Wellington Workshop notes: A system-wide approach to science education, communication & engagement

Science learning and engagement discussion notes. Dec 15, 2015

The aim of this University of Waikato-sponsored event (Dec 15), was to gain international input from Jonathan Osborne (Kamalachari Professor of Science Education, Stanford University, USA); share work related to the Science and Biotechnology Learning Hubs and Waikato student research in citizen science and community-school partnerships;  receive updates on the participatory science platform project and professional learning and development (PLD); and explore how New Zealand science education and communication initiatives fit into an interacting system.

Professor Osborne highlighted findings from a report on the contribution of informal science education providers such as zoos and aquaria; field, science and environment centres; and learned societies; and their relationships with formal providers (e.g., schools and universities). A community ecology approach was applied to these systems of science learning and engagement, centring on the ‘diversity’ and ‘resilience’, identifying the ‘keystone species’ and where ‘interdependency’ occurs.

Report findings revealed up to 50 different forms of UK-based providers, broadly with goals to ‘inspire a general interest in and engagement with science’, and ‘make science enjoyable and interesting’. The resilience of the learning system is threatened, partly due to strong weighting toward youth education, rather than lifelong science learning. In the UK, it appears that science festivals, science and discovery centres and museums function as the ‘keystone species’ within the wider science education sector. In conjunction with this, science festivals and universities show strong interdependence, while schools were less engaged in the wider learning community.

Osborne also argued for critical engagement in science, highlighting Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ column in The Guardian, which covers misrepresentations of science made by the media.

From the University of Waikato, Cathy Buntting outlined the evolution of the Science Learning Hub (est. 2005), which provides a go-to online resource for teachers and students on contemporary New Zealand science. Major changes in the education and science sectors have seen the Hub needing to respond to changing social and political requirements.

Thea de Petris introduced Kids Greening Taupoa project to increase biodiversity and solve environmental problems, driven by local children. Her Masters’ research centres on the processes undertaken by stakeholders to design and implement a multi-stakeholder conservation education programme, highlighting the complexity of coordinating an increasingly complex project.

In my presentation, I summarised the bewildering range of terms, used either in tandem with, or as synonyms for citizen science, before outlining the spectrum of community engagement in scientific research in NZ. I began with crowdsourced citizen science, where participants primarily function as data collectors for scientist-led projects, through to ‘grassroots citizen science’- community environmental groups developing and implementing their own monitoring programmes for their restoration projects. I wrapped up with an overview of the key questions addressed in the NZ Ecological Society conference workshop I facilitated in November.

Victoria Metcalfe, based in the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, provided an overview of the Curious Minds participatory science platform and 16 projects currently underway in the pilot centres of South Auckland, Taranaki and Otago. She highlighted the uniqueness and importance of having a co-ordinator who supports the growth of projects by linking professionals with community members and then mentors the projects during the development and implementation phases.

Rounding up the series of formal contributions, Ally Bull from the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) discussed a recent survey of PLD provision in primary schools, highlighting the wide range of providers and types of provision, but lack of connection between them.

The day wrapped up with a broad ranging discussion on themes raised during the presentations, including the importance of developing (and funding) a ‘learning system’ that can take into account the learnings from the many different science education, communication and engagement initiatives, and maximise synergies between them.

Participants, who included representatives from Waikato, Victoria and Massey Universities, NZCER, the Department of Conservation (DOC), the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), the Ministry of Education (MoE), and Lift Education, were asked to reflect on ‘new’ and ‘reinforced’ thoughts encountered during the day.

Participant learnings #1: Reinforced thoughts

• A coordinated approach to teaching science is required although improving the ‘system’ relies on agreed goals and rationales for these goals
• We don’t’ do intersectionality well – we speak of ‘girls into science’ and ‘other minorities into science’, not acknowledging that 50% of the latter are also girls
• Grass-roots initiatives should not be undervalued
• Science in its broadest sense includes STEM, Enviromental education, Education for Sustainability.
• Science teachers need easy ways to collaborate with communities and each other e.g., through regional facilitators
• Need to build a learning community of practice – and the structures that support that learning
• There is potential for Science Learning Hubs to expand their capacity to meet the needs of teachers, whanau, students and wider community for professional learning and development

Participant learnings #2: New thoughts

• We speak of effectiveness and confidence regularly, but do we know what these concepts mean when unpacked in a science teaching context?
• How can the science learning community contribute sustainably to a learning system?
• Where can the wisdom accrued from past projects, programmes and experiences be stored for sharing?
• How can data collected by students be more effectively used?
• How can we join the dots between the diverse range of citizen science projects to maximise their outcomes?
• Parents often inadvertently pass on their misconceptions and predjudices about science to children – at which point can this cycle be broken?

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