We’ve been doing science outreach for a long time, so we’re used to going where the people are. Bringing the educational experiences we’ve created out into the world–to fairs, festivals, markets, and sidewalks–is a great way to reach people. And it works: setting up a good community outreach table at a crowded event will keep you busy interacting with people all day.
In fact, this keeps us so busy “doing science” that we rarely get the chance to pick our heads up. When we do have a pause in the action we stay close to our designated spaces. To leave our posts would seem irresponsible, but some of us wandered off anyway.
As it turns out, wandering off from our spaces forces us to put down the teaching tools we’re used to using–our hands-on activities, our demos and diagrams, our usual bag of tricks. This means we are finally free to stop, look around, and notice what everyone else is actually doing.
We call joining in like this “situated engagement.” If community outreach is about going where the people are, then situated engagement is about taking the next step by doing what the people do. We’re experimenting with situated engagement through the Science In Vivo project, and dozens of teams from across the U.S. are taking part.
About the Project
Since 2017, Science In Vivo has supported teams across the U.S. as they find new ways to integrate science engagement into existing public gatherings. Most of these teams are affiliated with a museum, university, or similar organization. All of them have experience with community outreach, but Science In Vivo asks them to go beyond business-as-usual and find ways to participate in public events in culturally meaningful ways. Through the experiences of these teams we are learning about situated engagement.
Twenty teams participated in the first phase of Science In Vivo, producing a wonderful mix of activity. One team established a science fan club during tailgating parties at college football games. One team built a cargo tricycle for “science busking” on beach boardwalks. Another team had 500 scientists with special t-shirts fan out in a single city on a Saturday. Not all of this activity has been assessed and documented yet. To get started with that essential aspect of the project, Science In Vivo has picked four initial categories to showcase: Science on Parade, Pop Up Retail as Science Engagement, Neighborhood Science, and Con_Science (science experiences integrated into fantasy conventions).
Situated engagement is a new practice for nearly every Science In Vivo team involved, and teams are often operating in highly visible ways within culturally sensitive settings. Honest and considered evaluation of their activity is absolutely necessary. However, the project’s wide variety of supported activity, the complex and layered character of the sites, and the ephemeral nature of live events makes this a daunting logistical challenge. On top of that, the experimental nature of the project is such that we do not yet know what we are looking for. Situated engagement requires rethinking the typical goals and assessment rubrics of more traditional science engagement. What is powerful and what is risky about a science float in a massive parade? Before setting out to measure whether an intervention like that “works” in a specific way, we needed a much more involved consideration of the many ways it is meaningful in a highly nuanced cultural setting.
To resolve this, the Science In Vivo borrowed tools from the arts and humanities: observation and critique. Every site showcased by the project received a visit from a pair of carefully selected observers. Most pairs of observers included one person with experience in science engagement and one person with expertise in a different domain. Observers often had to travel long distances to attend an event. Once on site, observers followed a flexible protocol for participating in and documenting activity. Following a site’s events, observers and site teams met together for a private debrief, and then met again for a two-hour, recorded final critique of the experience.
Making it make sense with LVN
After the events were completed and final critiques recorded, Science in Vivo had over 36 hours of audio reflections about the process and practice of situated engagement. We were just trying to sort through them when COVID hit and the project was put on hold.
By the time we returned to the project in 2021 we had learned more about the Local Voices Network, and decided to load the recordings into the LVN system. One staff member was able to use this system to fairly quickly highlight important moments in each conversation. This was easier than it would have been using other software, but what followed really helped us take the project to the next level.
The original participants in the recordings were invited back to listen to their conversations from 2019 and one other assigned conversation. These participants were asked to highlight as they went along, making any notes they liked. Then they met in carefully selected groups for a call to process what they heard. The participants were effusive about how easy the system was to use, and were inspired to see each other’s comments in highlights. Our final group conversations were well informed and energetic thanks to this close listening, and those conversations were recorded and put back into the LVN system.
All of this allowed us to draft a list of themes for the project that emerged directly from the participants’ voices. We then went back to all of the recordings one more time to make final highlights and tag each highlight with their themes. In the end, we had 250 final audio highlights across 7 main themes, from 9 sites organized into 4 event categories. That’s an incredible amount of content, and we knew we had to help other science engagement professionals hear the lessons from this project in an easily-accessible way.
We ended up using LVN highlights as the basic building blocks of the project website, situatedengagement.org. Site visitors can now explore audio highlights from the people that were at the original events, and these are organized by theme, project site, and category. We even incorporated an “explore” page that allows visitors to search and filter all the project highlights based on their own criteria, creating collections that we hadn’t even thought of!
It is impossible to imagine doing all of this without a system like LVN. What has really impressed us throughout the process is how willing Cortico and LVN have been to work with us to sort out solutions to the unique obstacles we encountered, and how quickly all of the participants in the project picked up on using the LVN system. In two of the final group conversations we had to gently nudge the participants along so that they didn’t spend too much time talking about their experience of LVN’s system instead of the Science In Vivo!