Building Supports Towards a Useful, Usable, and In-Use Framework of Professional Competencies in the Informal STEM Learning Field
Each year, millions of Americans visit science centers and museums, children’s museums, zoos, aquariums, nature centers, planetariums, and similar institutions. Recognized as trusted and popular places for educational and leisure experiences, these institutions are uniquely capable of engaging people across a spectrum of beliefs, experiences, and identities on topics related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as addressing pressing societal problems related to science, technology, and innovation. However, the potential impacts of these institutions are largely dependent on the skills, knowledge, and abilities of the professionals working at them. Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to shift the nature of work, the informal STEM learning workforce was dramatically impacted. The recent period of disruption is a time for innovation. The field is well-positioned to promote new models of professional learning and development that are grounded in the values and practices of informal learning. This project will benefit local communities across the United States and society at large by advancing the capacity of science-engagement professionals to respond to societal needs, concerns, and interests more effectively through their institutions’ exhibitions, education and learning programs, and various forms of public engagement (e.g., community outreach events, supports for teachers/educators and schools). Led by the Association of Science and Technology Centers in collaboration with the Center of Science and Industry’s Center for Research and Evaluation and Oregon State University’s STEM Research Center, this work will build on the Informal STEM Learning (ISL) Professional Competency Framework developed and validated with prior National Science Foundation funding. Competency frameworks are increasingly used across many sectors to identify the suite of skills, knowledge, and capabilities necessary to be successful in a particular area of work. Given dramatic changes to the ISL workplace in the last two years, there is an even stronger potential for the Framework, particularly if newly developed supports can link the Framework to the current, emerging, and continuing needs of the workforce.
Guided by a systematic process for designing training and instructional materials, this project will first capture changes in the ways diverse informal STEM learning professionals describe, pursue, and achieve competencies to produce a revised Framework. Next, the project will collaboratively develop companion resources with diverse professionals through a series of participatory design workshops, using a sequential and iterative approach. The resources are expected to include indicators of professional competencies, self-assessments, training tools, and other types of resources that have the potential to significantly advance the professional learning (as undertaken by individuals and institutions) and the professional development capacity (as provided by institutions, associations, and other organizations) of the informal STEM learning field. Next, the project will share final products–including a refreshed website that hosts the updated Framework and newly-developed suite of tools–with professional association and network partners who can disseminate directly to the institutions and professionals who are developing and practicing these competencies. The project will gather evidence from a small number of early adopters, providing data on specific use-case scenarios. Finally, the project will document the potential impact of the Framework on the field by measuring how the Framework is perceived by informal STEM learning professionals as usable, useful, and beginning to be “in-use." Over time—and with increased use—the Framework and its companion resources hold the promise of contributing to the opening of the field to professionals with identities currently underrepresented through more transparent expectation and clearer growth pathways.