Understanding, then Engaging
Whether in schools or science centers, we commonly associate understanding science as the primary objective with these environments. To become engaged as an active participant in science or science policy one needs to have some foundation in the science to make informed decisions. For the education and outreach side of science and natural history museums, I agree; the best decisions are made by informed people. But how many of us can think of an example of some decision made or action done that was made without any good understanding of the science?
In 2009, the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) published Many Experts, Many Audiences, Public Engagement with Science and Informal Science Education. The report, too long to read in one sitting, rethinks the definition of “engagement with science” from the standard “transmission of knowledge from ‘experts’ to public” to “mutual learning by publics and scientists” where varied knowledge, values, ideas and perspectives can be exchanged in dialog, rather than a panel discussion or lecture. This is very important because science isn’t the answer to our problems, but it will help us make an informed decision along with our values. Many Experts, Many Audiences acknowledges that not all public engagement with science (PES) activities and programs will directly influence policy and leaves the discussion open if that matters or not.
So what makes a program engagement versus understanding? The report defines this on a spectrum, not just one or the other, and this is based on three variables
Content – focus on the natural world or policy
Expert participation – Provides input or Uses input
Audience participation – Receives ideas or transmits ideas
A few examples
Many science centers across the country and world have been employing various methods to engage the public in science. In order to do so, and remain a relevant and trusted institution, science centers need to maintain a neutral standing by only presenting the facts and allowing visitors to make their own decisions.
Conversations: One of the programs I am most familiar with is the Forums program at the Museum of Science in Boston, MA. Programs are typically set up so that there are about 20 round tables where participants can have conversations in small groups to more comfortably have conversations. The beginning of the programs usually will have two presentations, the first will focus on the science of some particular issue (nanotechnology, sustainable food, genetically modified babies, etc.), and a second speaker will give a presentation on the ethical and social aspects. The first half of the program is very public understanding of science (PUS) but the second half invokes the engaging aspect. Each table of participants is given a problem and roles, and they need to come to an agreement on how to best solve the scenario while considering everybody’s views. The programs are very engaging and create very interesting conversations, though one short coming is that it tends to attract the same demographic of already-engaged or invested participants.
Global Participation: A global initiative that provides the same type of experience but with a more diverse audience is World Wide Views, run by the Danish Board of Technology. The diversity of the participants comes from this happening in many countries, but also because each center that hosts the meeting is required to invite a cross section of the local demographics. To assure this, a stipend is offered to participants so that they do attend.
On one day in 2009 and another in 2012, citizens in countries around the world listened to presentations about global warming (2009) and biodiversity (2012), and then answered a series of questions about topics such as do they believe there is a problem, should the environment or economics be the priority, who should pay to help solve the problem, etc. The global warming recommendation results were shared at the 2009 United Nations Conference on Climate Change. What I find really interesting is that you can see how your region or country compares to others.
Citizen Science: On a more local level, and back to Boston, a project I was fortunate to be a part of in its nascent stages, was the Toxic Traffic Citizen Science Project (the link is old and only refers to a one-time program). This project involves urban schools in Boston and Cambridge, with students who live and go to school in areas with higher pollution due to traffic.
Students would begin with an introduction to what traffic pollution is and how it affects the human body. They would then learn how to use a device that would take air quality measurements around their schools’ neighborhoods. Finally, they would develop recommendations based on their data and have policy conversations. David Sittenfeld, Forum Manager at the Museum of Science, gives a presentation at an ASTC meeting in this video (it’s a little shaky).
The conversation topics are endless and range in their provocativeness: genetically modified food, fracking, climate change, mining practices, abortion, taxing sugary drinks, and many, many more.
Let’s get engaged
Many Experts, Many Audiences makes note that three recognized goals of informal science environments are to
- Make science accessible to all and improve scientific literacy
- Make apparent the relevance and importance of science to everyday life and society
- Increase the number of people entering science-based careers
But let’s consider also highlighting this goal — to inspire the public to become more engaged with science-based issues.
Science and natural history museums are natural places for conversations to take place. They are recognized as unbiased and trusted centers where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can gather comfortably to learn. They should also be recognized as places where people can share their views and perspectives, because science alone doesn’t solve our problems, but it does play a role in answering important questions. So let’s celebrate that, as well.