The CAISE for informal science education

Open repository offers thousands of project
and activity descriptions for use by scientists
and students interested in engaging
new audiences in their work

The Association of Science and Technology Centers, a Washington, D.C.-based membership organization, is home to the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education, a National Science Foundation-funded center that houses a repository of informal science-education projects and related professional resources. ASBMB Today's editor, Angela Hopp, talked to two CAISE staffers: James Bell, the project director and a principal investigator, and Kalie Sacco, the program and community manager. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology's outreach coordinator, Geoff Hunt, also joined the discussion. This transcript has been edited for length, style and clarity.

Can you tell me about your backgrounds?

James Bell
Bell: I've been in informal science education for almost 30 years. I started after having initially a music degree. When I finished my undergrad, I was volunteering at a place called the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a science center. And through my exposure there to a very different way of teaching and learning science, I (made) a career shift ... The way things were done there and how creative the enterprise was - (it was) an experience that I did not have as a student in K – 12. I just was not engaged: It might have been the teachers; it might have been me ... It was through unique learning experiences and a relationship with an informal institution that I changed my career trajectory and began running programs and redirecting my education trajectory so that I could continue working in this field, which I've been doing since then.


Sacco: I started getting interested in museum education specifically and working in museums when I was an undergrad in college too. I started at a children's museum and an anthropology museum in the Bay Area and then took a class up at the Lawrence Hall of Science, which is a science center in Berkeley. While I was there, I ended up getting involved in a whole bunch of different departments and programs.
I started working in the education department doing summer classes and after-school classes for kids of all different ages. And when I graduated, I started working there full time. I was half-time in the research department, doing research and evaluations of different STEM learning programs, both formal and informal, and then half-time as the manager for a national after-school organization called the Coalition for Science After School. I was explicitly interested in museum education — not necessarily science — but working at the (Lawrence Hall of Science) was fun.
I guess, like Jamie, I didn't have a lot of great experiences in formal science education growing up. I was in a small town. There was no real big science museum. So coming at it as a young adult was really exciting for me.

ASTC members are mostly from museums and science centers, right?

Bell: Correct. And, as they are an anchoring sector for the field, it's a perfect place for us to be. But (the CAISE) project is meant to serve as much of the broader informal STEM education field as we can in addition to those - so zoos and aquaria, nature centers, afterschool, media, citizen-science programs. Part of our cooperative agreement from the very beginning with NSF is that we must always strive to create resources for and connect all of the ISE sectors to cultivate and strengthen the sense of a professional field.

I understand that CAISE's website offers a searchable database of informal-education activities. Tell me why or how you think it might be useful to ASBMB members.

Bell: If scientists, directors and their students — and sometimes those people in the role of designing outreach or engagement experiences — are looking to develop activities to engage the public, or any audience, in the scientific content of their research, they have a lot of different options available to them. They can go to a school and try to do something with a (class) or teacher. They can go online and look for activities ... They can develop things out of their own heads, which they often do.
I guess the point we'd like to make ... is there's this whole body of knowledge and a repository of ... examples of ways to design those experiences based upon evaluation and research and years of experience of what works and what doesn't.
What we've found as we interact with these communities, like your own, is that often people just aren't aware that there is accumulated wisdom from the work that has been done over the past almost 50 years and funded by NSF for over 30 of those. (A) People don't know about it, and/or (B) they might not understand the term. “Informal science education,” frankly, puts some people off, because they feel like it connotes less serious ... And perhaps it's an unfortunate term, but really it's only meant to distinguish between in school and out of school.

Geoff Hunt
Hunt: I would add that these kinds of projects and activities are becoming more integrated into the scientific process. It's no longer something that's for a select few dedicated individuals who like doing it. But it's becoming a part of the NSF grant process, a part of the (National Institutes of Health) process ... And this (repository) is a way to say, “Hey, don't worry. We've got this covered based upon all of these years of experience,” which you guys are accumulating on the site.
Bell: Right. The broader-impacts criterion for the NSF-funded projects has been given a new focus... to re-elevate it to equal importance with intellectual merit. In order for scientific research to get funded, it has to have the support of society. This is the theory of action, right? To have the support of society, people have to understand why it's being done, what the benefits of it are, who it's for, and how rigorously and thoughtfully it's being conducted.
And so these broader-impacts criteria — which are projects like the ones we try to catalogue and make accessible — help people communicate, engage the public and other audiences through these variety of strategies — from exhibits to citizen-science projects to television to film to gaming.
Sacco: I'll also just add that, from the informal educators' side, we always hear that they're really eager to connect with scientists and to get access to cutting-edge research and resources that are coming out of people's education and outreach branches of their labs and university departments. So there's a two-way need there.

CAISE convenes informal STEM education professionals at the 2012 ISE PI Meeting to discuss and advance ideas for better learning designs, settings and research

How are projects and activities organized in this repository? How should ASBMB members go about digging into it?

Sacco: Every record in our repository — and there are almost 9,000 of them now - is tagged with a set of metadata, and you can use that metadata to search and sort different records. The big bucket categories that records are sorted into are these:
  • Funding source — Which federal agency or private foundation funded the project or piece of research or evaluation?
  • Content — What is the science topic or discipline? Your members might go look for records that fall under the life science metadata tag.
  • Audience — Who is the record for? And that's for both learners — elementary school children, adults, youth, etc. — as well as the professional audience - a scientist or an undergraduate or graduate student.
  • Resource type — That tells you what you're looking at — whether it's an evaluation report, a peer-reviewed research paper, project description, presentation, etc.
  • And the last thing is environment type. That's the learning setting in which the record you're looking at takes place ... like after-school programs, broadcast media, conferences, exhibitions, etc.

You have both mentioned the media. What are some examples?

Bell: It's projects at public media stations, for example, that were funded, say, by the NSF to achieve public engagement and learning goals via an innovative approach. One primary example ... is the KQED (program called) “Quest” in San Francisco. There's a public media station, and they partner with 16 other organizations locally, some of which are science museums, science centers and children's museums, but others are actual labs that have outreach offices, all of whom contribute to multimedia stories that Quest produces on local science-related issues.
Sacco: You might be surprised to know that some relatively well-known science programming has been funded by the NSF ISE program. I know this isn't in the biology sphere, but Neil deGrasse Tyson's original radio show, “StarTalk Radio Show,” was funded through the ISE program. NOVA has been funded by the ISE and AISL program at the NSF. A whole variety of other science shows on PBS have been funded by the NSF.

Is there anything else you feel ASBMB members should know about CAISE's online project repository or informal science education in general?

Bell: If they have any questions or want to contribute anything, is an email address that both Kalie and I receive. And we are here every day. You can get a really quick response and help with figuring out how you can use the resource and/or contribute to it.
Sacco: Exactly — our willingness to help people navigate the website and our eagerness to help your readers connect with the ISE resources that we have and also to learn from what they're doing.
Hunt: In my eyes, CAISE is the premiere online resource for scientists looking to get involved with science outreach and informal education. It makes my job much easier!
Angela Hopp Angela Hopp ( is editor of ASBMB Today.