Portal to the Public: Connecting scientists to the masses through museums

by Stephanie Chasteen on November 28, 2011

In my past life as a science writer, I was particularly enamored of the idea of helping scientists to speak to “real people,” partially because I was the poor sucker on the other end of the phone trying to decipher the strange language that scientists were speaking.  Science journalists are really translators more than anything.  One of my interviews when I was at NPR, with an italian scientist, went so poorly that Joe Palca asked if he could use it in his workshop for budding science writers.  To show how difficult it can be to talk to scientists sometimes.  Great.

So, I’ve been following a particular program for a while, called Portal to the Public Created by the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, it brings scientists into the museum and gave them a hands-on training in talking to the public, and then gave them practice doing so.  How to lead people to understand something through questioning rather than lecturing, and what level activities are appropriate for a particular age level.  What great professional development! Anyone involved in giving outreach opportunities to scientists can benefit from the findings of this work.  So read on.

I believe most of the scientists were graduate students or early-career scientists, and they were given training in creating hands-on activities to engage children in aspects of their science. The program has been adopted by a wide variety of science centers, and is acclaimed as a scalable and sustainable program.  The website is relatively vague, and their implementation manual, which looks like a wealth of information, is a $40 download.  But here’s a short YouTube video on the program.

What is downloadable, however, are the results of their synthesis meetings These are nice bullet-point summaries of some of the main messages and best practices, some of which I detail below.  The most useful is the synthesis of their second meeting.

For one, they say that the professional development for scientists should include:

1. Scientists develop communication strategies that support inquiry.
2. Scientists work with Informal Science Education (ISE) staff to design and facilitate materials-rich and other learning experiences that actively involve and affect scientists and the public.
3. Scientists understand the importance to learning of developing personal connections with audiences based on shared experiences.
4. Scientists develop a broader understanding of how people learn and the nature of informal learning environments.
5. Scientists work with ISE staff to develop an understanding of the organizational culture of each other’s institutions.

But this isn’t a one-way street, with the museum dumping information into the scientists’ brains.  Rather, they call for an atmosphere of mutual respect, where the difference in culture between the museum and the scientists’ academic institutions is recognized. Oftentimes, the museums came into the partnership with certain preconceptions about how much time the scientist would commit, and what the scientists would do well at.

Considerations in choosing the audiences — both the scientists and the public — are also recommended:

Scientist audiences:

  • Engaging high level scientists may not be the most effective strategy; early-career scientists (e.g. graduate students) should be a target audience
  • Look beyond the traditional view of scientists and invite others to participate, such as amateur enthusiasts, lab technicians and others that work in scientific fields
  • Face-to-face interactions are not for all scientists; engage only those who are interested and have the ability

Public audiences:

  • Public audiences are not monolithic; vary engagement strategies to match the specific individuals participating
  • Reach public audiences when they are young

In the second synthesis report, they had some even deeper insights about scientists’ involvement:

  • Professional development designed to enhance scientists’ abilities to share their current work with public audiences must include opportunities for ongoing practice, feedback from peers and experts, and support of participants’ self-reflection and individual growth.
  • Sustaining scientists’ involvement in Portal to the Public will require providing them with ongoing opportunities for new or deeper engagement.
  • ISE institutions should market Portal to the Public (and other public engagement opportunities) to scientists as serious opportunities to improve their skills and make meaningful impacts on public audiences.
  • Science organizations (universities, corporations, national laboratories, for example) must embrace and incentivize outreach and education at the institutional level via cultural and policy change.  (e.g., urging universities to add outreach as a tenure consideration)
  • Portal to the Public should help scientists reflect on how conversations with public audiences may impact the scientists’ own thinking about their work.

People interested in finding out more should just go to take a look at that synthesis report.

Another document relevant to this effort was published by Carol Lynn Alpert (from the Boston Museum of Science) — Small Steps; Big Impact:  A guide for science museum leaders developing education outreach partnerships with university-based research centers.  Whew.

It seems to make a lot of sense for universities and science museums to partner, giving academics a clear shot at the “broader impacts” part of NSF proposals.  But of course it takes time for an individual researcher to devote time to a program like Portal to the Public.  Carol Lynn writes that the larger pool of funding available to research centers, as opposed to individual principle investigators, allows for a “better-organized education outreach effort and a more efficient use of collective resources…. It may also allow for a subaward to support a long-term education and outreach partnership with a local school, a science museum, or other science education organization.”  In that report, she recommends developing a 5-10 year education outreach between the museum and the research center, allowing the relationship to deepen and practices to improve. She also recommends that the research center establish an education and outreach coordinator to manage the partnership.  Usefully, the report also explains how university-museum partnerships can be worked into the funding mix within the broader impacts criteria of NSF proposals — a particularly helpful discussion.



Gary Lavine November 28, 2011 at 2:44 am

Nice post,
I spent a significant amount of my time in grad school doing science demonstrations in the community, with a group called Science Theatre. I had a great time and I learned a lot more about communicating ideas doing demonstrations than I ever did as a TA. The more of these programs that are out there the better.

Stephanie Chasteen November 28, 2011 at 5:19 pm

How ironic, since I’ve been emailing with the folks from Science Theater and have invited them to do a guest blog post on that (very inspiring) program. Very neat that you were a part of the program. If you would like to do a guest post yourself on how such a program impacted you, that would be very appropriate!


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: