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Inside this issue:

A Culture of Cooperation: Planning Professional Development for Science Centers

Learning from Learning Research

Building a Network: The Texas Informal Science Education Association

Global Partners: Network News from Around the World



Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions March/April 2000
March/April 2000:
Investing in People
A Culture of Cooperation:
Planning Professional Development for Science Centers

By Carolyn Sutterfield and Sally Middlebrooks

Among science center professionals, sharing expertise comes naturally. Maybe it’s because we’re gregarious types who like to interact. Maybe it’s because we’re inveterate problem solvers. Maybe it’s because we believe that any new effort to promote understanding of science and technology will benefit all of us in the long run. Whatever the motivation, the science center field has been extraordinarily generous in welcoming new members, supporting colleagues, and promoting best practices.

Providing opportunities for professional development has been a top strategic objective for ASTC since 1973. Over the years, the association has devoted a significant percentage of its resources to creating, testing, refining, and promulgating good models of training. Some of these, like the Annual Conference and the YouthALIVE! Network Meetings, are still mainstays in the field. Others, such as the Institute for New Science Centers or the Inquiry Institute, are no longer active, but their legacy is still widely felt.

What constitutes good professional development? The answer is out there—in the research on successful adult learning; in the knowledge garnered from years of ASTC workshops, institutes, and conferences; in surveys of science center management and staff; and in the testimony of those who put what they’ve gained from professional development to work in their museums on a daily basis. Key words emerge from these sources: collegiality, connections, challenge, dialogue, immersion, inspiration, models, skills.

What Does the Research Tell Us?

Much of what we know about good professional development comes from research into adult learning. One pioneer in this field was Malcolm Knowles, professor of adult education at Boston University from 1960 to 1974. In his book The Modern Practice of Adult Education, Knowles described four ways in which adult learning differs from teacher-directed classroom instruction.

Adult learners, Knowles said,

  • manage their own learning (although some may need help to “learn how to learn”).
  • draw on reservoirs of experience as a resource for learning.
  • exhibit “readiness to learn” according to their roles in life (e.g., new parents want information on child rearing; older workers, on retirement and aging).
  • are problem-oriented, rather than subject-oriented, seeking solutions they can apply immediately to challenges in their lives.

Knowles also concluded that learning is highly personal. It is, he said, “an internal process controlled by the learners and engaging their whole being—including intellectual, emotional, and physiological functions.”

Other researchers have built on Knowles’s base to expand the definition of good adult education. Stephen Brookfield, Rosemary Caffarella, and others tell us that effective learning programs encourage learners to think critically and build their own understanding of a subject. Such programs respect learners’ individuality and can be adapted, if necessary, to the needs and interests of the participants. They provide an environment that is comfortable, both physically and emotionally, while challenging learners to grow beyond their present assumptions. These findings are confirmed by a 1999 study of adult learning in the museum setting, conducted by Montana’s Museum of the Rockies.

How do the principles of effective adult learning translate into professional development activities? Studies done with classroom teachers consistently talk about the need for in-service programs to provide multiple and sustained opportunities to learn. In addition, say the researchers, in-service must be built on respect for learners’ diversity and include content relevant to learners’ experiences. For that to happen, according to one National Institute for Science Education report (Loucks-Horsley, Stiles, and Hawson, 1996), administrators must “build an infrastructure that supports ongoing learning,” allowing teachers to work together and to share what they learn from workshops and conferences.

A more recent study done for the American Association of Association Executives (Baden, 1998) observed learning programs in associations, universities, corporations, and community-based organizations. The researchers identified 27 models of good practice applicable to professional development in the nonprofit setting, including case studies, simulations, feedback exercises, Internet dialogue, group mentoring, and intensive residential programs.

What Do We Want from Professional Development?

Science center personnel tend to have different ideas about the benefits and purposes of professional development. Ultimately, the success of the institution is everyone’s goal, but it can be challenging to align the vision of the CEO and the board with the everyday experiences of museum staff. Three studies undertaken by ASTC in the past two years shed some light on perceived needs in the field

In 1998 and 1999, assisted by the Research and Evaluation Department of the St. Louis Science Center, ASTC conducted two formal surveys on professional development. The first examined the experiences and needs of museum educators and teacher educators; the second addressed a series of questions to chief executive officers. The results show that although there is agreement on the need for quality professional development, there are different perceptions about how it is best delivered.

The 1998 survey found that science center staff responsible for teaching and for training teachers are “a tightly scheduled work force, one that must justify its time for professional development in productive and efficient terms.” For these staff members, opportunities to travel outside the institution are rare. Only 14 percent of respondents say they attend regional conferences, and fewer than 5 percent attend ASTC Annual Conferences.

As a consequence, it is not surprising that the two methods of professional development rated highest by museum educators are watching and talking informally with other staff (58.4 percent) and reading professional journals and books (35.1 percent). And even these are hard to schedule. Educators say the biggest obstacle to their participation in such activities is a lack of time set aside for that purpose by their museums; 79 percent want their institutions to allow time “during the work day” for professional development.

In the 1999 survey, museum directors were asked, “Where in your institution would professional-development opportunities make the greatest difference over the next three years?” Fifty-eight percent picked education, followed by exhibits (49 percent), executive staff (45 percent), marketing (46 percent), and visitor services (41 percent). Asked what types of professional development offer the best value for their staff, the CEOs rated conferences—both ASTC’s Annual Conference (with a mean of 2.5 on a scale of 0 to 3) and “other” (2.4)—highest, followed by local/regional networks (2.3) and cross-institutional exchange (2.2). Mentoring programs and journal subscriptions were rated 1.8 and 1.7, respectively.

A less formal instrument for assessing professional development was a questionnaire distributed to Peer Breakfast attendees at the 1998 ASTC Annual Conference in Edmonton, Alberta. Respondents were invited not only to assess the conference as a vehicle for professional development, but also to offer opinions about opportunities for professional development within the larger science center community.

Several findings emerge from this informal poll. One is that the ASTC Annual Conference is perceived as an effective professional-development tool by those who attend: 88 percent of the nearly 400 respondents rated it “valuable” or “very valuable.” A second is that certain museums within the science center community are recognized as “pillars of excellence” (to use one respondent’s phrase) and possible sources of professional training. And finally, it is clear that science center staff take great pride in the achievements of their own institutions. Staff members from 75 museums generated a list of nearly 200 areas in which they felt qualified to share expertise with others.

Taken together, the results of these three surveys indicate that, for science centers, building “an infrastructure that supports ongoing learning” might include some combination of conference participation, formal and informal on-site activities, and visits to other institutions.

What Is ASTC Doing?
A young presenter explains an exhibit to YouthALIVE! Network Meeting participants.
Those Peer Breakfast attendees were not alone in feeling that the ASTC Annual Conference is the premier setting for exchange and networking among science center professionals. Last year’s meeting, in Tampa, Florida, was the largest ever, with more than 1,900 participants representing science centers, museums, and related organizations in 35 countries assembled for an event that included nine half- to full-day workshops and approximately 120 individual sessions.

As exhilarating as the Annual Conference is, it’s only a few days, once a year. One way to acquire more in-depth experience is to participate in special workshops, courses, and network meetings throughout the year.

ASTC has traditionally sponsored a number of these intensive activities. The New Science Centers Support Program offered five-day institutes aimed at board members and staff of start-up operations. The Institutes for Teacher Educators at Science Centers (commonly called the “Inquiry Institutes”) were intensive, inquiry-based, 11-day workshops targeted to teacher educators from science centers, school systems, and colleges. The one-day Humanities Seminars in Science Museums, based on the “great books” model developed at St. John’s College, offered staff from different science center departments the chance to consider the great ideas of art and literature and relate them to their own work. Although these grant-supported programs have officially ended, they continue to influence the field through publications, sessions at Annual Conference, and the ongoing work of those who participated in them.

Another intensive program run by ASTC has been the Network Meetings of YouthALIVE! (Youth Achievement through Learning, Involvement, Volunteering, and Employment), a grant-funded ASTC initiative that helps science centers create and run programs for underserved young people aged 10 to 15. Since 1992, the Network Meetings, held semiannually at different science centers, have fostered sharing and cooperation among participating museums. At these three-day meetings, YouthALIVE! program directors, staff members, and participants have come to-gether for presentations, workshops, panel discussions, museum theater, and other hands-on activities. Starting this year, the Network Meetings will be run on a regional rather than a national basis.

Also this year, ASTC is launching the Accessible Practices project, funded by the National Science Foundation. Over the next three years, six science centers around the United States will each host a pair of regional workshops aimed at facilities managers, visitor services staff, and exhibit designers. The purpose is to help these science center personnel learn how to better welcome and accommodate visitors with disabilities and their families as part of the field’s obligation under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The materials produced by the project and the information it disseminates on the ASTC web site and at Annual Conferences are intended to have a long-term effect on policies, planning, and design in science centers.

No discussion of ASTC’s professional development would be complete without mentioning the Proposal Development Workshop held in Washington each year, the peer site reviews available to full-member museums, and the staff-training activities provided by the Exhibition Services department.

What Other Resources Do We Have?
At a 1999 museum theater conference in Boston, Nicole Greevy of the Central Park Zoo's Wildlife Center used short, scripted interactions to convey principles of conservation.
Photo by Sheli Beck

Of course, ASTC is not the only source of professional development for the field. Over the past 15 years, science center networks have emerged in nearly every part of the world, and each offers some form of training program.

The Science Centre World Congress, inaugurated in Finland in June 1996, provides global networking opportunities every three years. Last held in Calcutta in January 1999, the Congress is next scheduled for February 2002 in Canberra, Australia.

More frequent meetings are held by the major international networks, including ECSITE, Red-POP, ASTEN, and ASPAC. With experiential learning the preferred mode for science centers everywhere, exhibit-design workshops are common—from the prototyping sessions run each summer by the British Interactive Group (BIG) to the special weeklong workshop this spring at Australia’s Questacon—The National Science and Technology Centre.

Many individual science centers are following the “pillar of excellence” model by offering on-site programs open to staff from other institutions. Examples include

  • the annual “drive-in conferences” for museum educators run by the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science,
  • the museum-theater workshops held at Boston’s Museum of Science and the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul,
  • the Science Education Community Leadership workshop planned next fall at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, and
  • the museum management courses taught at the Deutches Museum in Munich, Germany.

An updated list of these and other resources for professional development is maintained on the ASTC web site at, along with a calendar of upcoming events.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Two years ago, there were 39,000 paid staff members (21,000 full-time and 18,000 part-time) employed in ASTC-member museums. In the United States alone, the numbers were 17,000 full-time and 15,000 part-time, and those figures are probably higher by now. Add to that the more than 60,000 volunteers estimated to be working in science centers, and you have a sizable work force.

Offering these workers the chance to learn and to grow professionally cannot be left to chance. In 1999, science center directors saw staff recruitment/retention as one of the top three problems they face in the new century. Turnover for some science center personnel—development directors, volunteer coordinators, and school- and public-program coordinators averages less than 3 1/2 years.

ASTC continues to make professional development for the field a top priority. In addition to its ongoing mix of Annual Conferences, YouthALIVE! Network Meetings, special-focus workshops, supplemental publications, and web resources, the association is making plans for online courses in “science center basics,” with particular focus on entry-level staff.

At individual science centers, good professional development can take many forms. Each museum’s “infrastructure for learning” will vary according to size of staff, budget, number of full-time and part-time personnel, institutional “culture,” and more. But every institution should ask itself, “What kinds of learning opportunities are encouraged here? What percentage of our budget is devoted to professional development?”

If there is one thing we’ve learned from our years of research and practice, it’s that when opportunities for learning are built into the framework of the institution, everyone wins.

Carolyn Sutterfield is ASTC's editor, and Sally Middlebrooks is the association's director of education projects.


Baden, Clifford. Adult Learning in Associations: Models for Good Practice. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Association Executives, 1998.

Brookfield, Stephen D. Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Caffarella, Rosemary S. Planning Programs for Adult Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.

Grinell, Sheila. A New Place for Learning Science: Starting and Running a Science Center. Washington, D.C.: Association of Science-Technology Centers, 1992.

Hughes, Catherine. Museum Theatre: Communicating with Visitors Through Drama. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1998.

Knowles, Malcolm. The Modern Practice of Adult Education. Rev. ed. Chicago: Association Press, 1980.

Loucks-Horsley, Susan, Stiles, K., and Hawson, P. “Principles for Effective Professional Development for Mathematics and Science Education: A Synthesis of Standards.” In NISE Brief, Vol. 1, No. 1, May 1996.

Pacific Science Center. Science Center Know-How: Exhibits, Demonstrations, Discovery Carts, Special Events, Workshops, Marketing. Seattle: 1996.

Yearbook of Science Center Statistics. Washington, D.C.: ASTC, 1998.

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