Friday Guest post- Science in the Public Eye: Leveraging Partnerships

by Martha Merson and Allen, Hristov, authors from Volume 58, issue 1 of ICB

Could you use a partner ready to tell thousands of people about your work? Time is tight, especially when it comes to balancing outreach, teaching, and research. Would you spend a few hours in dialogue with informal educators like park rangers and museum docents if they could elevate your work, illustrating the important science that often goes unseen and is underappreciated?

Setting expectations for scientists to communicate with the public does little to solve the dilemma scientists face: how to fit public appearances in among their research, teaching, and obligations to their institutions.

Wildlife biologists and long-time SICB members Hristov and Allen teamed up with informal education researcher Merson (TERC) to pilot an approach to solving this dilemma. The team found willing scientists whose work had park-relevance. With funding from the National Science Foundation for Interpreters and Scientists Working on Our Parks (iSWOOP), the project brought scientists and rangers into direct contact. iSWOOP encouraged interpretive rangers dedicated to fostering connections to natural and cultural resources to interpret the science going on behind the scenes.


During professional development sessions, rangers examined scientists’ visualizations and discussed how scientists know what they know in order to develop programs about the science for visitors. Photo credit: Hristov

iSWOOP answered a felt need: opportunities for interpreters to hear firsthand from scientists and exchange stories and questions are welcome, but relatively rare (Merson et al. 2017). When the opportunity arises, researchers typically give a one-hour lunch talk, a modified version of a presentation aimed at scientific peers, and interpreters mainly listen. These events provide few opportunities for discussing strategies for interpreting the research for broader audiences. iSWOOP proposed a model of professional development where scientists and educators work together. During site-based sessions, they partner to tease out the relevance to public audiences and begin to develop programs about the science (with stories, provocative questions, and visualizations).

At Carlsbad Caverns, Hristov and Allen shared the struggles and technological break-throughs in their research on the Brazilian free-tailed bat and its habitat, while Merson marshalled TERC’s expertise in STEM learning and teaching to infuse the outreach efforts with inquiry approaches. Soon after the professional development experience, participating park rangers began engaging park visitors in conversations about the methods and relevance of the research, as well its findings and implications.


iSWOOP-trained Ranger Zaragosa initiated many conversations with visitors about research using laser scans of the caverns. Photo credit: Lebar and Pfundstein

Based on the enthusiastic response among rangers and the public at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the iSWOOP project team became convinced that scientists shouldn’t shoulder the responsibility for public engagement alone. At the same time, we recognized that the challenges and opportunities presented by partnerships are varied and significant. With the relentless pressure on scientists to balance outreach, teaching, and research, we thought it timely to revisit the articles on partnerships published originally as proceedings from the 2018 symposium, Science in the Public Eye. Below we summarize three articles, supply links to the talks as well as the articles, and supply links to related resources.

 Unveiling Impact Identities: A Path for Connecting Science and Society, by Julie Risien and Martin Storksdieck frames the importance of delineating an individual impact identity that takes into account scientists’ individual strengths, their institutional context, the nature of their research, and the desired outcomes of their public engagement activities. The authors argue that a more integrated approach towards research and outreach will not only benefit society, but also improve a scientist’s research success.



Deciding on activities related to outreach and broader impacts should grow out of a careful inventory of strengths and interests, both individual and contextual. Image from Risien and Storksdieck

The second article is by iSWOOP’s project investigators and external evaluator. It reports scientists’ and participants’ reactions to iSWOOP’s professional development model, and points out missed opportunities. The article describes iSWOOP’s approach to supporting productive collaborations that promote an understanding of scientific research to public audiences. Results from a pair of surveys indicate that both sides of this partnership benefit from extended contact and clear communication. For a condensed version of what we learned about working in parks, see  Tips in Words and Drawings: Launching Collaborations in National Parks.

iSWOOP’s pilot showed that national park rangers with responsibility for interpretation and education are trusted by the public, dedicated to science translation, and skilled at crafting stories for multi-age audiences. They are ideal ambassadors for the science that too often gets left out of the public discourse. To leverage their scarce time for public outreach, biologists can also partner with other informal science education experts to reach broader audiences and deepen their impact. The third article, by Carol Lynn Alpert, “So You Want to Share Your Science: Connecting to the World of Informal Learning”, offers practical advice to scientists on how to reach broader audiences and deepen their impact by teaming up with informal science learning organizations like science museums, zoos, and nature centers.

This is the message we wanted to bring to members of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology: that dedicated and talented partners await you in a venue that makes sense for your science.

To read more or to watch the talks

Unveiling Impact Identities: A Path for Connecting Science and Society, Julie Risien and Martin Storksdieck, p. 58—https://vimeo.com/250394739,

So You Want to Share Your Science

https://academic.oup.com/icb/article/58/1/85/4985723

Beyond the Brown Bag: Designing Effective Professional Development for Informal Educators

Louise Allen, Cynthia Char, Nickolay Hristov, Tracey Wright and Martha Merson—https://vimeo.com/250394008, iswoopparks.com

https://academic.oup.com/icb/article/58/1/77/5025946?guestAccessKey=801398ca-5fe9-4a9d-8beb-6c229ee3bc8c

The iSWOOP project’s evaluation report summarizes the impact of iSWOOP and provides recommendations.

http://www.iswoopparks.com/about/reports/

Funding Acknowledgement: The symposium and its proceedings were made possible with support from the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology the Divisions of Animal Behavior, Comparative Biomechanics, Comparative Endocrinology, Ecoimmunology and Disease Ecology, Neurobiology, and Vertebrate Morphology and the National Science Foundation [DRL-123030 and DRL-1514776 and DRL-1514667]. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the National Science Foundation.

Author: suzannecrmiller

Author of Queen, Wage, The Selections on Amazon, Fly on site and soon to be Souvenir through @Inkdedingray publishing

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