Reflections on 18 Years of PISEC

The PISEC group was formed in 1992 in response to a request from The Pew Charitable Trusts, to create a project involving four Philadelphia area science institutions: The Franklin Institute, the Philadelphia Zoo, The Academy of Natural Sciences, and the New Jersey State Aquarium. Education directors from each institution took on the challenge. From that process emerged the idea of a Family Science Learning Research Project (FSLP). While Pew was not an initial funder of the FSLP, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was sufficiently interested to offer a grant. Pew subsequently provided matching funds.

FSLP focused on increasing active family learning in museums. It began with observations in the galleries. We were seeking "performance indicators"—behaviors that correlate with active family learning. Over time, we honed the measures and eventually formulated a list of seven characteristics of family-friendly exhibits:

  • Multi-sided

  • Multi-user

  • Accessible

  • Multi-outcome

  • Multi-modal

  • Readable

  • Relevant

Next, each of the four museums applied the seven characteristics to develop a familylearning component—an add-on interactive to enhance a selected exhibit. Two of the components were added to interactive exhibits; two were added to exhibits with living collections. The add-on components, were intended to increase the incidence of active family learning. Learning was measured independently using content questions.

In each museum, we saw a measurable increase in active family learning with the enhanced exhibits. Moreover, we saw that the learning unit in the museums is not the individual, but the small group. People do not go off all by themselves to learn and study; they talk to one another, and that is how museum learning happens. Another observation that emerged from this study was that not all the information that is exchanged comes from the exhibit; the exhibit is a catalyst for encouraging family interaction. Family members bring information from their personal histories to those interactions.

The most important practical result of the FSLP was the understanding that we should be shaping our exhibits to work for families and other small groups such as the "school pod"—a chaperone and a set of students. The seven characteristics are a significant addition to our knowledge of how to design exhibits for groups.

In addition to providing new information about how families learn in science museums, the Family Science Learning Project set the stage for collaboration on further questions. If traditional family audiences learn well as a unit in the museum, could we use the same model to reach and engage non-traditional family audiences? How could we involve families that do not visit museums?

The audiences of the four PISEC museums were less diverse than the neighborhoods surrounding these inner city institutions. We were eager to extend hands-on science learning to a new set of families who were not familiar with the idea that science is something a family can enjoy together.

Following the completion of the Family Science Learning Project, PISEC proceeded to create a series of programs building on the idea of family learning, reaching underserved communities to engage non-traditional families in science experiences.

Community Connections (1995-1999) launched a series of museum/community partnerships for underserved families in the Philadelphia/Camden area. The program introduced science museums as a new resource for families.

What we took away from Community Connections was a sense that we needed to move away from "science light" and museum marketing, and focus more on engaging people in science activities. A significant segment of the PISEC families was interested in digging deeper into science, and we wanted to fill this need.

When we planned the next project, we solicited input from all partners. That is how we learned that people wanted more involvement in science. The name of the next project, Families Exploring Science Together (FEST, 1999-2003), indicates the emphasis on family engagement. We assumed that if we involved families in hands-on science, they would want to come to the museums. That seems to be the result.

FEST had four different kinds of science-based programs, including workshops at community centers. Many families who had been part of Community Connections continued their involvement. Some of them took more leadership, while others remained consumers. Participation built through word-of-mouth as well as through intentional outreach.

What emerged from FEST as the next step towards community involvement was the idea that we could increase capacity for science engagement by training people from the community ("science ambassadors") to do science workshops. In the next PISEC project, Community Ambassadors in Science Exploration (CASE, 2003-2009), they would be able to present their own workshops, rather than rely on staff from the museums. Hands-on family science workshops became part of the CBOs' (Community-Based Organizations) repertoire. The CASE program involved recruiting and training a corps of teen and adult science presenters. We trained 144 science ambassadors, and provided a total of 24 workshop kits for each community site.

The success of CASE led to the development of the next project, Communities of Learning for Urban Environments and Science (CLUES), which began in October, 2009. In CLUES, each CBO has an apprentice who works full-time in one of the museums each year and learns to develop family workshops. CLUES advances the transfer of knowledge, leadership, and resources from the museums to the communities.

This next step is challenging, since many of the apprentices lack academic training and research skills. With training, they are becoming educators in their communities and, potentially, members of the science museum community.

CLUES, is not taking "high potential" individuals from the community and placing them in another environment. Instead, the apprentices continue to be very closely tied to the CBOs, creating and coordinating workshops on site. We are hoping to give the CBOs a stronger foothold in the museums, while also increasing capacity in the communities themselves.

The longevity of the PISEC programs has given us the ability to have a significant impact on participants. Some of those who started in PISEC programs as young children have grown up as members of the PISEC community. Science has become central to their lives. They really enjoy it and it changes the way they think about the world. Science activities are a wonderful, positive alternative to the other things going on in low-income communities. Some people are even pursuing careers in science. It is another path.

Individual families within CBOs have become the center of learning communities that are now able to share this orientation with other community members. Natural leaders and teachers have emerged. They are the ones who have taken ownership of the process. They are changing the family environment in which the children grow up.

As we conducted the PISEC projects, we celebrated the families that attended the greatest number of events each year. One of the winners attended twenty-three PISEC events in one year! We began to wonder what it was about these people that caused them to become so engaged with the program. We did a little study of the fully engaged group and could find nothing in their demographics to explain why these particular families would get so involved with PISEC. There were no significant educational, economic, or ethnic differences. We needed to do some more digging to find the answer to the question.

When a program is evaluated, especially during summative evaluation, you tend to look at all participants or at a random sample. As a result, the most engaged users of the program can "disappear" in the data; their patterns are swamped by people who do not become fully involved with the program. Consequently, group averages do not give a picture of the full impact of the project.

We started doing interviews with fully engaged individuals to see what caused them to become so involved. What we found is that they are not linked by a demographic category like mother's education or science background. Rather, they are creative, intelligent, resourceful people who saw what this program could do for their families. They are very different from one another, and that is where the idea for the In Their Own Voices book was born.

We realized that, in any large population, some individuals will optimize a program. If you offer a good program and observe its audience, exceptional people will emerge.

We noticed our most engaged participants because we saw them at every event, and we got to know them. We saw that they really were special—they are "gifted" families. As a result of looking carefully at our audience, we have learned an important lesson: do not look at average numbers alone. Our most engaged participants would have been lost in the numbers if we just looked at averages.

PISEC's long series of programs made possible the emergence of people who self-select for prolonged engagement. In a sense, we have provided an enriched soil that allowed these families to grow.

PISEC programs have a great reach. There are currently 9,000 families in the database. Some came only once, possibly because the program was not the right fit for them. PISEC is a program for people with children and for people who enjoy hands-on participation. The group of highly engaged users shows the maximal potential of the program. For the right people, PISEC has become a truly life-changing opportunity.