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  • 07/02/12--11:36: Beyond the Edge of the Sea
  • Beyond the Edge of the Sea: Diversity of Life in the Ocean Wilderness

    Scientist Principal Investigator (PI):Cindy Van Dover, Duke University professor and U.S. Navy-qualified pilot of the deep-diving submersible, Alvin

    Science research focus: Chemosynthetic ecosystems, including deep-sea vents

    ISE Partner: Artist (Karen Jacobsen) plus local museum (Muscarelle Museum of the College of William and Mary)

    Description:Traveling art exhibit on deep-sea ecosystems and biota (also related essays, naturalist guide, video podcast, docent training, web content)


    Interview with Cindy

    Cindy wanted the public to care about deep-sea environments (especially given future resource extraction plans), and she understood that the public doesn’t care about what they don’t know. She has found it to be “great fun to see the [deep-sea-vent] world through an artist’s eye.” She is quite committed to scientist-artist collaborations and has scheduled future cruises with Karen and other artists.

    How was your ISE collaboration formed? Karen approached Cindy with a request to join a research cruise as an artist, and Cindy agreed, recalling a successful partnership between a fellow scientist and a poet who also participated on research cruises. Together, Cindy and Karen produced a body of work, gained the support of a local museum, and successfully pitched the idea of a traveling art exhibit on deep-sea ecosystems to the NSF Communicating Research to Public Audiences program.

    What challenges did you face? As PI, Cindy had to wear many different, often unfamiliar, hats. She has had to become familiar with the language of informal science education, lead marketing efforts, identify venues for their exhibit, and manage complex transportation logistics for national and international locations. She has also spent a considerable amount of time seeking additional funds to maintain and expand this project.

    What recommendations do you have? Cindy emphasizes the importance of identifying appropriate ISE partners and notes that her project is quite successful because she has such a great collaboration with Karen. She also highlights the value of having a large ISE partner who can support the dissemination of project products.

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  • 07/02/12--12:27: Out on a Limb
  • Out on a Limb

    Scientist Principal Investigator (PI):Meg Lowman – Director, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences/Nature Research Center Director (formerly New College of Florida professor)

    Science research focus: Tree canopy ecology

    ISE Partner: Orlando Science Center exhibit designer plus local artists

    Description:Traveling forest diorama exhibit, computer kiosk, and mini-canopy-walkway on forest canopy ecosystems

    Interview with Meg

    Why did you pursue this ISE project? Meg has always integrated outreach into her ecological research, including writing popular books about her work and life high in the tree canopy. She believes broad dissemination of research findings is critical to addressing our current environmental challenges. She has found free-choice-learning experiences through ISE to be a particularly valuable way to engage public audiences in science research because it provides some “sugar with the medicine.” She will continue to support this project, as the exhibit becomes part of the new Nature Research Center.

    How was your ISE collaboration formed? Through her work at Selby Botanical Garden, Meg knew exhibit designers and artists who could help her plan and develop her NSF-funded diorama exhibit. She also involved her undergraduate students in hosting outreach events with the exhibit, even making this outreach part of the undergraduate curriculum.

    What challenges did you face? Like many other Communicating Research to Public Audience PIs, Meg immersed herself in project planning and implementation, including writing the grant, overseeing design of exhibit elements, leading marketing and distribution, and even driving the exhibit to various venues. She notes it was very challenging juggling this work with her significant research, teaching, and administrative load.

    What recommendations do you have? Meg credits the project’s success with the team’s out-of-the-box thinking and grassroots approach (e.g., integrating work into an undergraduate course). In addition to requiring a compelling topic, Meg emphasizes that you must get your ISE partner excited about the science research—ideally taking them into the field as she has done at her Amazon site. She also notes that working with ISE partners can become complicated, and you must be fully committed to the project (sometimes going above and beyond the call of duty).

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    The ZAARC project is investigating how action research efforts can be implemented in informal science settings (particularly zoos and aquariums) and in what ways it can impact both individual practitioners and institutions. ZAARC (funded by NSF, DRL-1114355) is a collaborative effort of Andee Rubin and Tracey Wright at TERC (Technical Education Research Centers, a non-profit educational R&D organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts), John Falk at Oregon State University (OSU), educators from six zoos and aquaria, and evaluator Cindy Char.

    Participants in the ZAARC project at their first Institute at the New England Aquarium in February, 2012

    Participants in the ZAARC project at their first Institute at the New England Aquarium in February, 2012

    A study of one’s own practice

    Action research is a practice that has been used primarily in formal settings, by teachers, to study and refine their pedagogical techniques. By definition, action research is the study of one’s own practice, guided by questions that arise from everyday events and dilemmas.  Traditionally, action research involves detailed documentation using field notes and/or video and collaborative discussion of gathered data, leading to a cycle of planning and implementing change. Although action research has rarely been carried out in zoos or aquaria, ZAARC project researchers hypothesize that zoo and aquarium educators might carry out similar practices to understand their visitors’ learning experiences in more detail.

    The project began with a two-day Institute designed to introduce participants to the idea of action research and to plan a first round of action research projects. In early February, teams of three educators each from the Phoenix Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo, Maryland Zoo, Aquarium of the Pacific, Woodland Park Zoo, and the New England Aquarium met for their first formal gathering at the New England Aquarium to kick off the exploration of these ideas.

    Sharing and acting-out every day events

    In a gathering packed with presentations, activities, and discussions, teacher-researcher Cindy Ballenger of Tufts University presented anecdotes describing her students’ engagement with animal science at the King Open School in Cambridge, MA; researcher Ann Rosebery of TERC guided participants in a detailed analysis of a video of middle school students observing a crab brought to their classroom by the New England Aquarium; and John Falk and Julie Haun-Frank from OSU facilitated a discussion about the meaning of being a ‘reflective practitioner’ in a zoo or aquarium.

    To be an Animal Scientist

    Educator Bekah Stendhal of the New England Aquarium led the group in an activity originally designed for K-5 audiences — “Be an Animal Scientist (BAAS).” In this version of BAAS, participants mimic animal behaviors, alternating between “being” penguins (swimming, preening, trumpeting and resting) and being scientists observing and tracking penguin behavior. The activity culminated with data display and analysis, using colored post-its to indicate the frequency of each behavior.

    Participants began to hone their observation skills by moving out into the Aquarium to observe families and school groups at the ray and shark touch tank, the octopus display and the penguin exhibit. In consultation with their staff mentor, with whom they would be collaborating in their research over the next two years, participants began to plan how they would implement a Be An Animal Scientist activity at their home zoo or aquarium to engage visitors in collecting data on the behavior of live animals. As a group, ZAARC participants decided to focus their first year’s work on the idea of visitor “engagement,” working toward a definition and observation instruments that would be useful in zoos and aquaria.

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    CoCoRaHS, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, is a citizen science project based at Colorado State University (CSU), led by Principal Investigator Nolan Doesken and funded in part by the National Science Foundation (DRL-1010888). The project was created to enhance the research efforts of scientists and promote climate literacy among the public by engaging volunteers in precipitation-monitoring activities.

    CoCoRaHS Rain Gauge

    A rain gauge used by CoCoRaHS

    CoCoRaHS is a program where volunteers collect high-resolution precipitation data to aid STEM researchers and professionals with hydrologic monitoring and prediction.  Besides providing high quality data, CoCoRaHS also promotes education and climate literacy to the community with the use of daily messages, newsletters, webinars, educational videos, and outreach events.  CoCoRaHS started in 1997 at CSU in response to a devastating local flash flood, and has since grown to become a network of over 16,000 observers in 50 U.S. States and Manitoba, Canada.  Each state network is managed by a coordinator which is a volunteer position usually held by an official at NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) or under the authority of the office of the state climatologist.

    Program volunteers are equipped with a high capacity, 4-inch-diameter clear plastic rain gauge with a funnel and inner calibrated tube that accommodates rainfall measurements to the nearest 0.01 inch, meeting the NWS specifications for year-round precipitation measurements. When used for measuring snow, the funnel and inner tube are removed and snowfall is collected in the larger outer cylinder, allowing for a reading of the water content in the snow.  This particular measurement is of great importance to scientists studying snow and ice, as well as local water managers who are in charge of forecasting future water supplies.

    Volunteers enter their data each morning via the CoCoRaHS website, where the data are then immediately available for viewing (in the form of maps and data tables) or for download. During hail or heavy/unusual precipitation events, volunteers can submit real-time reports which are immediately directed to the appropriate local NWS forecast office to aid in issuing and verifying severe weather and flash flood warnings.  All data are checked for errors and archived, and are publicly available for current or historic use.

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  • 11/14/12--07:40: Lupe's Story
  • To produce a public exhibition to study how children use evidence to construct scientific explanations, the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose (CDM), in collaboration with the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) Department of Psychology and the University of California, Berkeley Museum of Paleontology (UCMP), launched Lupe’s Story, a Full Scale Development project funded in 2008 by the National Science Foundation (award #DRL-0741583).

    Lupe's Story dig pit

    The exhibition, now titled Mammoth Discovery!, uses the local discovery of a fossilized Columbian Mammoth to address the questions: How can we better understand how children use evidence to develop scientific explanations, and how can we apply what we learn to improve practice in children’s museums?

    The project is comprised of four deliverables: 1) research conducted by UCSC focusing on how families use evidence to construct scientific explanations and ways to facilitate such reasoning; 2) a 2,300–square-foot permanent exhibition serving as a domain-rich (content-specific) setting for conducting research, in which children engage in increasingly sophisticated uses of evidence to create their own stories about mammoths; 3) an educational website leveraging the paleontology resources of UCMP; 4) and a professional development component for children’s museum professionals.

    The exhibit deliverable, Mammoth Discovery!, opened in June 2011, following extensive prototyping and research, by Dr. Maureen Callanan and her lab at UCSC.  The exhibit, designed for children ages 5-10, includes three mammoth fossils (skull, femur, and pelvis), excavated and prepared by UCMP, 18 hands-on exhibits including two dig pits and a shadow wall showcasing animal femurs, and access to the Mammoth Discovery! website.  Developed by UCMP, the web site encourages children to discover, find out more, and tell their stories. To date, 450,000 children and their families have explored the exhibition.

    Summative evaluation conducted by Randi Korn and Associates indicates that the exhibition is especially effective in encouraging caregivers to engage with their children in the inquiry process. All of the participants in the professional development component of the project have formed partnerships with local researchers as a result of their participation in this project.

    Lessons learned along the way include:

    Partnerships were essential to success. Each organization brought its expertise and openness to learning from the other institutions. The success of this project relied on the balance of strengths: CDM brought expertise in exhibition development and a tried and true, in-depth process of prototyping; Dr. Callanan’s lab at UCSC contributed expertise in coding family conversation data and discussing findings to facilitate the team’s deeper understanding of children’s learning to inform the exhibit development process; and our partners at UCMP brought deep content and process expertise to ensure scientific accuracy to the exhibit and the website.

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    Contextualizing Science Learning and Motivation in Rural and Indigenous Adolescents through Mapping Sustainable Practices (The MSP Project), is based at the University of New Hampshire and funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program (DRL-1223703).  This interdisciplinary research project will explore and address the disconnect that many indigenous and majority adolescents residing in rural communities often experience between science and their home/community lives.  The project will investigate how contextualizing science learning to these adolescents’ culture and community relates to their science knowledge, motivation, and attitudes toward science. Dr. Eleanor Abrams, the project’s Principal Investigator, explains “When students learn science in a way that’s connected to their daily lives and personal interest, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated to learn.  The MSP research team wants to create science learning opportunities deeply connected to adolescents’ lives and to investigate the impact of participation on their science learning and motivation.” Over 2,000 rural majority and indigenous youth in the New England region will map sustainable practices found in their community as part of their community-based youth group activities, all of which take place outside of traditional classroom settings (such as in 4-H groups).

    Rural and indigenous children experience higher dropout rates, perform worse on science achievement tests, and are underrepresented in science careers as compared to non-rural students, according to the researchers. The MSP project is based on the premise that children are always motivated to learn although they sometimes engage in behaviors that both hinder their academic performance and as a result establish identities as unmotivated students.  “Rural majority and indigenous students may benefit from relevant science experiences that go beyond superficial connections and reside in their ability to be productive members of their community,” according to project co-PI Dr. Michael Middleton.

    On a small scale, sustainability science  programming has been shown to be successful in helping students learn by integrating key information and community practices through place-based learning .  MSP is designed not as a single prescribed activity or curriculum, but as a way to contextualize science learning by providing a unifying framework while allowing each community-based youth group to create approaches based on local strengths and interests.  Each youth group will complete a community-based asset survey compiling the sustainable practices in their community.  The group will then select one sustainable practice to investigate more deeply.  Students will map or draw how the ecological, cultural, and economic systems work, including the resource pools, inflows, outflows, and positive/negative feedback loops.

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  • 02/20/13--10:36: HERP Project
  • The HERP Project, Herpetology Education in Rural Places & Spaces, is a collaborative, statewide informal science education project directed by faculty from three institutions of higher education:  PIs Catherine Matthews, Ann Somers, and Heidi Carlone (University of North Carolina Greensboro), PI Terry Tomasek (Elon University), and PI Andy Ash (University of North Carolina Pembroke). The HERP Project is funded by the National Science Foundation (DRL-1114558). The project was created to provide opportunities for the general public, high school students, and secondary school teachers to learn about and collect scientific data on common native species of reptiles and amphibians in local habitats.

    Engaging the community through public celebrations
    The HERP Project engages the community through public celebrations.
    The HERP Project has several threads, including public events focused on herpetology, residential summer herpetological research experiences (HREs) for high school students and teachers, opportunities to participate in long-term scientific studies (e.g., the box turtle project and a project on the use of ephemeral pools by amphibians), and a science education research thread designed to define identity-related motivations of casual, regular, and enthusiastic participants, and identify the science identity affordances (outcomes and trajectories) of HERP's activities, from triggered identities for newcomers to more enduring identities for developing enthusiasts.

    The HERP Project’s residential programs for 80 high school students and eight teachers each summer provide opportunities for these individuals to participate in and collect data on several scientific investigations, including: a box turtle study, aquatic turtle studies at several lakes, studies of ephemeral pools, a snake study, a stream amphibian study, a lizard study, and a frog call survey. Students and teachers accompany science and science education researchers into the field to collect data for these projects. Data are collected using mobile devices and apps developed specifically for The HERP Project. The data are then uploaded both to the project database as well as to the Carolina Herp Atlas, a citizen science database of amphibians and reptiles (collectively referred to as herps) found in the Carolinas. This website, hosted by Davidson College, is partially supported by The HERP Project. All participants are encouraged to become active members of this data-reporting site. 

    In addition to these intensive summer research experiences, or HREs, students continue to learn about statewide herps with field trips offered throughout the school year.  Selected HRE participants spend a weekend on the North Carolina coast studying sea turtles, diamondback terrapins (an estuarine species), and other frog, snake, and lizard species that are different from those found in the central part of the state. Other HRE participants spend a weekend in the North Carolina mountains studying salamanders unique to specific mountainous areas. Many HRE participants attend a professional meeting of the North Carolina Herpetological Society and serve as docents at the annual Reptile and Amphibian Day at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences; attendance at this event has been as high as 16,000 visitors.

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  • 03/19/13--08:10: CCI ISE Partnerships
  • Centers for Chemical Innovation - Informal Science Education Partnerships

    In September 2012 the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded supplemental funding to five Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCI) to partner with professional informal science education (ISE) providers to expand their education and outreach efforts with innovative strategies outside the classroom. These projects reflect a growing movement of STEM researchers whose work is achieving broader impacts through creation of engaging and meaningful educational activities, requiring a level of intellectual rigor comparable to that of the scientific research. The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) has launched an initiative to support these types of collaborations by providing connectivity and resources to researchers seeking to begin informal science education collaborations, as well as those already involved in them.

    The NSF CCI Program supports research centers focused on major, long-term fundamental chemical research challenges. The overall goal of the Centers is to address challenges that will produce transformative research that leads to innovation and attracts broad scientific and public interest. While the Centers each had existing public outreach activities, the supplemental funding gave them the opportunity to develop new programs in partnership with the ISE community.

    A Westside Science Club participant acts as a research assistant to a Caltech researcher while touring the CCI Solar labs in Pasadena, CA.

    A Westside Science Club participant acts as a research assistant to a Caltech researcher while touring the CCI Solar labs in Pasadena, CA.

    In 2012 NSF CCI Program Director Katherine Covert began a 20% part-time detail with the NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program. Covert began attending the AISL program’s Lifelong Learning Cluster meetings, exploring questions with AISL program officers about how to improve integration of research and what the CCI program termed “public science outreach.” Dennis Schatz, the AISL Lifelong Learning Cluster Coordinator, and Dr. Covert worked together to identify opportunities for large NSF research investments (centers and facilities) to work with the ISE community. Together they identified areas of need including: supporting informal science education awareness and expertise among Center staff charged with leading broader impacts efforts, providing resources to improve the quality of evaluation of education and outreach efforts, and catalyzing opportunities for collaborations between public outreach staff and informal STEM learning professionals.

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  • 04/24/13--08:04: STAR_Net
  • STAR_Net

    A hands-on learning program for libraries and their communities (or STAR_Net) is a national program led by the Space Science Institute’s National Center for Interactive Learning (NCIL) Core partners include the American Library Association, Lunar and Planetary Institute, and the National Girls Collaborative Project. Other collaborators include ASTC, National Academy of Engineering, Engineers Without Borders-USA, IEEE-USA, the National Renewable Energy Lab, American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, and many more. Phase 1 of the STAR_Net project is supported through a grant from the National Science Foundation (PI: Paul Dusenbery, award number: DRL-1010844).

    There is considerable research that supports the role that out-of-school experiences can play in student achievement and public understanding of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines (Bell et al., 2009). Public libraries have always been keystones of community engagement and public information, and are increasingly effective as centers of lifelong, free-choice learning beyond books (IMLS, 2009). They are also universally available, and often accessible to diverse audiences. Libraries that offer STEM programs can provide unique entry points for youth and adults learning science knowledge, process, and values. With more than 17,000 public library branches and 1.6 billion visits a year, there is an enormous potential for engaging underserved youth and their families with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) topics.

    STAR_Net education programs have been designed with the goal to inspire lifelong learning through inquiry and play (Dusenbery and Curtis, 2012). The project has developed two interactive traveling exhibits (Discover Earth: A Century of Change and Discover Tech: Engineers Make a World of Difference), accompanied by a variety of education and outreach programs. This additional programming includes hands-on activities related to the content of the exhibits for different age groups. The project includes a training program for librarians, an outreach program for classroom teachers and out-of-school instructors, and a Community of Practice network of librarians and STEM professionals (currently, over 300 members nationwide). For more information about this national education program, visit

    One of the exhibitions, Discover Earth: A Century of Change begins with the idea that our view of Earth from space has deepened our understanding of the planet as a global, dynamic system and makes use of the fact that instruments on satellites and spacecraft, coupled with advances in ground-based research, have provided us with new perspectives on our home. The exhibition features interactive, multimedia displays that allow library visitors to explore local and global earth system topics such as weather, water cycle, and ecosystem changes. This approach allows users to make personal connections through a local perspective, and then place it in a larger context. Each host library creates a photo archive of local environmental changes (within the last 100 years) and displays their photos as part of the exhibit. This reinforces a “century of change" concept. Library visitors can also contribute photos for this exhibit element and participate in discussions about how the environment impacts people and how people impact the environment.

    The exhibition features a 16-inch-diameter Magic Planet™ globe and a 42-inch multi-touch table computer. Discover Earth integrates personal narratives, robust graphics, video, animations, weather artifacts, animal specimens, and simulation-based educational games. Each host library receives their own real-time digital weather station that will collect data and show how local temperature, pressure, and precipitation change during the time the exhibition stays at the library. The traveling exhibition invites library visitors to understand how Earth's global environment changes – and is changed by – their local environment.

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