The Impact of Portal to the Public: Creating an Infrastructure for Engaging Scientists in Informal Science Education
Portal to the Public (PoP) has been operated with considerable funding from the National Science Foundation since 2007 under the leadership of Pacific Science Center (PSC). The program uses a particular model to train and support science-based professionals (“scientists”) in outreach and engagement activities, based on the premise that scientists should engage directly and through materials-rich hands-on activities with family audiences, based on a basic understanding on how people learn, and how to engage audiences in discovery-based learning. Furthermore, the model assumes that scientists need ongoing logistical and pedagogical support by educators and peers, and easy access to audiences.
The model was first developed and tested at three institutions (PSC, Explora in Albuquerque, NM, and the North Museum in Lancaster, PA), and then expanded to five additional sites to test the robustness of the approach. With considerable funding from NSF, the initial model was expanded in 2011 into Portal to the Public: Expanding the National Network (PoPNet). PoPNet expanded the number of institutions involved to more than 50, and added a train-the-trainer and network element to its program structure in order to serve the large number of participating institutions and scientists. Considerable formative evaluation supported the expansion into a network and helped make programmatic adjustments that were essential in adapting to increasingly varied local conditions as institutions joined which did not necessarily represent science center and children’s’ museums, the original institution types for which the PoP model was created.
Now in its 5th year, the network has matured and is moving from a state of establishment and growth into one of sustaining efforts. This is the ideal time to take stock and reflect on the degree to which PoPNet fulfilled its goals and added value to participating institutions and scientists, and to distill the components of PoPNet that will be essential to preserve into the future. To that end, PSC contracted with the Oregon State University’s Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning (STEM Research Center, SRC) to conduct a summative evaluation (impact study). The summative evaluation is based primarily on a retrospective quantitative survey conducted with staff representatives at participating institutions and with scientists affiliated with the program who could be contacted through these institutions. Sixty-six staff from 23 institutions and 264 scientists from 25 institutions completed the questionnaires.
The results of the study confirmed that PoPNet was able to achieve its major objectives. PoPNet created an emerging network of participating institutions. PoPNet also created institutional value based on connection to scientific research via scientists and their institutions. The benefits extended to the institutions’ audiences who where able to engage first-hand with scientists and with current research in accessible and enjoyable ways. [Positive impacts on audiences was established in previous evaluation and research studies]. The PoP model overall seems robust not only to various locations, but also to different institution types: staff could adjust elements of the model to fit specific local needs. Participating scientists in the sample were mostly in their early career, and reported to benefit tremendously from their involvement in PoPNet. They reported gains in their science communication and science engagement abilities and skills, which extended into their regular professional context. Most importantly, they conducted significant levels of science engagement activities in ways that adhere to evidence-based practices in informal science education and science communication. Overall, PoPNet was successful, and has served as a crucial institutional infrastructure to support a closer connection between science and society.