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.

 

Download (PDF, 737KB)

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.

References

American Alliance of Museums (AAM). 2014 Museum Facts. http://www.aam-us.org/about-museums/museum-facts (accessed May 30, 2017).

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 2017. About AAAS. https://www.aaas.org/about/mission-and-history (accessed May 30, 2017).

Association of Science – Technology Centers (ASTC). 2017. Global Initiatives. http://www.astc.org/about-astc/global-initiatives/ (accessed May 30, 2017).

Bell, L. 2013. “Engaging the Public in Public Policy.” Museums & Social Issues 4 (1): 21–36.

Bequette, M., M. Beyer, E.K. Kollmann, G. Svarovsky, and L. Rosino Wright. 2017. NISE Net Years 6–10 Evaluation Summary Report. Saint Paul, MN: Science Museum of Minnesota for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/content/nise-net-years-6-10-evaluation-summary-report-2017 (accessed May 30, 2017).

Davies, S., E. McCallie, E. Simonsson, J.L. Lehr, and S. Duensing. 2009. “Discussing Dialogue: Perspectives on the Value of Science Dialogue Events That Do Not Inform Policy.” Public Understanding of Science 18 (3): 338–353.

Davis, J., E.H. Gurian, and E. Koster. 2003. “Timeliness: A Discussion for Museums.” Curator 46 (4): 353–361.

Ecsite. 2017. Projects. https://www.imls.gov/about-us (accessed May 30, 2017).

Goss, J., R. Auster, M. Beyer, L.A. Mesiti, and E.K. Kollmann. 2016. NISE Network Professional Impacts Summative Evaluation. Boston, MA: Museum of Science for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/catalog/nise-network-professional-impacts-summative-evaluation-2016 (accessed May 30, 2017).

Herring, B., ed. 2010. NISE Network Public Forums Manual. Durham, NC: Museum of Life + Science for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/catalog/public-forums-manual (accessed May 30, 2017).

Herzig, M., and L. Chasin. 2011. Fostering Dialogue across Divides: A Nuts and Bolts Guide from the Public Conversations Project. http://www.publicconversations.org/sites/default/files/PCP_Fostering%20Dialogue%20Across%20Divides.pdf (accessed May 30, 2017).

Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). 2017. About Us. https://www.imls.gov/about-us (accessed May 30, 2017).

Kadlec, A. 2013. “Mind the Gap: Science Museums as Sources of Civic Innovation.” Museums & Social Issues 4 (1): 37–53.

Kollmann, E.K. 2011. “Engaging the Public with Societal and Ethical Implications Content through NISE Network Products.” In Review of NISE Network Evaluation Findings: Years 1-5 Summative Evaluation, C. Reich, J. Goss, E. Kollmann, J. Morgan, and A. Nelson,  eds., 78–112. Boston, MA: Museum of Science for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/catalog/evaluation/review (accessed May 30, 2017).

Kollmann, E.K., J. Goss, C. Lussenhop, S. Iacovelli, and C. Reich. 2012. Provocative Questions: Supporting Effective Dialogue about Societal Issues Informed by Human Biology in a Changing World. Exploratory Research. Boston, MA: Museum of Science.

Kollmann, E.K., C. Reich, L. Bell, and J. Goss. 2013. “Tackling Tough Topics: Using Socio-Scientific Issues To Help Museum Visitors Participate in Democratic Dialogue and Increase Their Understandings of Current Science and Technology.” Journal of Museum Education, 38 (2): 174–186.

Kollmann, E.K., G. Svarovsky, S. Iacovelli, and M. Sandford. 2015. NISE Net Research on how Visitors Find and Discuss Relevance in the Nano Exhibition. Boston: Museum of Science for the NISE Network.
http://nisenet.org/catalog/nise-net-research-how-visitors-find-and-discuss-relevance-nano-exhibition (accessed May 30, 2017).

Lehr, J.L., E. McCallie, S.R. Davies, B.R. Caron, B. Gammon, and S. Duensing. 2007. “The Value of ‘Dialogue Events’ as Sites of Learning: An Exploration of Research and Evaluation Frameworks.” International Journal of Science Education 29 (12): 1467–1487.

Long, S., and R. Ostman. 2012. “Using Theatre and Film To Engage the Public in Nanotechnology.” In Little by Little: Expansions of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies, H. van Lente, C. Coenen, T. Fleischer, K. Konrad, L. Krabbenborg, C. Milburn, F. Thoreau, and T. Zülsdorf, eds., 59–64. Heidelberg: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft/IOS Press.

Lowenthal, C., ed. 2016. Forums Manual: Engaging Participants in Thoughtful Conversations. Boston, MA: Museum of Science. http://www.buildingwithbiology.org/sites/building-with-biology/themes/bwb/img/BuildingwithBiology_Forums_Manual_Final.pdf (accessed May 30, 2017).

Lundh, P., T. Stanford, and L. Shear. 2014. Nano and Society: Case Study of a Research-to-Practice Partnership between University Scientists and Museum Professionals. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

McCallie, E., E. Simonsson, B. Gammon, K. Nilsson, J. Lehr, and S. Davies. 2007. “Learning To Generate Dialogue: Theory, Practice, and Evaluation.” Museums & Social Issues 2 (2): 165–184.

McCallie, E., L. Bell, T. Lohwater, J.H. Falk, J.L. Lehr, B.V. Lewenstein, C. Needham, and B. Wiehe. 2009. Many Experts, Many Audiences: Public Engagement with Science and Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report. Washington, D.C.: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE). http://www.informalscience.org/sites/default/files/PublicEngagementwithScience.pdf (accessed May 30, 2017).

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD). 2014. Engagement Streams Framework. Revised edition created by Sandy Heierbacher and members of the NCDD community. http://www.ncdd.org/files/rc/2014_Engagement_Streams_Guide_Print.pdf (accessed May 30, 2017).

National Science Foundation (NSF). 2017. About the National Science Foundation. https://www.nsf.gov/about/ (accessed May 30, 2017).

Ostman, R. 2015. NISE Network Nano Exhibition: Creating a Small Footprint Exhibition with Big Impact. Saint Paul, MN: Science Museum of Minnesota for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/catalog/nise-network-guide-nano-exhibition-creating-small-footprint-exhibition-big-impact (accessed May 30, 2017).

———. 2016a. NanoDays: A NISE Network Guide To Creating Activity Kits, Building Community, and Inspiring Learning. Saint Paul, MN: Science Museum of Minnesota for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/catalog/nanodays-guide (accessed May 30, 2017).

———. 2016b. NISE Network Program Development: A Guide To Creating Effective Learning Experiences for Public Audiences. Saint Paul, MN: Science Museum of Minnesota for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/catalog/nise-network-program-development-guide (accessed May 30, 2017).

———. 2017. National Informal STEM Education Network Report to Partners: 2005–2016. Saint Paul, MN: Science Museum of Minnesota for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/catalog/nise-network-impacts-report-partners (accessed May 30, 2017).

Ostman, R., B. Herring, A. Jackson, I. Bennett, and J. Wetmore. 2013. “Making Meaning through Conversations about Science and Society.” Exhibitionist 32 (1): 42–47.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  2015. Reimagining Citizenship for the 21st Century: A Call to Action for Policymakers and Educators. http://www.p21.org/storage/documents/Reimagining_Citizenship_for_21st_Century_webversion.pdf (accessed May 30, 2017).

Pattison, S., S. Cohn, and L. Kollmann. 2014. Team-Based Inquiry: A Practical Guide for Using Evaluation to Improve Informal Education Experiences. Portland, OR: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/catalog/team-based- inquiry-guide (accessed May 30, 2017).

Porcello, D., C. McCarthy, and R. Ostman. 2017. Gaming and the NISE Network: A Gameful Approach to STEM Learning Experiences. Saint Paul, MN: Science Museum of Minnesota for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/content/gaming-and-nise-network-gameful-approach-stem-learning-experiences (accessed June 8, 2017).

Reich, C., L. Bell, E.K. Kollmann, and E. Chin. 2007. “Fostering Civic Dialogue: A New Role for Science Museums?” Museums & Social Issues 2 (2): 207–220.

Science Center World Summit. 2014. Mechelen Declaration: Public Engagement for a Better World. http://www.scws2014.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Mechelen-Declaration_def.pdf (accessed May 30, 2017).

Sciencenter, Arizona State University Center for Nanotechnology in Society, Museum of Life and Science, and Museum of Science and Industry. 2012. Nano and Society Training Materials. Ithaca, NY: Sciencenter for the NISE Network. http://www.nisenet.org/catalog/nano-and-society-training-materials (accessed May 30, 2017).

Simon, N. 2010. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum 2.0.

Svarovsky, G., J. Goss, G. Ostgaard, N. Reyes, C. Cahill, R. Auster, et al. 2013. Summative Study of the Nano Mini-Exhibition. Saint Paul, MN: Science Museum of Minnesota for the NISE Network.
http://nisenet.org/catalog/evaluation/public_impacts_mini-exhibition_study_year_8_summative_evaluation (accessed May 30, 2017).

Svarovsky, G., Z. Tranby, C. Cardiel, R. Auster, and M. Bequette. 2014. Summative Study of the NanoDays 2014 Events. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/catalog/summative-evaluation-study-nanodays-2014-events (accessed May 30, 2017).

Svarovsky, G.N., J. Goss, and E.K. Kollmann. 2015. Public Reach Estimations for the NISE Network. Saint Paul, MN: Science Museum of Minnesota for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/catalog/public-reach-estimations-nise-network (accessed May 30, 2017).

Wetmore, J., I. Bennett, A. Jackson, and B. Herring. 2013. Nanotechnology and Society: A Practical Guide to Engaging Museum Participants in Conversations. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University for the NISE Network. http://nisenet.org/catalog/nanotechnology-and-society-guide (accessed June 5, 2017).

Download (PDF, 822KB)

Students as Curators: Visual Literacy, Public Scholarship, and Public Health

Debby R. Walser-Kuntz,
Carleton College
Cassandra Bryce Iroz,
Carleton College

Visual Literacy and Science

Visual literacy is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture (Hattwig et al. 2012, 62).

Designing a public exhibition is one way for students to meet the goals of the Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education quoted above. Students able to combine visual literacy with strong writing will be better prepared“to function creatively and confidently in the working environments of the twenty-first century” (Weber 2007). Scientists rely on visual images, animations, and 3D models to convey research findings and concepts, yet educational research shows that students“do not necessarily automatically acquire visual literacy during general instruction,” but must be explicitly taught these skills (Schönborn et al. 2006). Exhibition design provides a powerful pedagogical approach, helping students learn to “author” in a manner distinct from traditional writing.

Libraries and museums“educate and inform the public about the subject of the exhibit in a balanced and usually unbiased way” (Walbert 2004) and expand the general public’s “engagement with and understanding of” a topic (Smithsonian Institution 2002). In order to successfully engage people of all backgrounds, exhibit designers must focus on and carefully consider their audience (Smithsonian Institution 2002). Producing such exhibits encourages students to think creatively and to practice a range of skills, including critical thinking, problem solving, research, teamwork, goal setting, and technological literacy (Walbert 2004). Further, exhibitions that are interdisciplinary, such as those dealing with public health, require students to “apply skills or investigate issues across many different subject areas or domains of knowledge” (Great Schools Partnership 2014). Because the final product involves everyone, students must articulate their ideas and defend their choices in an iterative process (Great Schools Partnership 2014). This group approach requires students to work in a multi-member team resembling what they may encounter in a future career (Smithsonian Institution 2002). In addition to developing collaborative skills, increasing visual literacy, and fostering innovation, exhibition design assignments increase student engagement with course content and “facilitate student expression in media that are not purely textual” (Lippincott et al. 2014).

Exhibition Design as a Teaching Strategy: Students as Curators

We incorporated a public exhibition as a final project for Public Health in Practice, a program novel in its design of combining domestic study away with local academic civic engagement (ACE) projects (Walser-Kuntz and Iroz 2015). Students enrolled in an introductory course to learn about public health models, best practices for working with and in a community, and effective communication of health messages. They then studied off campus for two weeks in both the state’s and nation’s capital cities and participated in a follow-up course back on campus; it was in this final course that students developed the exhibition. Inspired by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health “This is Public Health” campaign, we titled our exhibit “This is Public Health: Public Health in Practice.” The goals of the exhibit included (1) sharing our experience with the broader campus, (2) educating others on important aspects of public health, and (3) exposing students to a career field they might be interested in pursuing. As public health is an interdisciplinary field, we aimed to show how it is approached from multiple angles and how all students, regardless of major, might participate. The central location of the library—both geographically and intellectually—allowed students, faculty, staff, and visitors the opportunity to explore the exhibit.

Throughout the process, students engaged in many tasks required of professional museum exhibition cura- tors, including brainstorming, identifying key themes, and thinking about audience “take aways,” all while presenting a balanced view (Walbert 2004). To guide the process, the class partnered with the library curator; partnering made the endeavor “less risky” and more successful, as we were new to exhibition design as a pedagogical approach (Lippincott et al. 2014). While the librarian’s expertise in visual design and exhibit planning was invaluable, she was new to public health concepts and thus provided an important perspective. She helped us balance detail and eliminate jargon that we had become accustomed to using in our own conversations with one another and with public health professionals.

Although the curator served as a consultant, the students built the exhibition from the ground up with few imposed guidelines or restrictions and took on all the typical roles required for successful execution of an exhibit. These roles include curator (responsible for the overall concept of an exhibit), designer (ensuring the material is understandable, visually appealing, and coherent), and educator (linking content to the audience) (Smithsonian Institution 2002). The entire process encouraged students to reflect on their learning, synthesize and simplify concepts for a general audience, and consider topics from a different perspective. The iterative process of designing the exhibition required a constant review and refinement of ideas, forcing a concise articulation of key points and a clear rationale for the inclusion of an image or design feature. Fonts and color choices received close scrutiny, and the final product required open discussion and compromise. We invited our our academic technologist specializing in presentation and visual design to walk through a mockup of our exhibit and give feedback on images, written messages, and the overall feel of the exhibit. This formative assessment activity continued “the exciting dialogue between exhibit makers and exhibit users” and improved the final exhibit (McLean 1993).

Exhibition Design as a Teaching Strategy: Student Outcomes

Planning the exhibit met the visual literacy competency standard number six: the visually literate student designs and creates meaningful images and visual media (Hattwig et al. 2012). Learning goals met by each student included producing visual materials for scholarly use, using design strategies and creativity in image production, experimenting with image-production tools, and revising work based on evaluation (Hattwig et al. 2011). It allowed us to authentically return to “communicating health messages,” a topic covered earlier through research projects, classroom activities, and visits with public health professionals. One particular classroom activity required students to select, analyze, and present an infographic while the class dis- cussed its effectiveness. Infographics are tools frequently used to disseminate public health information to a general audience; thus this media format served as inspiration for the exhibit design. On our study away, students visited with a science museum curator who shared the importance of considering the cultural and educational backgrounds of a diverse audience when communicating and translating science. This visit informed students as they curated, designed, and made decisions about the educational content of their own exhibit.

Student ownership of the project was strong; their investment throughout the process resulted in lively class discussions as we planned, compromised, and refined. The exhibit-planning process encouraged students to reflect on their experiences and synthesize all they had learned through their coursework, study away, and ACE projects into clear, concise messages for the public. In addition to gaining enhanced visual literacy and collaboration skills, their understanding of the core concepts of public health increased. Being forced to articulate complex public health models and approaches in a single sentence required a high degree of understanding (Figure 1). On occasion, students struggled with whether or not to include certain topics or images as they recognized the potential harm. This sophisticated understanding of the ethical implications of their exhibit addressed standard seven of the visual literacy standards as students followed “ethical … best practices when…creating images”; it further demonstrated how each student had become “a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture” (Hattwig et al. 2011; Hattwig et al. 2012).

Exhibitions and Civic Engagement

Our public health program emphasized working with community. To include visitors in our exhibit we included a large rolling white board with the prompt “What is public health to you?” Visitors left comments and we took photos throughout the exhibit to capture their responses. Anecdotally we heard that many students, faculty, and staff visited and enjoyed the exhibit; we did not, however, formally assess visitor outcomes. In the next iteration of the course, we will incorporate an additional “prototype” step in which we invite students from another course to provide feedback. Although the exhibit is no longer installed, it exists online with an additional interactive component (http://apps.carleton.edu/ccce/issue/health/public-health-in-practice/).

The Public Health in Practice exhibition provided a novel way to incorporate public scholarship into a course. A recent survey of liberal arts faculty indicates that an exhibition is a well-understood form of public scholarship and one that is highly regarded (Christie et al. 2015). In our case, the infographic-style posters educated visitors about important aspects of public health, while highlighting the field’s breadth and interdisciplinarity and raising awareness of related careers; the exhibit thus addressed the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation that all undergraduates learn about public health (Petersen et al. 2013). Although our exhibit focused on public health, most science courses touch on topics that could become the basis for interesting and educational exhibits that provide an enriching opportunity for students and public audiences alike.

About the Authors

Debby Walser-Kuntz is a Professor of Biology and the Broom Faculty Fellow for Public Scholarship at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. Debby received her Ph.D. in immunology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester, MN. Her research focuses on the impact of environmental factors, including the plastics component bisphenol-A and a high fat diet, on the immune system. She ventured into the world of academic civic engagement more than ten years ago after recognizing that her bright and talented students could still learn, and in fact might learn more, while sharing their knowledge with others.

Cassandra Iroz is a 2014 graduate of Carleton College with a B.A. in Biology. After graduation, she worked as an educational associate in Carleton’s Center for Community and Civic Engagement and as the teaching assistant for the Public Health in Practice pro- gram. In this role she assisted in organizing and facilitating coursework, travel, and community based academic civic engagement projects all relating to public health.

References

Christie, L., P. Djupe, S. O’Rourke, and E. Smith. 2015. “Whose Job Is It Anyway?: The Place of Public Engagement in the Liberal Arts.” Working Paper, Furman University.

Great Schools Partnership. 2014. The Glossary of Education Reform: Exhibition. http://edglossary.org/exhibition/ (accessed December 17, 2015).

Hattwig D. J. Burgess, K. Bussert, and A. Medaille. 2011. ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Chicago: American Library Association. http://www.ala.org/ acrl/standards/visualliteracy (accessed December 17, 2015).

Hattwig, D., K. Bussert, A. Medaille, and J. Burgess. 2012. “Visual Literacy Standards in Higher Education: New Opportunities for Libraries and Student Learning.” Libraries and the Academy 13 (1): 61–89.

Lippincott, J., A. Vedantham, and K. Duckett. 2014. “Libraries as Enablers of Pedagogical and Curricular Change.” http://www. educause.edu/ero/article/libraries-enablers-pedagogical-and- curricular-change (accessed December 17, 2015).

McLean, K. 1993. Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions.

Washington, DC: Association of Science-Technology Centers.

Petersen, D., S. Albertine, C. Plepys, and J. Calhoun. 2013. “Developing an Educated Citizenry: The Undergraduate Public Health Learning Outcomes Project.” Public Health Reports 128: 425–30.

Schönborn, K., and T. Anderson. 2006. “The Importance of Visual Literacy in the Education of Biochemists.” Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 34 (2): 94–102.

Smithsonian Institution. 2002. The Making of Exhibitions: Purpose, Structure, Roles, and Process. Washington, DC: Office of Policy and Analysis.

Walbert, K. 2004. “Museum Exhibit Design.” http://www.learnnc. org/lp/pages/629 (accessed December 17, 2015).

Walser-Kuntz, D., and C. Iroz. 2015. “Public Health in Practice: Combining Local Academic Civic Engagement with Domestic Study Away.” Working Paper, Carleton College.

Weber, J. 2007. “Thinking Spatially: New Literacy, Museums, and the Academy.” Educause Review 42 (1): 68–69.

Download (PDF, 798KB)

Discussing the Human Life Cycle with Senior Citizens in an Undergraduate Developmental Biology Course

Abstract

A civic engagement project was designed for undergraduate students in a developmental biology course to promote their understanding of the material as well as its relevance to issues in the local community. For this project, students prepared posters that focused on different stages of the human life cycle: gametogenesis, fertilization, embryonic development, fetal development, childhood (including adolescence), and adulthood (including senescence). Their posters were accompanied by activities designed to further engage the senior citizens who visited during a lab period at the end of the semester. While the senior citizens completed surveys, the students wrote short essays reflecting on the value of the project. The surveys demonstrated an increase in the senior citizens’ understanding of human development and of current issues related to the discipline. The students’ essays revealed that the project was beneficial for many reasons, most notably because it fostered a sense of civic responsibility among the next generation of scientists. [more]

Introduction

Civic engagement is a pedagogical strategy that is successfully employed in a variety of educational contexts (Colby et al. 2003). It is particularly well suited for undergraduates, including those at liberal arts institutions, where the mission often encourages interdisciplinary integration of skills and knowledge to engage with critical issues facing society. The incorporation of civic engagement into specific courses has reciprocal benefits for the students and the local, national, or even international communities to which they belong. Students gain critical insight into specific topics addressed in their coursework while also developing a sense of civic responsibility. In turn, communities may receive benefits when projects promote “quality of life” as envisioned in one definition of civic engagement (Ehrlich 2000). Such projects usually focus on important issues including, but not limited to, poverty, hunger, disease, voter registration, and environmental contamination; moreover, they impact a variety of constituencies, ranging from individuals to groups such as agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations. While civic engagement manifests itself in diverse ways, there are some common themes, such as clearly defined learning goals and the opportunity for students to reflect carefully on the educational value of the experience. In many cases, academic credit is based on learning and not the on outcome of the project itself (Howard 1993).

Civic engagement is often discussed in the context of coursework in the social sciences. However, it has been argued that it is equally important that such pedagogy be implemented in the natural sciences, for a variety of reasons (Kennell 2000). For example, the projects can provide students with a better sense of how their acquired knowledge is, in fact, relevant to “the real world.” The projects can also help to educate citizens in the local community who have little or no background in the natural sciences, but who must often vote on issues related to the use of stem cells in regenerative medicine, the protection of organisms from the effects of climate change, and the creation of genetically engineered organisms to deal with agricultural pests. In fact, the estimated percentage of citizens who are “scientifically literate” is only 28 percent in the U.S. (Raloff 2010). In addition to promoting scientific literacy, the projects can help to demystify the process by which scientists collect and analyze data, which is important given the results of recent surveys reported by the National Science Board (2012). A variety of effective projects have already been implemented by scientists, including one in which students used emerging technologies as tools in projects related to environmental sustainability and designed to meet the specific needs of their community (e.g. an interactive trail map for a nature preserve prepared using GIS) (Green 2012). In the case of this particular project, the faculty member asked the students to complete surveys, provide anonymous feedback, and write an essay reflecting on their experiences. This project and others provided the inspiration for my own recent initiatives to incorporate civic engagement into advanced biology coursework.

Description of the Service Learning Project

I have incorporated a civic engagement project into a developmental biology course at Denison University, a small liberal arts institution in Granville, Ohio. An undergraduate course in developmental biology usually focuses on model systems—the fruit fly, frog, and chicken, for example— from which biologists have gained insight into the molecular basis of human disease and development. Fertilization, cleavage, and gastrulation are quite complex; accordingly, instructors usually devote several weeks to these earliest stages of embryonic development. In the absence of conversations about issues like stem cell research, however, it is easy for students to lose sight of the “big picture.” I therefore decided to design a project that would allow students to “come full circle” at the end of the semester by having them engage in a conversation about the human life cycle with local senior citizens. I chose to have the students work with senior citizens since many of the campus outreach programs are focused on local youth. In addition, I expected that the senior citizens would have many interesting, relevant experiences to share with the students, and that they would be a more appropriate audience given the nature of the course material.

For the project, I divided my 24 students into six groups, each focusing on one stage of the human life cycle: gametogenesis, fertilization, embryonic development, fetal development, childhood (including adolescence), and adulthood (including senescence). I provided each group with a poster template with three sections titled “Concept,” “Concept Explained,” and “In the News.” In the “Concept” section the students defined their stage in no more than two or three sentences, while in the section titled “Concept Explained,” the students provided more detailed information and, in some cases, divided their stage into several distinct steps (e.g. sperm attraction, acrosome reaction, fusion of the plasma membranes, prevention of polyspermy, activation of egg metabolism, and fusion of the genetic material, in the case of fertilization). Finally, in the section titled “In the News,” the students provided information on one recent issue, debate, or controversy related to their stage (in the case of fertilization, for example, the availability of a male contraceptive). In addition to the poster, I asked the students to develop a simple activity to further engage their audience. I provided them with a few ideas—completing a quiz, watching a short video on a laptop, and examining eggs, embryos, and/or larvae under a microscope—although I encouraged the students to think creatively about other options to facilitate learning. As the final component of the project, the students wrote a short essay on the value of civic engagement in the context of a liberal arts education and one thing they learned from their interactions with senior citizens. I was particularly interested in having them reflect on the value of this educational strategy in the natural sciences.

Other than providing them with a poster template, I offered little or no guidance to the individual groups; the students assumed responsibility for their poster displays as well as for the tasks required to prepare for the arrival of the senior citizens. During their visit, student volunteers escorted the senior citizens from one station to the next, giving them at least ten minutes to learn about each stage of the human life cycle. In many cases, the senior citizens were so engaged with the material that they remained at a station for much longer in order to ask questions and/or have an extended conversation with the students. The students ensured that there was sufficient seating in front of each poster display, since many of the senior citizens spent a total of about two hours rotating through the different stations. They had learned about this opportunity through an e-mail sent to retired staff or through an advertisement in the local newspaper, although a few were recruited from a local senior center by the John W. Alford Center for Service Learning at Denison. Snacks were purchased from the Smiling with Hope Bakery, which is run by special-needs students at Newark High School in Newark, Ohio.

Outcomes of the Service Learning Project

In an effort to assess the senior citizens’ learning, I prepared a short survey in which they rated their understanding of 1) human development, and 2) current issues in developmental biology both before and after visiting the poster displays. A total of 17 local senior citizens were recruited for the project, with thirteen of them completing the survey at the end of the afternoon (Table 1). In both cases, there was a statistically significant increase in their understanding, with several individuals offering positive comments about the experience, either through e-mail or through comments at the bottom of the survey. Indeed, students noted in their essays that the senior citizens were “focused,” “inquisitive,” and “enthusiastic,” with “a genuine interest in learning.” As the afternoon progressed, I came to realize that the senior citizens were modeling the idealistic concept of “lifelong learning” for my students through their intellectual engagement (McClure 2013).

To assess the students’ learning, I evaluated their poster displays and the essays that they wrote following the senior citizens’ visit. Since this was a pilot project, each component was worth only five percent of their final grade in the course. As I had expected, many students indicated that teaching what they had learned in the course helped them to gain a more complete understanding of important concepts in developmental biology. On a related note, they recognized civic engagement as an effective strategy to improve upon their communication skills. Many students also appreciated the opportunity to leave the “bubble” of campus life and interact with members of the local community, while learning how to “effectively converse [with them] about key issues facing society.” However, the students’ essays revealed that the project was beneficial in ways that I could not have predicted. For example, many students described their initial uncertainty about the value of civic engagement, but then wrote about how they came to view it as an “innovative way to incorporate many themes from our mission statement” and “a prime example of the types of endeavors [the institution] should continue to pursue to more fully provide its students with a liberal arts education.” They recognized it as an opportunity to “interact with diverse groups of people” and to “facilitate [their] growth into change makers that will work to fix the problems faced by humanity.” Several of them even described how rewarding it was to communicate knowledge with those who may not have had the opportunity to pursue an undergraduate education, noting their status as “privileged students,” who have a responsibility to “share [their] experience with others.”

Conclusions

I was quite satisfied with the extent to which the students reflected on the project and expressed “joy” (in their own words) in having the unique opportunity to engage with the local community as part of a biology course. In the future, I hope that this project will be extended to senior citizens from more impoverished communities, perhaps with students actually meeting them at a retirement facility. In addition, I hope to design alternative projects that address senior citizens’ specific interests (besides the human life cycle), since some of our visitors indicated on their surveys that they wanted to learn more about such topics as environmental influences on aging. And finally, I hope to encourage my peers to consider incorporating a civic engagement project into their own courses, since this educational strategy obviously has much to offer to students in the natural sciences, even in the realm of cellular and molecular biology. It can be easily accomplished during a single lab period, although it can be more extensive with activities spanning one or more semesters (e.g. Hark 2008; Imoto 2013; Larios-Sanz et al. 2011; Santas 2009). Regardless of the size and scope of the project, civic engagement can transform students’ thinking and inspire them to make important contributions to the world, whether as a nurse, teacher, or conservation biologist. It should be an integral component of every academic institution, “across all fields of study” as the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement has declared (2012). In summary, I would argue that scientists have an important role to play in developing students’ sense of civic responsibility in the 21st century.

About the Author

Laura Romano

Laura Romano is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Denison University in Granville, OH. She earned her BS in Biology from the College of William and Mary, and her PhD from the University of Arizona. She also completed three years of postdoctoral research at Duke University. She teaches introductory biology courses as well as advanced courses in developmental biology and invertebrate zoology. In addition to teaching, she enjoys advising students and mentoring them in her laboratory where she studies the evolution of developmental mechanisms using the sea urchin as a model system.

References

Colby, A., T. Ehrlich, E. Beaumont, and J. Stephens. 2003. Educating Citizens: Preparing America’s Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ehrlich, T. 2000. Civic Responsibility and Higher Education. Phoenix: Oryx Press.

Green, D.P.J. 2012. “Using Emerging Technologies to Facilitate Science Learning and Civic Engagement.” Science Education and Civic Engagement 4 (2): 18–33.

Hark, A. 2008. “Crossing Over: An Undergraduate Service Learning Project that Connects to Biotechnology Education in Secondary Schools.” Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 36 (2): 159–165.

Howard, J. 1993. “Community Service Learning in the Curriculum.” In Praxis 1: A Faculty Casebook on Community Service Learning, J. Howard, ed., 3–12. Ann Arbor: OCSL Press.

Imoto, D. 2013. “Service-learning in an AIDS Course.” Science Education and Civic Engagement. 5 (1): 25–29.

Kennell, J. 2000. “Educational Benefits Associated with Service-learning Projects in Biology Curricula.” In Life, Learning, and Community: Concepts and Models for Service Learning in Biology, D. Brubaker and J Ostroff, eds., 7–18. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Larios-Sanz, M., A. Simmons, R. Bagnall, and R. Rosell. 2011. “Implementation of a Service-learning Module in Medical Microbiology and Cell Biology at an Undergraduate Liberal Arts University.” Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education 12 (1). http://jmbe.asm.org/index.php/jmbe/article/view/274/html_100 (accessed July 9, 2014).

McClure, A. 2013. “Promoting the Liberal Arts.” University Business. http://www.universitybusiness.com/article/promoting-liberal-arts (accessed July 9, 2014).

National Science Board. 2012. Science and Engineering Indicators 2012. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future.” Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Raloff, J. 2010. “Science Literacy: U.S. College Courses Really Count.” ScienceNews. https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-public/science-literacy-us-college-courses-really-count (accessed July 9, 2014).

Santas, A. 2009. “”Reciprocity within Biochemistry and Biology Service-learning.” Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 37 (3): 143–151.

 

Download (PDF, 126KB)