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Making The Case Gaining Support for Your Science Center

Gaining Support for Your Science Center
By Colin Johnson

The challenge of educational advocacy
Who are our stakeholders and audiences?
Where can I get help with advocacy?
More resources

The challenge of educational advocacy

Educational advocacy for science centers is challenging, for there are many messages and many potential stakeholders to be addressed. What's more, the whole area is clouded by a series of problems, for instance:

  • A needless tendency to apologize for the apparently chaotic learning environment provided by a hands-on exhibition
  • Confusion and uncertainty about research methodologies
  • Failure to recognize that the language of informal learning is different from that of the classroom interaction between teacher and student
  • Attempting to produce generic statements of advocacy without recognizing the need to tailor them specifically for particular audiences

Frequently the science center's educational advocate is forced into a defensive position by external comments such as "They're having a great time, but are they actually learning anything?"

The first challenge in educational advocacy is therefore to educate your listener into recognizing that informal learning is not only an outcome, but a process, which mirrors everyday life much more closely than classroom learning and which human beings undertake not only very willingly, but with conspicuous success. The work of science centers (and other informal learning settings) mirrors this natural path, not merely in its unpremeditated and exploratory nature, but in providing a social learning environment in which people gain new understandings through articulating their experience. Every learner starts and finishes the science center experience at a different point on the pathway. (For supporting evidence, see Science Centers as Learning Environments.)

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Who are our stakeholders and audiences?

Museums and science centers are the partners and servants of a wide range of stakeholders, including:

• Visitors—actual and potential
• Funders—private, public or charitable, individual, and corporate
• Communities—local, regional, and national, and their political representatives

This means that the target audiences who need to be convinced of the impact (past, present, and future) of science centers and museums include:

  • School teachers and others associated with school governance, management and financing
  • Parents and others with care of children whether in a domestic or professional role, whether acting in the interests of their own children or in support of others
  • Scientists whose work we promulgate, mediate, and expose to public gaze
  • Political decisionmakers, whether elected representatives or employees in the public service
  • Media people, whether communicating through print, broadcast, or web-based channels
  • Prospective funders, whether acting individually or as representatives of charitable, commercial, or public bodies

A common advocacy strategy can be applied to all these stakeholders in order to solicit their interest, participation, and support. In essence, this consists of five stages:

  • Analysing the motivation and objectives of the target individual or group
  • Developing a coherent set of arguments that match these objectives
  • Collecting objective and clear evidence to support these arguments
  • Establishing your personal credibility in the field and that of your institution
  • Developing and maintaining appropriate relationships with target individuals and groups

Associated with this strategy will be a number of "enabling objectives," for instance:

  • Working out an appropriate communications strategy for engaging your target
  • Identifying key partners who may act as bridges or catalysts in reaching your target
  • Tracking the progress of your approach(es) by objective means
  • Developing the general case which establishes the science center/museum as a place of learning, exemplified in particular by your own institution

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Where can I get help with advocacy?

Following are resources that may assist you in constructing this "general case."

Gaining Support for Your Science Center: A Planning Guide | Need help?
By Colin Johnson
This quick overview, arranged as a table, asks:

  • Your objective—What must you achieve?
  • Your target audience/decisionmaker(s)—Whom do you need to call?
  • Motivation of target audience—Why should they take any notice?
  • Evidence appropriate to this audience—What will make them sit up?
  • Appropriate communication mechanisms for this audience—How do you reach them?
  • Fellow advocates in approaching this audience—Who else can help?

Science Centers as Learning Environments, by Colin Johnson
An overview of what's special about learning in informal environments and what we know about it, with an emphasis on dialogue and the civic role of the science center. Includes many additional references and resources.

ASTC Sourcebook of Science Center Statistics
An invaluable source of data.

Advocacy Resource KitAdvocacy Resource Kit, Canada Council for the Arts
A detailed on-line resource kit for building relationships with politicians and those who work with them.

Informal Science EducationInformal Science Education, NSTA Position Statement, 1999
According to this useful position statement adopted in 1999 by the U.S. National Science Teachers Association, "A growing body of research documents the power of informal learning experiences to spark curiosity and engage interest in the sciences during school years and throughout a lifetime."

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More Resources

A wealth of resources is available via the Wellcome Trust's "gateway to public engagement with science."

National Science FoundationNational Science Foundation
The U.S. National Science Foundation web site features funded programs in public understanding of science. NSF Informal Science Education proposal guidelines are relevant to those approaching many other bodies.

Quick Guide for Grant ApplicationsQuick Guide for Grant Applications
This checklist from the U.S. National Institutes of Health is applicable to many funding sources.

Access-Funds UKAccess-Funds UK
Charitable funding opportunities in the U.K. are flagged by this site.

The PaperboyThe Paperboy
There are limitless web links and resources for the media, most of them superficial, but for a global coverage of newspapers, try this site.

Research Councils UKResearch Councils UK
This government-funded organization offers many links to relevant resources.

We suggest material to be found on the web site of this independent think tank and strategy consultancy, who express their goal as follows: "We work with businesses from a variety of industries and world regions, helping them understand and respond strategically to the evolving challenges of sustainable development.

Colin Johnson

Colin Johnson was the Director and CEO of Techniquest in Cardiff, Wales, from 1997 to 2004. Prior to joining the Techniquest staff in 1990, he had taught high school science, worked with pre-service and in-service teachers, authored a popular textbook, and worked in curriculum development. Johnson has been active in both ECSITE and ASTC, including serving on the ASTC Board of Directors.

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