‘Informal science education,’ or ISE, occurs in community settings when scientific findings or concepts are presented to segments of the public, often in relatively brief encounters. Think of activities and demonstrations on the museum floor, for example, or animal encounters at a zoo. For academic scientists and other researchers interested in public outreach, informal science education settings can be an important opportunity.
Still, as university faculty or students, it can be hard to know how to get started with such a thing. One important suggestion is to think about partnership with those for whom ISE is part of their main work. In most places, there is a rich ecosystem of people and institutions engaged in ISE activities, and many times, they are interested in involving academic scientists and other researchers. The expertise of the practitioners and needs of their organizations can (and should) influence your outreach project. Indeed, stories are common of academics’ outreach projects being shelved by ISE outlets because they don’t fit the organization’s needs or aren’t simple to deploy.
In this post, we survey the ISE ecosystem in Greater Cincinnati to illustrate the breadth of potential partners. A surprising range of organizations can prove to be valuable partners for ISE outreach activities. Different types of partner venues are valuable for different types of aims and for accessing different audiences.
First, are large organizations directly focused on informal science education, like science museums and zoos. Organizations like this in Greater Cincinnati include the Cincinnati Museum Center, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, the Newport Aquarium, the Cincinnati Nature Center, and the Cincinnati Observatory. The Cincinnati Museum Center houses the Museum of Natural History & Science, the Children’s Museum, and the Cincinnati History Museum, as well as a library and a film theater. On 75 acres, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens are home to more than 500 animal and 3,000 plant species and offer camp experiences. In addition to thousands of aquatic animals, the Newport Aquarium also hosts the WAVE foundation which trains volunteers in animal care and informal science communication, as well as conducting outreach by taking live animals into communities. The Cincinnati Observatory was established in 1842 and uses its two refractory telescopes, from 1845 and 1904, for public outreach and science education.
Second, potential ISE partners include large organizations that focus on informal education but not necessarily science, such as public libraries and art museums. Here are some examples of what Greater Cincinnati has to offer. The Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library serves more than 800,000 residents across 41 branches. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center documents the history of the Underground Railroad to 180,000 visitors annually and invites them to reflect on struggles for freedom more generally. Opened to the public in 1932, the Taft Museum of Art houses a permanent collection of fine art, with a focus on paintings. Rather than establishing a collection, the Contemporary Arts Center provides its visitors with a constantly changing window into the current changes in the art world. The Great Parks of Hamilton County provide education, recreation across 17 parks, reserves, and gardens. Cincinnati Parks offers a range of events and experiences, including their Explore Nature! programming for all ages.
Third, in many cities there are an even wider array of somewhat smaller cultural institutions with opportunities for informal education. The Mercantile Library has existed in downtown Cincinnati since 1835 and offers public events and lectures in addition to its collection of books. Past speakers have included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison. The Lloyd Library and Museum is an independent institution that is open to the public free of charge and focuses on botany, pharmacy, medicine, and natural history. The Drake Planetarium and Observatory is committed to providing STEM education for children, including programs for field trips and a mobile planetarium that they bring into schools. The Clifton Cultural Arts Center “brings together diverse communities and nurtures more inspired, more insightful children and adults” (https://cliftonculturalarts.org/).
Fourth, large organizations with largely unrelated missions can sometimes also prove to be valuable partners for informal science education initiatives, such as churches, mosques, and other religious organizations and childcare providers. In Cincinnati, an important cultural institution is the Catholic churches and parochial school system. The Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is the historic center from which Reform Judaism spread through the United States and is active today in religious scholarship and education. The YMCA of Greater Cincinnati offers a wide range of activities for all ages, including a public outreach program about COVID-19 vaccination. The Cincinnati Recreation Commission runs before and after school enrichment programs for children, as well as a summer day camp. The Children’s Home supports families and communities with “comprehensive education, behavioral, and health services” (https://www.tchcincy.org/page/who-we-are).
Finally, there are also smaller organizations with a more specific or local reach to consider that may or may not have informal education as a primary aim, such as tutoring programs and retirement communities. It is impossible to give a full description of such organizations in Cincinnati, so we will simply provide a few illustrations. WordPlay is a nonprofit organization that introduces children to storytelling techniques to help them find a voice to shape their own personal narratives and their communities. Happen, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that offers creative experiences for families and programming for communities. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition (UACC) is “an alliance of individuals and organizations committed to the well-being of Appalachian people, communities and cultural expression in the greater Cincinnati area” (https://uacvoice.org/).
We’ve described organizations in Greater Cincinnati of a variety of sizes and with a variety of relationships to ISE that are natural partners for ISE initiatives. Communities vary in their institutions, of course, but most have spaces similar to at least some in the Cincinnati ISE ecosystem. Connecting to people at one or more of these institutions is a good way to get started in science outreach.