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Portal to the Public

January 20, 2014

Portal to the Public: Expanding the National Network (PoPNet) is an NSF-funded broad implementation project (DRL-1224129) led by Pacific Science Center (PSC) that builds the capacity for informal science education institutions (ISI) to bring scientists and public audiences together in face-to-face interactions to promote an appreciation and understanding of current scientific research. The project builds on the 2007-2012 Portal to the Public project (PoP), also funded by NSF (DRL-0639021) and led by PSC in partnership with Explora, North Museum of Natural History and Science, and ILI, and the 2011-2014 Portal to the Public Network project, funded by an IMLS 21st Century Museum Professionals grant.

PoP: Connecting Scientists with Public Audiences

Face-to-face interactions are a valuable and viable method of connecting public audiences with scientists, providing unique, personal experiences for ISI visitors (Storksdieck, 2005; Schatz 2008). PoP’s core value is based on the idea that prior to engaging with ISI visitors, scientists receive communication and interpretation training from ISI staff grounded in inquiry-based learning from experienced museum educators. PoP’s primary audience is staff from ISIs across the country to help them partner with and provide science communication workshops for scientists in their communities.

The partners of the original PoP project developed a framework that, theoretically, could be applied to a diversity of ISI types, sizes, and settings. Included in the framework are the three intertwined core elements of PoP: building relationships with scientists, providing professional development in science communication, and holding face-to-face public programs featuring scientists. While these are all required elements of the program, the types of partners, the format of professional development, and the nature of the public programs should be determined by individual ISI sites. Thus, ISIs adopt the Portal to the Public model to fit their own needs and resources, which results in a diversity of science communication workshops and program events featuring scientists (Selvakumar, 2013).

The project partners developed an implementation manual as a guide for ISIs seeking to implement the PoP program. Research and evaluation of the pilot implementation of PoP at eight sites found that the project had a net positive impact on the primary audience – staff from ISI who apply the approach; secondary audience – the partnering scientists at each site; and visitors – those who experience the public program. The project won the ASTC Roy L. Shafer Leading Edge Award for Visitor Experience in 2010.

Expanding the Program Across the Country

The current PoPNet projects moves PoP from a proven model implemented at a handful of science centers to a broad implementation effort that expands the range and diversity of ISIs. The goal is two-fold: to provide workshops that build capacity for ISI staff to implement PoP at their institution and to build a network that serves as a community for implementing sites to share and learn new ideas and practices. With initial funding from IMLS, PoPNet welcomed 15 museums of diverse sizes and settings into the network. With current NSF funds, the project is targeted to expand to an additional 20 sites, which will include ISIs beyond science and natural history museums.

PoP has been implemented at thirty ISIs across the country ranging in type, size, location and audience served.

Incoming PoPNet sites are chosen through an open application process, which is communicated through the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), amongst other channels. The sites commit to send two staff to a three-day workshop hosted at PSC where they explore resources and strategies, experience elements of the professional development for scientists, take part in PSC’s PoP public programs featuring scientists, and develop a draft implementation plan to share at their home institutions. Each site is also paired with a mentor from a different PoP site, who guides the site through their first full implementation.

Preliminary results from the summative evaluation of the IMLS-funded PoPNet showed that the workshops were highly rated for their effectiveness, which translated into successful implementation at most sites. While public programs can vary in approach from site to site, most sites use a conversation-based format complemented by hands-on, tabletop activities that highlight the scientists’ work and are targeted to small groups or individuals. Many of the early sites are sustaining their efforts beyond the initial implementation, and some sites have leveraged the program to partner with scientists on broader impact opportunities.

Building a Network

The Portal to the Public Network exists as an online collaborative community and in-person convenings. Members of the network connect and share resources through the PoPNet website. The PoPNet Annual Meeting includes updates from network sites, group discussions of challenges and opportunities, and offers a chance for sites to connect with each other. Additional forms of virtual and in-person network activities are currently in the planning stage and will expand over the next two years to support the growing network. As the network grows, it will be important to address issues including staff turnover at sites and financial barriers to sustain programs.

PoP workshops for ISE educators model a number of hands-on, materials-rich activities that the educators will subsequently include when they implement communication workshops for their partnering scientists.“I’ve worked with scientists before, but this really provided some concrete ways to engage with them and skills to teach them. It’s different - it’s deeper and better” - ISE staff

Awareness of the Portal to the Public Network has grown in the ISE and science outreach fields, including among the diverse types of ISIs, professional scientific societies, and other ISE networks. With current NSF funding, the Network will include an additional 13 sites through workshops scheduled for September 2014 and March 2015. Summative evaluation of the project, scheduled to be completed by June 2016, will analyze patterns and trends in implementation across the diversity of sites. Evaluation will also examine financial and programmatic strategies for sustainability. An advisory team of experts in professional development, working with scientists, and network management, provides guidance for the project.

PoP is a proven approach that supports ISIs seeking to connect local communities to scientific research that occurs in their midst. PoPNet is building the capacity of museum and ISE professionals to build strong and sustained partnerships with researchers and scientific organizations in their region, providing opportunities for current research to be featured in a dynamic way on the museum floor.

The PoPNet team includes Meena Selvakumar, Dana Vukajlovich, Jennifer Pritchard, and Dennis Schatz. Additional details can be found at http://popnet.pacificsciencecenter.org.


Schatz D., and Russell L. (2008) Face-to-face with scientists. Summary of key learnings of the Portal to the Public Synthesis Meeting.

Selvakumar M., and Storksdieck M. (2013) Portal to the Public: Museum Educators Collaborating with Scientists to Engage Museum Visitors with Current Science. Curator, The Museum Journal. 56(1) 69-78

Storksdieck M., Stein J.K., and Dancu T. (2005) Summative Evaluation, Current (health) science at the Current Science & Technology Center, Museum of Science, Boston. Technical Report. Annapolis, MD: Institute for Learning Innovation