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Why fund the NISE Net?

May 20, 2009

Carol Lynn Alpert

A short time ago, I heard from a veteran program officer in one of the NSF science research directorates that she was skeptical about the strategy of apportioning funds from these directorates to fund the NISE Net. Why not give the funds directly to the individual nano research centers to bolster their own education and outreach (E&O) programs? Why set up a whole new Informal Science Education (ISE) infrastructure to do it? After all, most of the NSF-funded research centers have been doing E&O for years, partially in response to NSF’s “Broader Impacts Criterion,” partly because many researchers have a yen for engaging in community-spirited activities. Offering the research centers those additional funds, she said, might lead to more effective use of resources and greater local impact. There are many replies one can give to this argument, and I’m sure many of my readers will have already thought through a number of them by the time they’ve reached the second sentence of this paragraph. But the one that I chose to give, in the scarcity of the moment afforded, is that the practice of E&O deserves a certain rigor, expertise, and talent that it is somewhat unevenly bestowed amongst the faculty and students of the nation’s leading research universities. (Not to mention full time effort, regularity, and access to broad audiences.) It is a wonderful thing when researchers invite the community on campus to hear a talk, or when research centers throw open their doors for an open house, or when graduate students visit school classrooms with demonstrations. Many researchers pursue these opportunities with an invigorating sense of responsibility and concern, a real desire to give back to the community. They hope to inspire youngsters to pursue science, to impart their passion for discovery and their conviction that science is key to our survival. Indeed, E&O is something in which everyone can participate, and some people, either by practice or nature, have an enormous talent for it. The notion upon which the NISE Net is founded, however, is that informal science education is also a professional activity around which a community of practitioners can build knowledge and capacity that lift it beyond chance talent and generosity of spirit. There is a discipline here, an applied science of building on prior knowledge, determining relevant variables, hypothesizing cause and effect, prototyping, testing, refining, and inviting a community of peers to challenge, replicate, modify, and even compete. Like science, informal science education benefits from creativity, imagination, and intuition; these however usually don’t get too far without the benefit of disciplined cultivation within constraints. Also like science, there is a craft to informal science education, honed by experience - whether it be the craft of building a sturdy and kid-friendly interactive display for a museum exhibit, writing a captivating script for an IMAX film, or making that table-top demo that brings a startled “wow” to even a sixteen-year old’s face. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be the occasional film made by a scientist alone that is breathtakingly inspiring for non-scientists, or a lecture by a Nobel-winning pioneer that wrenches the guts of a high-school girl and changes her career aspirations, or an occasional exhibit built by an graduate student that can withstand, unattended, a day-in-day-out onslaught of 4- and 8-year-olds. However, these are the exceptions. Normally, the gap between expert awareness and lay-person naivetee is too large to cross; the passage between them is littered with small boulders of specialized vocabulary, assumptions of prior knowledge, inscrutable symbols and graphs, numbing detail, and lack of practice. The point, simply, is that public engagement, science literacy, and the inspiration of young minds are goals that are just too important at this time, in this culture, to leave in the already overstretched hands of people whose attention, expertise, and brilliance lie predominantly in the realms of research or university teaching. Is it even fair to demand that scientists - whose comfort zones may end at the university lecture room door - allocate time to make nice with 10 year-olds or even with adults who cringe at the mention of molecules? We welcome as our partners the scientists and engineers who enjoy adding public outreach to their agendas, but we don’t think it is fair to demand it nor realistic to rely upon it. For scientists, by necessity, research and mentoring of young researchers comes first. For informal science educators, designing motivational experiences and teaching come first. Leaving public engagement and outreach to university researchers to accomplish on their own would be somewhat akin of leaving the design and engineering of nanoscale devices to educators. We just don’t have the training, the background, the tools, or experience. It’s true that amateurs sometimes do great science, but we don’t want to have to rely on them to come up with the cure for swine flu. Likewise, while some researchers are great communicators, we don’t want to have to rely on them alone to explain nanoscale forces to our kids or to discuss the potential benefits and risks of nanotechnology with the voting public. We need to work together as a team. There’s plenty of room here for the blossoming of fruitful partnerships. The goal of the NISE Net is to bring ISE professional expertise and practice to the table alongside nano research expertise and practice. ISE folks need to study and learn about nano research; research community folks need to learn about what works in informal science ed. There needs to be a blending of knowledge and know-how and a networking of ideas and practices from many sources, to effectively catalyze local effort and innovation. This takes concentrated effort, training, materials and infrastructural support. That is what the NISE Net is funded to provide. For more information on the NISE Net’s Research – Informal Science Education partnership initiative (RISE) and resources, check out the RISE Group page.