Coming soon to a science center near you: You!

The Portal to the Public network connects scientist-volunteers with informal science-education institutions to enhance public programs

Portal to the Public Network programs are characterized by face-to-face interactions between scientists who have participated in science-communication workshops and visitors to informal science institutions. The programs use conversational approaches and inquiry-based activities. Credit: Portal to the Public

Did you love going to science centers as a kid and want to give back as a science center volunteer? Or maybe you feel an obligation to communicate your research to general public audiences because you receive federal funds for your work? Perhaps it’s even a requirement of your work.
These are just a few of the reasons a growing number of scientists are getting involved with education and outreach activities — including those outside of the formal K — 12 system. Informal science-education institutions include, for example, science and technology centers, natural history museums, children’s museums, zoos, nature centers, parks and aquaria.
But where do you begin? How do you find a partner? How do you determine your audience? And how do you engage it effectively?
Research shows that visitors to informal science education, or ISE, settings present unique challenges: They come with their own agendas, and their levels of engagement with programs and exhibits vary. They also enter learning situations with their own experiences, interests, misconceptions and understandings.
Over the past 50 years, ISE professionals have developed a number of strategies and techniques grounded in the field of learning sciences to overcome these issues and effectively engage with their audiences.
Now, through the Portal to the Public Network, a system of 30 (and growing) ISE institutions is applying a set of these same strategies but has modified them for scientists who wish to connect with their communities in ISE settings.

Map of Portal to the Public Network
The Portal to the Public Network includes 30 U.S. sites. In the next two years, at least another 13 will join the network. Click on the image to see a larger version of this map. Credit: Portal to the Public

Pacific Science Center is the lead organization of the network, through which training is provided for staff from ISE institutions across the country to help them partner with and provide science-communication workshops for scientists in their communities. Each ISE institution adopts what is called the Portal to the Public model to match its own needs and resources, resulting in diverse science-communication workshops and events featuring scientists.
Portal to the Public’s core values are based on the idea that understanding the principles of effective science engagement in an ISE venue needs to extend to anyone — including scientists — who might encounter visitors in these places. In the science-communication workshops, active researchers and those who use science as part of their daily work use a learner-centered, inquiry-based approach that focuses on interactive, minds-on experiences, which helps them to become informal science educators of their own research or expertise.
Through role-playing activities, scientists use questions to support learners in making their own discoveries and practice discussing concepts related to their own research with different audiences. And rather than using questions to probe for correct answers that explain phenomena, scientists are encouraged to ask questions to facilitate inquiry-rich learning experiences that allow the visitors to probe and discover. For example, a scientist might ask visitors the following questions:

  • • “What did you see here?”
  • • “How might we test this?”
  • • “What would you expect happens next?”

Scientists work with ISE staff to brainstorm and experiment with materials-rich activities that represent their work. Importantly, scientists understand that face-to-face interactions with visitors often leads to dialogue about the scientists’ own personal passions for their work and anecdotes about their own backgrounds, thereby infusing the conversation with the scientists’ personalities.
Because the ultimate goal of the Portal to the Public endeavor is to create events that bring scientists and public audiences together in face-to-face interactions, ISE staff members schedule a public program for the scientist shortly after the completion of the science-communication workshop.

Portal to the Public workshop
Molecular biologists participate in a Portal to the Public workshop at the Pacific Science Center. One participating scientist recalled, “The workshop talked a lot about helping people discover things themselves instead of telling it to them. And that really stuck with me.” Credit: Portal to the Public

While public programs can vary in approach from site to site, most use a conversation-based format complemented by hands-on, tabletop activities that highlight the scientists’ work and target small groups or individuals. Some programs have included large group presentation-style events and off-site field trips.
The events bring value to the ISE institution by positioning it as a place where public audiences can have meaningful conversations with researchers. During the events, it is common to see parents and children exclaiming how excited they are to meet a real scientist and learn about scientific work in progress. Adults, teens and children often become engrossed in lengthy conversations with scientists instigated by materials-rich activities that explore real-life questions, challenges and processes from active research areas.
Scientists at all career levels, in multiple fields of research and from various organizations have participated in the programs, and many of the scientists continue to volunteer with the ISE institution year after year.
To find a Portal to the Public site near you or to learn more about the program, go to The Portal to the Public Network has been funded by grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (MP-00-11-0026-11) and the National Science Foundation (DRL-1224129).

Meena SelvakumarMeena Selvakumar ( is project director of the Portal to the Public Network.