The STEM Ambassador Program: A Scientist-Driven Public Engagement Model
This project's interdisciplinary team will carry out research and training that will identify ways for professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to engage with public audiences that currently lack the community connections, resources, time, or know-how to gain access to science education and to scientists. The project will create real and on-line materials for scientists to convey the excitement, content, and relevance of their own research to public groups whose values, professions, or aesthetic and cultural backgrounds are connected to that research topic. The project will also foster ways for scientists to understand that members of the public can provide valuable input to science. Research and evaluation on the development of this innovative public engagement model "the STEM Ambassador Program (STEMAP)" will be conducted to provide insights into the effectiveness and extensibility of the STEMAP model. This approach integrates three existing elements of science engagement that have previously not been linked: design thinking, informal science education communication skills from museum work, and connecting scientists' research with the existing values of particular community groups. Robust evaluation will enhance effectiveness of in-person and online trainings; research will provide understanding of how different science learning models can be integrated and enhanced for public audiences and for scientists. This project is funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments. This includes providing multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences, advancing innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments, and developing understandings of deeper learning by participants. Science and society need innovative and transformative ways to interact synergistically. Given the deep knowledge and contagious passion for their research, STEM professionals can bring unique assets to directly engage public audiences, especially important the traditionally underserved public groups. Members of the public in turn have the potential to provide novel ideas, data, and insights to support researchers. The project's exploratory research will help understand how STEM professionals can broaden participation by themselves engaging unengaged publics with the excitement of science and science knowledge in ways that are congruent with academic rewards. The project team will integrate three existing NSF-funded models: a) Research Ambassador Program, b) Portal to the Public, and c) Design Thinking. A cadre of faculty and graduate students will be trained in "STEM Ambassadors" workshops, in which social scientists and community group representatives will help STEM Ambassadors identify public groups with interests that connect to the scientist's research. Engagement events will occur in community venues, e.g., churches, factories, and day care centers, etc. Case studies and evaluation instruments answer research questions about: the role of empathy in the formation and change of identity; relationships between public audiences, mode of engagement, and identity shifts; and motivational drivers for STEM Ambassadors and public audiences. The intellectual merit is the training and evaluating of 50 STEM Ambassadors (via 100 outreach events involving approximately 5000 individuals from community groups); strategies that encourage STEM professionals to engage with underrepresented publics; and insights on how to integrate multiple education models. STEMAP will disseminate its findings and new resources through the STEMAP website. In addition, the dissemination efforts will be extended through: collaboration with the NSF-funded PoPNet Expansion Project and the Centers for Science and Mathematics Education (CSMEs); presentations at national science professional organizations, such as the AAAS, as well as through the CAISE Wiki and the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI). STEMAP will create a process for other NSF PIs to generate, evaluate, and articulate their research and its applications to public groups that lie far outside academia.