals from 50 different organizations were invited to attend the workshop. The workshops were organized around the three big ideas. Following an introduction to the project goals and rationale, each unit included improv exercisesdesigned to build facilitation skills and comfort related to open-ended conversations, practical experience learning and delivering Nano and Society conversations in small groups, and deeper exploration of one big idea as a large group. The workshops concluded with training in a Network practice known as team-based inquiry, which gave educators methods and tools to experiment with and identify facilitation techniques that support audience engagement and learning (Pattison et al. 2014).

Workshop participants were provided with physical kits they could use to do a similar training with their own staff and volunteers and to implement the activities with audiences at their home organization. The training kits included sample training agendas; an overview slide presentation explaining the rationale for exploring the social dimensions of technologies in an informal learning setting; short, humorous videos exploring the big ideas; guides for a set of improv exercises to strengthen essential skills; team-based inquiry tools; and physical materials and supplies to try out and implement a series of Nano and Society conversations. While the Nano and Society project used a “train-the-trainer” model, completely faithful implementation of the workshop, or the conversation activities, was not essential; it was more important that participants implemented the resources in a way that was appropriate, sustainable, and empowering for their institution and audiences.

The project also built in several follow-up opportunities for workshop participants. There were two online sessions scheduled soon after the in-person workshops, designed to support museums as they began to train additional staff and volunteers and implement the programming. The first online session oriented museums to their physical kits and the resources they contained and was intended to prepare the participants from the in-person workshop to train other educators at their organization. The second online session provided an opportunity to discuss facilitation strategies with peers and was intended to allow educators to share their experiences and insights as they began having Nano and Society conversations with public audiences. Finally, NISE Net’s Network-Wide Meeting offered an additional in-person opportunity for workshop participants to reconnect and share their learnings with others.

After the initial series of workshop trainings, all the Nano and Society materials were made available online for free download (Sciencenter et al. 2012), and additional Nano and Society trainings were offered online and in other Network meetings. As with all Network resources, the Nano and Society materials are open source and distributed through a Creative Commons license, and Network partners are encouraged to adapt them to fit their mission, educational setting, and local audiences.

Project Impact

The Nano and Society project has had a great impact on the NISE Network community. The products and professional practices developed by the project are widely used, with partners across the United States engaging multiple and diverse public audiences in conversations about technology and society.

Nano and Society has been studied in terms of professional learning, public learning, and research-to-practice partnerships. As a capacity-building project, it was included in the Network’s professional impacts summative evaluation study (Goss et al. 2016). Nano and Society public educational activities were incorporated into a variety of Network products, and their public impacts are assessed as part of the overall summative evaluation of those products (see Kollmann et al. 2015; Svarovsky et al. 2013; Svarovsky et al. 2014). Finally, the project was included as a case in a research study that examined how complex science ideas are made accessible to public audiences through research-to-practice partnerships between university scientists and museum professionals (Lundh et al. 2014).

NISE Net’s logic model articulates the Network’s overall theory of change. Essentially, the Network achieves public impact through the efforts of our institutional partners, including museums, universities, and other organizations committed to informal STEM education. The Network provides professional development and educational products to our institutional partners. Staff and volunteers implement these resources, establishing additional local partnerships and engaging local public audiences. Thus, the direct impact of the Network (and efforts such as Nano and Society) is on our professional partners, and the indirect impact is on the public audiences they engage (see Bequette et al. 2017, 15–17).

Consistent with the Network logic model, the Nano and Society project’s primary goal was to increase the capacity of informal educators to engage public audiences in learning about the social dimensions of nanotechnologies, with the expectation that they would then implement conversations with their local audiences. The project addressed two related professional impact goals for the Network: by participating in the Network, professionals would (1) understand theories, methods, and practices for effectively engaging diverse public audiences in learning about nano; and (2) utilize professional resources and educational products for engaging diverse public audiences in learning about nanoscale science, engineering, and technology.

The NISE Network Professional Impacts Summative Evaluation is a longitudinal study of individual professionals, primarily working at museums and universities, over the final three years of the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (project years 7-10) (Goss et al. 2016). The study explored how involvement with NISE Net impacted professionals’ sense of community, learning about nano, and use of nano educational products and practices. It employed two data collection methods over three years: an annual partner survey that involved a total of 597 professionals, and yearly interviews with a representative subset of 21 professionals (Goss et al. 2016). Within the study, the Nano and Society project was considered in terms of the two relevant professional impact goals described above: the degree to which Network partners adopted the professional practices it represented, and the degree to which they used the professional resources and public products it distributed.

The evaluation team found that over the study period, professionals reported becoming more confident in Nano and Society concepts and increased the extent to which they attributed that confidence to NISE Net. The percentage of professionals who reported using Nano and Society practices for engaging the public grew, and individuals reported increasing the amount of time they focused on societal and ethical implications of nanotechnologies with their audiences. By the end of the funded project period (year 10), 83  percent of all Network professional partners engaged the public in Nano and Society content. Of these, 94 percent used Network resources (Goss et al. 2016, 65–66, 72, 95–96). Half of the study respondents in the final study year (project year 10) also reported using Nano and Society ideas to engage audiences in learning about other STEM topics, transferring the skills and techniques they had learned to other aspects of their work (Goss et al. 2016, 98–99). These findings are particularly impressive when compared to evaluation results prior to the Nano and Society effort (project year 5), when only a small percentage of Network partners engaged public audiences in learning about the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnologies (Kollmann 2011).

The professional impacts summative evaluation also offers some potential explanations for why Nano and Society practices and products had a large impact on the Network, while others promoted by the Network were used less extensively. The authors note that in conceiving the Nano and Society project, Network leadership took into account the summative evaluation of related previous work; a team was assigned to learn about partners’ barriers and needs with regard to this challenging content, and new partnerships were established and substantial resources were dedicated to acting upon this information (Goss et al. 2016, 93). A full suite of professional resources helped professionals learn conversation practices, train others at their own organization, and share their results across the Network. A group of educational products, specifically designed to be integrated into activities Network partners already engaged in, provided concrete opportunities to implement Nano and Society ideas and practices immediately (Goss et al. 2016, 100).

The NISE Net Years 6-10 Evaluation Summary Report (Bequette et al. 2017) provides additional insight, identifying some of the general strategies that helped the Network to build the capacity of the field to do programming related to nanoscale science, engineering, and technology (including Nano and Society conversations). One successful strategy was creating educational products that model and embed best practices through their design, helping to ensure successful public learning outcomes and professional learning through implementation (Bequette et al. 2017, 44–45). Another important strategy was providing professional development opportunities that allow for deeper learning and sharing of ideas and expertise among Network partners (Bequette et al. 2017, 46–47).

Since 2013, Nano and Society concepts and conversation activities have been integrated throughout the Network’s educational products, including our most widely distributed and used materials: NanoDays kits of hands-on activities and the Nano small footprint exhibition. Because Nano and Society is now embedded into much of our public engagement work, the Network does not have data on the number of people who participated in Nano and Society conversations specifically. We do know that as of 2015, over eleven million people each year participate in NanoDays and the Nano exhibition which both incorporate Nano and Society conversations and concepts (Svarovsky et al. 2015; see also Kollmann et al. 2015). In addition, many Network partners are applying the practices and tools they have learned (such as improv exercises to train staff in facilitation techniques) to other content areas and work at their own institutions. And finally, the Network leadership and development teams continue to use Nano and Society ideas, models, and strategies for new projects that focus on a variety of STEM fields, further extending the impact of the project.

Conclusions

Science centers, children’s museums, and other informal science learning organizations are increasingly finding ways to connect with our communities and make
the experiences we offer more relevant to our audiences’ lives. By incorporating participants’ own perspectives into their learning experiences and by fostering productive social interactions, we hope to make museum learning opportunities more impactful and engaging for our audiences. At the same time, professional organizations and funding agencies seek to encourage dialogue among scientists, engineers, policymakers, and people everywhere in order
to help understand and solve a variety of pressing global and local issues. As institutions that are trusted by all of these parties, informal learning organizations provide an important venue for these conversations, fostering civic engagement and dialogue.

Through Nano and Society and subsequent projects, NISE Net partners are working together to encourage multidirectional dialogue among community members, educators, scientists, and others. In Nano and Society conversations, insight occurs when participants think about the people that imagine, create, and decide to use technologies. They come to understand the role we all have in developing and adopting technologies, and the ways that those technologies affect our personal relationships and our society more broadly. Ultimately, Nano and Society conversations can help people feel empowered to make and contribute to decisions about new and emerging technologies.

About the Author

Rae Ostman is a faculty member in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University and director of the National Informal STEM Education Network (NISE Net).  She has broad experience planning, developing, implementing, and studying museum exhibits, programs, media, and other learning experiences in partnership with diverse organizations. She can be reached at rostman@asu.edu or 607-882-1119.

Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Nos. 0940143 and 0937591. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

The Nano and Society project was a close collaboration that included many talented museum staff participating in the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network and our academic partners at the Arizona State University Center for Nanotechnology in Society. In particular, Ira Bennett, Brad Herring, Ali Jackson, and Jamey Wetmore were involved in all aspects of the work described here. The evaluation work was performed by NISE Net’s multi-organizational team led by Liz Kollmann. Dave Guston, principal investigator for ASU-CNS, recognized the importance of public engagement and committed intellectual and financial resources to the collaboration with NISE Net. And finally, for over eleven years the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network was led by principal investigator Larry Bell, who consistently supported and encouraged the Network’s efforts to help informal educators, scientists, and public audiences explore the social dimensions of nanotechnologies together.

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Experiential Learning in the 21st Century: Service Learning and Civic Engagement Opportunities in the Online Science Classroom

Abstract

Online higher education programs provide opportunities and access to students who might not have enrolled in a higher education program otherwise. As the demand for these online programs increases, including those in the STEM fields, the need for experiential learning opportunities becomes critical. Experiential learning in the online environment can take place in a multitude of ways, can generate student engagement, and can incorporate collaborative learning opportunities. Together, these courses will involve hands-on learning experiences that address real-world needs, service learning, and civic engagement, all which encompass the central focus for these opportunities and are the foundation on which these courses will be built.

Introduction

A growing demand for online higher education programs brings with it the challenge of incorporating civic engagement responsibilities into an online environment. According to the 2015 Survey of Online Learning, conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and published in the Online Learning Consortium’s Online Report Card (Allen et al. 2016), 2.85 million students are taking all of their courses in an online environment, while another 2.79 million are taking at least one online course. To put that in perspective, more than one in four students (28 percent) took at least one online course in the fall of 2014. Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education (SNHU COCE) currently serves online students and offers more than 200 online college degrees and certificates, including those in Environmental Science and Geosciences. The demand for individuals in these fields is expected to increase 10 to 11 percent faster than average between 2014 and 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016); therefore, providing innovative, hands-on, experiential learning opportunities for these students is crucial.

SNHU COCE incorporates experiential learning opportunities into its online STEM programs with a unique approach. Experiential learning is grounded in the work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget (Kolb 1984). Dewey (1938) argued that education and learning are social and interactive processes and stated that there is a connection between education and personal experience. Lewin and his Lewinian Model of Action Research and Laboratory Training focused on learning as facilitated by experience, acquisition of data, and observations. Piaget’s Model of Learning and Cognitive Development incorporates aspects of these two, but also adds reflection and action to the mix. Together, the philosophy of experiential learning can best be described as a process of learning as opposed to learning on the basis of outcomes (Kolb 1984). According to Kolb (1984), “knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” (See Figure 1 for a depiction of experiential learning in the 21st century framed in the context of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle.)

The purpose of the experiential learning courses for our online learners is to provide students with an opportunity to gain experience in their chosen field. In this report, we’ll focus specifically on civic engagement and service learning opportunities within the experiential learning courses. Civic engagement and service learning opportunities promote a sense of community and civic responsibility using reflective thinking to develop the students’ academic skills. Students participating in these types of immersive opportunities have the chance to work in local communities, address current environmental issues, and assist communities in implementing solutions. Course outcomes for the experiential learning courses revolve around guided reflection. The act of reflection is often a process that allows for the reorganization of knowledge and thought in order to attain greater insight (Moon 2004, 82). According to Moon (2004), understanding, decision making, resolution, and action outcomes can result from the use of reflective processes, including reflective journaling. Together, these reflective processes link reflection with the process of learning.

In the experiential courses, students reflect on scientific practices and real-world situations; they reflect on how experiential learning opportunities play a role in driving the achievement of their goals, and examine the relationship between the application of scientific inquiry and their real-world experiences. Students engage in reflective learning by participating in various discussions with their peers (collaborative reflection), along with writing in weekly journals to document their journey through the many experiences they encounter (personal reflection). (See Figure 2 for an overview of student journal guidelines.)  Upon completion of the course, students produce a guided written reflective piece that summarizes all of their experiences and details how those experiences have influenced their personal goals and future career path and helped identify what questions they may still have as they go forth in their educational and professional careers.

Online Experiential Learning in Science through Service Learning and Civic Engagement

Service learning has been identified as a high-impact practice that promotes higher-level learning and success (Kuh 2008; Brownell and Swaner 2010). The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012) is calling for renewed energy in community engagement, civic engagement, and service learning. Service learning and civic engagement involve building a sense of responsibility to one’s community and allow students the opportunity to apply concepts and ideas learned in class to real-life situations and scenarios (Holland et al. 2008, 165). Experiential learning with an emphasis on service learning and civic engagement in the online science learning environment can take place in a multitude of ways and can, in fact, generate high levels of student engagement and collaborative learning opportunities. The learning can take place in both the student’s local community and in the online environment where students interact with their peers and a faculty member, sharing, communicating, problem solving, and reflecting throughout the course.

At Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education, the goal is to provide students with meaningful learning experiences that connect to real-world relevance. To achieve this goal, an online science experiential learning undergraduate course has been created for our Environmental Science and Geoscience majors that includes varying topics that rotate throughout the year. Students may take this elective course up to two times in total. (See Figure 3 for the Course at a Glance Overview.)

Students engage in short-term immersive learning experiences that span roughly two months and include a minimum of seventy documented hours of experience. (See Figure 4 for the required weekly student timesheet template.) Students have the opportunity to engage in service while concurrently reflecting on their experience, exploring personal and professional development opportunities, applying scientific concepts to real-world situations, and developing competencies and skills around a desired career interest. The course also allows students to make personal connections in their field of interest and provides a face-to-face experience where students can demonstrate competency in the field to potential future employers, colleagues, or collaborators.

Examples of topics that focus on service learning and civic engagement in science for the online science experiential learning course are discussed below.

Service Learning

Service learning is a form of experiential learning that involves equal focus on student learning and community service goals. Service learning encompasses both reflection and reciprocity, where students actively participate in the service learning project and reflect on their experiences, in a dynamic action-reflection process. In Service-Learning in Higher Education (1996), Barbara Jacoby writes, “Service-learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes.” Therefore, in the online experiential learning course, students are actively engaged in learning opportunities that address a real-world need, while also providing time for reflection and discussion as learners progress towards mastery of course learning outcomes.

Service Learning and Grant Writing

Students learn to write a science grant in a real-world setting. They are tasked with finding and working with a local community partner organization in their area (such as a local, state, or national agency or park, museum, wildlife center, science center, aquarium, or zoo). The students work with their chosen entity to develop a grant proposal for funding that will be submitted to a granting agency for consideration. Students are not assessed on the outcome of the grant application process, but rather the outcomes and assessment focus on the experiential reflective learning process. In this experience, students make connections in their local community, serve the organization’s need by submitting a grant on their behalf, and gain a marketable skill.

Service Learning and Field Experience

Field experience can be interpreted broadly, but generally refers to gaining experience in the field in which the student would like to work. For example, it may include service in a branch within the Department of the Interior, e.g. National Park Service (NPS), United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), United States Geological Service (USGS), or serving on a local (city or county) geographic information system (GIS) project. Conversely, it may involve students who serve as data analysts on a scientific study that encompasses large data sets ready for analysis and synthesis. In this case, students work collaboratively with a faculty member who provides the raw data for the course, and the team of faculty and students work together to analyze and synthesize the data. The data analysis and synthesis could also include a final communication of those science results in a journal, data report, or other research publication.

Field experience allows students to gain skills that will help them in their future careers, and to make connections in the field, add to their professional network, and serve the needs of a community project or organization by serving its overall goal or mission in some capacity.

Civic Engagement

Civic engagement centers on making a real-world difference in the community while concurrently developing knowledge, skills, competencies, and abilities to achieve successful course and community project outcomes. Civic engagement can take on many forms in the higher education environment, and it prepares students to be engaged citizens. In our civically engaged experiential learning opportunities, students work on authentic science projects that are designed to make a difference in the community and provide students with real-world experience in science.

Civic Engagement through Community Citizen Science

In the online science experiential learning classroom, the world is our lab (Figure 5). Citizen science, or public participation in science, offers science students the opportunity to engage in science along with a greater community of collaborators or participants. Students gain experience facilitating and leading the public in real-world science. For example, students may create a citizen science species monitoring project on iNaturalist and host a BioBlitz in their local area. A BioBlitz refers to a period of time (such as a weekend) when organisms in a certain geographic area are surveyed and documented. The iNaturalist mobile device app allows for the BioBlitz to take place, with participants using smart phones and uploading images of the organism to the iNaturalist project.

In 2017, the “City Nature Challenge,” which began in California in 2016, became a national event. The April “City Nature Challenge” (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County 2017) coincided with “National Citizen Science Day” and included a friendly BioBlitz-style competition among sixteen cities across the United States. The “City Nature Challenge” uses iNaturalist to document species in a given area during a set period of time. Therefore, events like this can be a way for students to get involved in their local community and organize, lead, and facilitate BioBlitz events with the public. Engagement in community citizen science and BioBlitz events can lead to publishing ideas and opportunities for students, including the creation of a blog relating their experiences. Reporting about the experience is beneficial to the learning process, and also serves to reinforce an important aspect of the science process: communicating the science. In addition, science students help identify organisms that come in from participant observations during the challenge, and ultimately student participation helps to “crowdsource” and update species guides for each region. (See Figure 6 for an example of the updated species guide from the North Texas area, following the 2017 City Nature Challenge.) In 2018, the City Nature Challenge will be a global event. Imagine the unlimited possibilities for your own students when the world comes together in a locally engaged, globally connected iNaturalist BioBlitz next spring.

Conclusion and Discussion

The journey into experiential learning in the online science classroom has only just begun and the service learning and civic engagement examples discussed in this article are only the beginning for online experiential learning opportunities in science. We look forward to continuously learning from our students and our colleagues, and to applying collective stakeholder feedback as we further expand our course topic offerings. We welcome and invite discussion and collaboration with the entire SENCER community as we continue the exciting journey and evolution in online science education to serve the twenty-first-century learner.

About the Authors

Kelly Thrippleton-Hunter is a Faculty Lead for Undergraduate Science at Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education. She received two B.S. degrees, one in Zoology and the other in Environmental Biology and Ecology, from California State University, Long Beach in 2002, a Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology from the University of California, Riverside in 2009, and an M.A.T. in Science from Western Governors University in 2015.

Jill Nugent is the Associate Dean for Science at Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Texas Tech University, investigating locally engaged, globally connected citizen science in university science courses.

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Informal STEM Learning: The State of Research, Access and Equity in Rural Early Childhood Settings

Abstract

Even though 22 percent of Americans live in rural areas, rural locations have repeatedly been overlooked as research sites. Rural settings represent areas rich in early childhood STEM education research opportunities, yet very little rural STEM education research exists. This review highlights the limited extent of informal STEM learning research in rural early childhood settings as well as the impact that rurality has on teacher engagement and rural school STEM accessibility. A model that promotes active and collaborative partnerships between informal learning practitioners, community entities, and early childhood teachers represents an effective way to advance access to, equity in, and research about informal STEM learning experiences in rural settings. To foster this engaged learning paradigm, researchers must seek to develop and nourish meaningful relationships between informal STEM partners and schools in rural areas.

Introduction

Approximately 22 percent of the U.S. population, or nearly sixty million people, currently live in rural areas (United States Census Bureau 2014),  yet the scarcity of research related to rural education has been noted for decades in comprehensive literature reviews (Arnold et al. 2005; DeYoung 1987; Kannapel and DeYoung 1999; Stapel and DeYoung 2011; Waters et al. 2008). The editor of the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education even went so far as to call the lack of focus on rural education an “attention deficit disorder” in published research (Silver 2003). With nearly 19 percent of America’s schoolchildren attending rural public schools (Showalter et al. 2017), rural settings represent areas rich in STEM education research opportunities (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011). Yet rural specific issues, such as distance to services and access to professional development in STEM fields, create barriers that often prevent rurally located teachers and students from having equitable access to STEM learning opportunities (Banilower et al. 2013; Goodpastor et al. 2012).

The need for this review arises from the limited extent of informal STEM learning research in rural early childhood settings as well as the impact that rurality has on teacher engagement and rural school STEM accessibility. Recognizing the value rural areas provide as STEM research sites and capitalizing on the strengths of closely connected rural communities is helpful in addressing the accessibility and equity concerns detailed in this review. Additionally, collaborative partnerships that bridge formal and informal learning experiences represent an important mechanism for addressing access and equity in rural early childhood settings.

Background

Rural Settings—Underrepresented in the National Conversation

Though research about informal learning settings is not uncommon, a significant report on formal-informal collaborations made no specific mention of rural examples (Bevan et al. 2010). The value of learning science in informal environments is well recognized, but an informed approach for ensuring equity is essential in order to fully engage nondominant groups, including those in low-income and rural areas (Fenichel and Schweingruber 2010). While urban locales share similar challenges, rural locales have a way of magnifying certain challenges and opportunities that differ from urban locales. Informal STEM learning experiences are unevenly distributed with rural communities typically underserved, which, given the educational impact of informal learning experiences, may further contribute to placing rural students at a long-term economic disadvantage (Matterson and Holman 2012). Children’s museums, which typically have a strong STEM focus, are amongst the fastest growing types of museum, yet in a recent survey of children’s museum professionals, only five percent of respondents were from rural locations (Luke and Windleharth 2013). Worse, the outreach activities of large metropolitan museums run the risk of embracing urban-centric assumptions, which may align poorly with rural experiences.

Given the centrality of community and place to rural areas, rural children’s museums have the potential to serve as an anchor in the broader learning ecosystem of rural communities, including formal and informal learning collaborations (Luke and Garvin 2014), serving to connect across disciplines and even generations. But while 22 percent of Americans live in rural areas (United States Census Bureau 2014), only twelve percent of children’s museums are located within rural areas (Association of Children’s Museums 2015). This highlights yet another need for increased access to rural STEM learning experiences. In particular, a survey of research in children’s museums concluded that 56 percent of the research was conducted at only seven museums (all in large metropolitan areas) and only approximately four percent of the research involved teachers (Luke and Windleharth 2013), emphasizing the need for additional research specifically related to the role of museums for early childhood education and teacher collaborations in rural settings.

Developing interdisciplinary learning ecosystems that utilize existing and new partnerships (communities-schools-universities) has the potential to foster significant resiliency factors in the face of the many barriers to informal STEM learning that exist in rural settings. A recent National Research Council report (Bell et al. 2009) highlighted the overlapping goals of schools and informal (non-school) settings in science learning and the complementary role that informal settings can play in supporting learning progressions. The report emphasized that informal STEM learning experiences have the potential to be designed specifically to align with the K–12 science and math curriculum goals, even when the experiences may be infrequent (Bell et al. 2009). This type of intentional alignment could significantly enhance the impact of the informal STEM learning experience. However, despite recognition of the tremendous learning potential stemming from collaborations between informal learning organizations and schools, there is relatively little research on these types of collaborations in rural early childhood settings (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011). This is surprising given the close-knit nature of most rural communities, where collaboration between local industry, business, artists, and K–12 educators should be easier than in metropolitan centers (cf. the case of Meriwether Lewis Junior-Senior High School in Howley et al. [2010] for an example of a rural math educator using community relations to craft connections of mathematics to place).

Rural Schooling—Then and Now

The reasons for the exclusion of rural areas from current research date as far back as the 1900s and are inextricably linked to location, social position, politics, and poverty (DeYoung 1995). During the 19th century and early 20th century, schooling was rural for a majority of Americans, as one-room schoolhouses were the norm (Theobald 1991, 1997). Over the course of the 19th century and extending to the present, American schools and modern life simultaneously institutionalized a more industrialized and one-package-fits-all model. The contracts issued by many schools and districts to engage efficiency programs modeled after business applications suggests that the industrial model persists. As part of this movement, schools underwent a shift from one-room schools to a more factory-based style of education that made it easier for teachers to be monitored, curriculum to be standardized, students’ progress to be tracked, and the education process to be governed by qualified education experts instead of local community members (Smith 1999). Consolidation became a further expression of the push toward efficiency, standardization, and “bottom-line” thinking in the mid-to-latter 20th century (Herzog and Pittman 1999; Howley 1991). The consolidation experiment is an especially salient example of how following the same model as urban or suburban schools did not solve rural schooling’s issues. Indeed, the impact of large organizational scale and high transportation-to-instructional expenditures may be creating more problems than they are solving.

Rural schools face continued challenges today. In particular, rural schools experience lower income bases, difficulty in attracting and keeping teachers, lack of access to quality professional teacher development, and decreased access to informal STEM experiences for students, families, and teachers in rural regions (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011; Goodpastor et al. 2012; Herzog and Pittman 1999; Monk 2007; Schafft and Jackson 2011). Children in rural schools are identified for special education services more often and for gifted services less often than their non-rural peers (DeYoung 1993; Pendarvis and Wood 2009; Seal and Harmon 1995). Adult commutes are longer (and accordingly, transportation expenses are greater), and children living in rural areas often experience longer bus rides to and from school (Seal and Harmon 1995) than their non-rural counterparts. As teachers in rural schools are often the school’s sole representatives of their content area, the issue of professional isolation creates a concern that is specific to rural schooling (Monk 2007). Additionally, teachers in rural schools have reduced access to quality professional development (Monk 2007). For example, only 11 percent of rural schools provided one-on-one science-focused coaching to science teachers compared to 30 percent in urban schools (Banilower et al. 2013). These circumstances create educational risk factors for both students and teachers, and highlight the need to foster resiliency factors in underserved rural regions (Malloy and Allen 2007). Resiliency factors, which enable people to be successful in the face of adversity, create protective mechanisms that help mitigate risk factors and are essential in overcoming high-risk educational conditions (Henderson and Milstein 2003; Krovetz 1999; Malloy and Allen 2007). These descriptors illuminate the need for increased access to informal STEM learning experiences for children and teachers alike, but also create considerable challenges in reaching the rural areas that would most benefit from increased informal STEM learning opportunities.

Barriers to Rural STEM Accessibility and Equity

Despite improvements in transportation (and communication technologies), getting rural schools and families to access places of informal learning is still difficult (Ellegard and Vilhelmson 2004). Dubbed the “friction of distance,” transport to informal learning events is impacted by distance and ease of reaching a location (Ellegard and Vilhelmson 2004). Increased access to funding for informal STEM learning events and transportation to reach them is an ongoing and pressing issue for rurally located schools (Schafft and Jackson 2011; Sipple and Brent 2008). Even when an informal STEM organization is regionally accessible, rural schools are sometimes unable to pay for even a short bus ride (Hartman and Hines-Bergmeier 2015). Charging admission fees in impoverished rural regions also presents serious accessibility issues, as many families and school districts are unable to afford even a modest admission fee (Hartman and Hines-Bergmeier 2015). The recently launched “Museums for All” initiative, co-sponsored by the Association for Children’s Museums and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, is an important new direction for ensuring access and equity regardless of economic status. Beyond financial and geographic challenges, a deep connection to home and community cultures and contexts needs to be woven throughout the fabric of STEM informal learning experiences in order to achieve true equity for underrepresented or nondominant groups such as rural communities (Fenichel and Schweingruber 2010).

Additionally, distrust of outsiders is a common characteristic in rural areas, making gaining entry to rural settings a challenging prospect (Hartman 2013; Seal and Harmon, 1995). Historically, rural residents’ perception was that outsiders came to make them more like the rest of the world and to offer suggestions for improvement and change, and this made them wary and distrustful of people who are considered outsiders (Cooper et al. 2010; Edwards et al. 2006; Hartman 2013). In informal learning settings, this idea may be more specifically defined as social exclusion (Sandell 1998). Described as a breakdown in the links between individuals and their connections to the community, state services, and institutions, social exclusion is a concern in rural areas (Sandell 1998). Even when an educational STEM entity is associated with long-time local residents, overcoming issues created by rural residents’ cultural view of outsiders and the theory of social exclusion present ongoing challenges for places of informal STEM learning (Hartman and Hines-Bergmeier 2015). Also challenging is the fact that, in rural communities, education and educational institutions are often perceived by community members as “one-way tickets” out—a tool for preparing children for jobs elsewhere, and thus espousing a set of values contrary to that of the close kinship and connections held in rural communities (Corbett 2007). Recruiting talent away from communities is perceived as yet another form of resource extraction, sometimes called “brain drain.” Strategies to overcome these barriers involve innovative, cross-contextual learning fostered by collaborative partnerships.

Cross-Contextual Learning in Early Childhood Settings

Early Childhood Education refers specifically to the time of rapid growth and development during the ages of three to eight (Follari 2011; Morrison 2015). Children in this age group are characterized by their willingness to take risks, curiosity about the world around them, and desire to be actively engaged in learning experiences (Follari 2011; Morrison 2015). Learning experiences that foster creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, and a view of the world that is globally-minded and interdisciplinary are essential for children in the early years (Semmel 2009). Importantly, informal learning settings are places that encourage both independent and group exploration, are inherently play-based, and emphasize hands-on learning. These environments are designed to foster a high level of engagement and represent a model that is developmentally appropriate for young learners (Bell et al. 2009; Semmel 2009).

Though data from rural areas are scarce, research data that document bridging the gap between school and informal learning show promise for revolutionizing the way schools and community organizations interact to improve learning for children (Avery and Kassam 2011; Behrendt and Franklin 2014; Bevan et al. 2010; Duran et al. 2009; Fallik et al. 2013). Distinctions between “school math” or “school science” and “real math/science” may lead many students to develop negative dispositions toward STEM inquiry (Braund and Reiss 2006). Cross-contextual learning is a term for bridging the gap between the learning that occurs at school and the learning that happens informally at places such as museums, libraries, and/or parks (Fallik et al. 2013). By building upon experiences that occur in informal settings, classroom teachers are better able to create meaningful, engaged learning experiences in formal settings (Behrendt and Franklin 2014; Fallik et al. 2013). However, effective cross-contextual learning is challenging for teachers and places that provide informal learning experiences for children (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011; Fallik et al. 2013; Russell et al. 2013).

Early childhood teachers often have limited content knowledge of math and science, which contributes to low self-efficacy in math and science teaching and to decisions to devote less classroom time to teaching science (Murphy et al. 2007; Schneider et al. 2007; Ma 2010); conditions that impede cross-contextual learning. Effective cross-contextual learning is important, because recent research suggests that bridging the gap between formal and informal settings shows the most promise for both increased student gains and early childhood teacher comfort with STEM topics (Avery and Kassam 2011; Behrendt and Franklin 2014; Fallik et al. 2013). By engaging in collaborative partnerships, rural classroom teachers and informal STEM educational entities may capitalize on opportunities to increase STEM literacy and interest through informal STEM learning experiences (Bell et al. 2009; Russell et al. 2013). This is especially important in rural areas where access to traditionally recognized venues for informal learning opportunities, such as museums, are scarce (Avery and Kassam 2011; National Research Council 2015). To truly engage in cross-contextual learning that impacts the learning of young children in rural areas, collaboration between stakeholders is the essential ingredient (Bell et al. 2009; Russell et al. 2013).

Strength in Collaborative Partnerships

Rural areas have a strong sense of community, and the people living there feel strong family and community ties (DeYoung 1995; Goodpastor et al. 2012; Schafft and Jackson 2011; Vaughn and Saul 2013). Additionally, despite the challenges rural schools face, teachers who work in rural schools often report high levels of job satisfaction and professional collegiality (Howley and Howley 2006; Monk 2007). Given concerns associated with outsider distrust in rural settings (Cooper et al. 2010; Edwards et al. 2006; Hartman 2013), leveraging community entities and place-based teachers as partners in advancing informal STEM learning presents a strong and sustainable model in rural areas (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011; Fenichel and Schweingruber 2010; Goodpastor et al. 2012). Rural areas offer real-life, immediate access to outdoor learning experiences that are not readily available in urban and suburban school settings (Avery and Kassam 2011). Collaborative partnerships between teachers and informal STEM practitioners that capitalize on the unique environmental offerings of rural areas may impact STEM learning in an authentic, hands-on way that makes learning come to life for young children within the context of their own backyards.

To realize the full potential of already well-connected rural communities, balancing organizational and individual motivations of participants is important (Malm et al. 2012). As teachers serve as bridge builders between all stakeholders, they are essential members of collaborative partnerships, and especially in rural areas (Vaughn and Saul 2013). With the added component of distrust of outsiders, this makes community and teacher involvement in collaborative partnerships especially important for advancing informal STEM research and accessibility in rural areas (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011; Goodpastor et al. 2012). Informal learning partnerships in rural settings should be created from the ground up with rural partners involved from the beginning and serving as leaders in the process.

Looking to the Future

With more than a fifth of the U.S. population living rurally (U.S. Census Bureau 2014), the education research community and United States educational policy have an obligation to make sure that young children have access to high-quality STEM experiences, both in school (formal) and out of school (informal). Given the highly engaged and curious nature of children in the early years, early childhood settings provide important sites to explore the characteristics and impact of informal STEM learning in new and innovative ways. A model that promotes active and collaborative partnerships between informal learning practitioners, community entities, and classroom teachers represents an effective way to advance accessibility, equity, and research for informal STEM learning experiences in rural early childhood settings (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011; Goodpastor et al. 2012). The key to this engaged learning paradigm is fostering strong collaborative partnerships that capitalize on the strengths of rural areas and the educators who live there, and researchers must therefore develop and nourish meaningful relationships between rural, informal STEM partners and schools. Increased research usually brings increased funding, and both are needed to help end the pervasive cycle that keeps rural informal STEM learning both underfunded and underrepresented in the research literature. Twenty-first century demands for rurally located resources and opportunities (e.g., alternative energy sources) suggest that STEM talent and knowledge of rural places may be key to the future prosperity of the United States, and that talent must be nurtured beyond the walls of school buildings and from a very young age. The creative talent necessary for meeting those needs will include knowledge and understanding of rural place and communities, as well as of science and mathematics. Educational research has an important role to play in both bridging the gap between current realities and future prospects and in making community partners of formal and informal learning environs.

About the Authors

Sara L. Hartman is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education in the Department of Teacher Education at Ohio University. She earned a Ph.D. in Teaching, Curriculum, and Learning from the University of Nebraska and has research interests related to school-community partnerships in rural early childhood settings. Sara is the co-founder and Board President of the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery. She enjoys drinking tea and reading books to children and is happiest when she can do both at the same time. Sara can be reached for comments or questions at hartmans@ohio.edu.

Jennifer Hines-Bergmeier is a Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Ohio University. She co-founded the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery, served as its first Board President, and continues to serve as a board member. She earned a Ph.D. in Medicinal Chemistry from the University of Michigan, where she also spent time working with the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum. Like all good chemists, Jennifer enjoys mixing and stirring, especially in the kitchen with her family.

Robert Klein is an Associate Professor and the Undergraduate Chair in the Department of Mathematics at Ohio University. He earned a Ph.D. in Education from The Ohio State University and has research interests pertaining to the socio-cultural aspects of education and rural education. Robert is very involved in Math Circles for students and teachers in the United States and Central America and is Executive Director of the Alliance of Indigenous Math Circles. In his free time, he enjoys posing and discussing questions that cannot be solved, such as “what happened to my free time?”

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Teaching Research to Undergraduates through an Outdoor Education Program

Abstract

There has been an increased emphasis in recent years on implementing active learning strategies in science courses for undergraduate students. Particularly, undergraduate research methods courses have focused on incorporating pedagogies that utilize a practical application of the course content. As a result, we created a research methods course for undergraduate health sciences students to teach them about research methodology through a hands-on project.  The health sciences students were part of an outdoor education program, where for one week third and fourth grade students from an elementary school came to a camp as part of an outdoor education experience. The health sciences students taught the children a variety of STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and health/wellness skills and content.  In addition, the undergraduate students learned about research methods by conducting their own studies during this outdoor education program. The benefits were twofold.  The health sciences students learned about research methodology in an applied and practical manner and the elementary school children experienced STEM education in an outdoor environment.

Introduction

The value of active learning in science education has been emphasized by many national organizations (American Association for the Advancement of Science 1993: Association of American Colleges and Universities 2007; National Research Council 1999, 2003a, 2003b; National Science Foundation 1996).  Encouraging students to formulate their own ideas, interpret data, generate conclusions from experimental evidence, and participate in other hands-on activities can be more effective than the passive learning that typically occurs during lecturing.  The increased recognition of the value of active learning is supported by a growing body of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of incorporating active learning techniques in the undergraduate classroom (Prince 2004).  The literature has shown improved learning when a variety of active learning strategies were used in a wide range of science disciplines including physics (Hake 1998), chemistry (Niaz et al. 2002; Towns and Grant 1997), biology (Burrowes 2003), nursing (Clark et al. 2008), and physiology (Mierson 1998).

In most health sciences undergraduate programs, a research methods course is part of the curriculum.  Many faculty who teach undergraduate research courses are aware of the challenges that are associated with making this material practical for students. Research is an area that students have unfavorable attitudes toward, attitudes that may become even more negative upon taking a research methods course (Sizemore and Lewandowski 2009).  One potential reason for the lack of interest is students’ inability to perceive themselves as engaged in meaningful research activities as undergraduate students (Rash 2005; Macheski et al. 2008). The literature has demonstrated that students tend to learn abstract concepts more fully when they can apply them to their to “real world” settings (Macheski et al., 2008).  In our health sciences department, we have implemented active learning strategies utilizing other approaches (FitzPatrick and Campisi 2009; Campisi and Finn 2011; FitzPatrick et al. 2011; Finn and Campisi 2015), but we wanted to create a way to specifically teach research methods using active learning in an outdoor education program. After examining the effects of active learning pedagogies on student learning and perceptions for a number of years, we have implemented different pedagogies such as clickers, peer-led team mentoring, and group and collaborative learning, to examine how active learning effects both student learning and perceptions. Many of these pedagogies have improved student learning and have had positive impact on student perceptions.

For the outdoor education project, we redesigned our undergraduate research methods course to incorporate participation in a research project.  We hoped that stimulating interest in research through active and collaborative learning would allow students to understand the practical implication of research.

The Outdoor Education Program

During this project, 100 third and fourth grade children participated in a five-day, five hour/day outdoor education program that took place at a local day camp owned by the YMCA. This program was a joint venture between the city’s school district and the local YMCA to provide elementary students with an exciting opportunity to participate in active learning in a camp setting. This was the first outdoor experience in a camp environment for many students who participated in this program.  As part of being enrolled in the research methods course, the health sciences undergraduate students implemented this outdoor education program by utilizing the camp’s program areas and natural ecosystems to provide the children with unique experiential learning activities in four main curricular areas: science and math, healthy living, environmental education, and team building. These engaging activities and the use of natural surroundings encouraged the children to explore their interests and abilities in a safe and nurturing environment. Below is more detail on each section of the curriculum.

Environmental Education: This component of the curriculum corresponds with the goals of the school system, the Massachusetts State School Standards, and the New National Science Standards. Each day, students learned about a different ecosystem at the camp (e.g. the wetlands, fresh water lake, forest, and open field) through a combination of hands-on experiments and lectures.  In each ecosystem, students learned about the different types of animals, plant life, rocks, the cycles of natural resources, and the dangers that each ecosystem faces, among other topics. Students also took nature hikes and performed on-site field tests, including taking water and soil samples and testing pH.

The Science and Math of Camp: This component of the program included several physical activities that provided the opportunity for students to learn math and science skills. These activities included

Maps –The goal of this module was to allow students to develop and make maps using scale, topography, measurements, and other skills.

Archery – While participating in archery, students were provided the opportunity to learn about velocity, rate of speed, distance, inertia, and gravity.

Canoeing – While participating in this activity, students could learn about propulsion, angles, planes, kinesiology and biomechanics, resistance and friction, and wind and currents.

Gaga –The goal of this activity was for students to learn how to play the popular camp game Gaga. While playing, they wear devices such as a pedometer, to measure steps, distance traveled, and overall activity levels. Students took the data from these devices and recorded it, and then, using the Active Science curriculum, analyzed the data, answered questions, and drew conclusions about the data.

Team Building: The team-building component was a progressive learning experience where students were encouraged to challenge themselves in a variety of different ways. This provided emotional and physical growth and gave each student the feeling of self worth and self-accomplishment. The week began with team-building activities on land, such as “get to know you” games, trust falls, spotting techniques, and problem-solving games. As the group mastered the land activities, they moved to the low ropes course. At the camp, there were seven low ropes elements. Each element had two groups participating (one group spotting and one group climbing). After mastering the low ropes course elements, students over the age of ten had the option of trying the high ropes course. There were seven high ropes course elements, including a zip line. Younger students (over the age of eight) had the chance to try the giant swing. The camp’s ropes course offered a variety of fun opportunities to build trust, solve problems and learn the value of collaborative teamwork.

Healthy Living: During this component of the program, students were exposed information about living healthy lifestyles. These included safety concepts, healthy eating and nutrition, and physical activity.  Activities included Water and Boating Safety, Garden Project, Fitness Challenge, Otterthon Relay Race, and Field and Court Games. The students were encouraged to participate, be active, and have fun with their classmates.  They learned about the importance of being physically active, having good nutrition habits, and overall what it means to be healthy.

Research Methods Course

The research methods course was delivered during the summer session for six weeks.  Twelve students were enrolled in the course. During the first two weeks of class, the health sciences students learned about the outdoor education program and became familiar with the curriculum and content that they would be teaching to the children.  From there, the class was divided into four groups of three students each to come up with a research question that they wanted to investigate during the program.   As part of the course, one of the first assignments that the students completed was a proposal that detailed the specifics of the research project. They were required to provide a research question, hypothesis, methods (participants, data collection, data analysis), and the type of research design that they were interested in carrying out.  Based on what they learned at the beginning of the course about the types of research designs, they created a study and a question to match the design.  Once the students completed the assignment on the design of their study, the instructor met with each group to review it.  The instructor provided feedback on ways to improve the study and the students worked to incorporate the changes to make the design stronger.  This back and forth process happened until the instructor felt the design was well thought out and could answer the research question.

Prior to going into the field, the students had a solid research study that addressed a specific research question. The research questions the students focused on were specific to the one-week outdoor education experience. Two of the student projects focused on assessing the amount and level of physical activity that the participants accumulated while in the outdoor education program. They compared physical activity levels such as sedentary, light, moderate, and vigorous between classes, curriculum components, age, and gender.  Another group assessed the science learning that occurred during the camp. They performed pre- and post-assessment to determine science knowledge that was gained through the experience. They had a control group that did not perform the outdoor education program for a comparison.  The last group examined the participants’ perceptions of learning in the outdoor education environment.  They conducted surveys of all participants at the end of camp and then interviewed a subset of children to gather their feedback on the outdoor experience.

During weeks three and four of the course, the health sciences students were in the field implementing the curriculum and collecting data.  At the end of the course (weeks five and six), the students returned to the classroom to analyze their data. The students learned about the different types of statistical analysis (correlational, independent t-test, ANOVA) that could be performed based on their design and research question. The hands-on application of real data to teach the statistical analysis portion of this course was viewed positively by both the students and the instructor.  They worked on creating a final paper and presentation that represented the results of their study.  The course concluded with a presentation from each group to the YMCA senior leadership, board members, classroom teachers and administrators, and faculty.

Conclusion

This approach was a way to demonstrate how to teach research methods to undergraduate health sciences students through a community-based initiative in an urban school district.  The health sciences students felt that a project-based approach was an effective way to learn the content of the course. The course objectives were met through demonstration of performance on course quizzes and through designing and carrying out a research study, analyzing the data, and writing and presenting the results of the project.  As we continue to offer this course, we will use this approach to create measures that assess student perceptions of learning for both the health sciences students and the elementary school children. The active learning and student-centered pedagogical strategy created a culture of ownership over the research project and excited students about the course material.  In many science lecture and laboratory courses, active learning can be an effective method to improve student learning and understanding and to improve student attitudes about a subject. Incorporating a team-based research project that uses the outdoor environment into a research methods course can help prepare students for future research experiences and their professional careers.

About the Author

Dr. Kevin Finn is an Associate Professor and Chair of Health Sciences at Merrimack College. His area of expertise is curriculum and teaching in the health professions with a focus around increasing physical activity in children. Kevin is a licensed athletic trainer in Massachusetts and a certified strength and conditioning specialist.

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