Blog

Content and Commitment: Insights from the VolTS Front-End Study

By Renee Miller
From ASTC Dimensions, September/October 2007

In November and December 2005, Randi Korn & Associates Inc. (RK&A) conducted a front-end study for the Volunteers TryScience (VolTS) project (see sidebar at end). The evaluators conducted and analyzed 26 in-depth telephone interviews with members of three groups:
• scientists and engineers who volunteer in educational programs outside of science centers
• scientists and engineers who currently volunteer in science centers
• science center staff who work with volunteers.

The volunteers came from both academic and corporate backgrounds; some were retired from full-time employment. Discussion groups were also held with science and engineering professionals who attended a 2006 IEEE conference; these findings, though not presented officially in the RK&A report, did inform the analysis and recommendations.

This article is based primarily on the interviews done with the volunteers and staff who work in science centers. Museums were picked by location, size, and range of volunteer opportunities they offer. The kinds of collaborations represented ranged from advisory panels to one-time lectures to exhibition development. From the observations and recommendations in these interviews emerges a summary portrait of the characteristics that make for a healthy partnership.

Attitudes and motivation

Why would busy scientists and engineers take time out to share their expertise with science center audiences? Most volunteers we interviewed had only positive things to say about informal science education. They praised the inquiry approach of science centers and their outreach to general audiences:
“The value is in the hands-on nature….”
“Science centers do a good job of just giving people access.”
“I know that they have a commitment to the community, so I was happy to get involved when they asked.”

Volunteers expressed a desire to “give back” to the community, but they also saw their role in the museum in specific terms. Some had come to the museum to share their expertise in a certain area of science:
“They asked me to be the champion for that volunteer activity.”
“My role was basically in an advisory capacity, for the science end of things.”

Others saw an opportunity to educate the public about what scientists do:
“I think people think of engineers and scientists as boring; the science center helps the public interact with people doing the jobs.”
“It is all about networking; You’re meeting people and getting to talk about your passion.”

Even for those who, like one NSF-funded researcher, came because their particular project required community outreach, the social element was an important factor:
“Otherwise, I don’t have the opportunity to talk to people about my work outside of work.”
“It made me realize how good it was for me, from a job perspective, to talk to the people you’re trying to serve.”

Interviews with volunteer coordinators revealed that they value equally the role that these expert volunteers play in the science center. “They are able to make real-life science connections,” said one staff member. Said another, “It is extremely important to … show that we are in contact with people doing real work, real research, right now.” In general, museum staff value in their scientist/engineer volunteers what one coordinator called their “instinctively higher regard for and understanding of science and the science process.”

Recruitment

Scientists often have difficulty finding volunteer opportunities aligned with their interests and expertise, tending to rely on word-of-mouth or personal connections. Some suggested that recruiting efforts should come from the top, be explicitly supported by the top, and be addressed to the top:
“You have to have people on the same level talking.”
“Let them meet and talk with the director. Let them know that they’re being invited to be part of a collaborative team.”

Others recommended going through existing channels, such as corporations, graduate-degree programs, or professional societies:
“You’ve got to get people to start volunteering by the time they’re grad students. Make it part of their education.”
“Go speak to the engineering society meetings. African-American graduate fraternities and sororities are typically active in large cities.”

Almost all of the scientists/engineers we interviewed are employed either full- or part-time. With little time to spare, they value clarity about their role in the science center:
“How many hours, what are my interactions, what am I going to get, what do you need from me? Scientists love it if you spell it out…. Then they can actually use it in the grant-writing process, in their annual reports.”
“I need to know exactly what’s expected of me. If [the museum representative] can say, ‘This is the commitment I want; this is your role,’ then the scientist can say, ‘I can do this’ or ‘No, I can’t.’”

Volunteer coordinators identified as major recruiting challenges a lack of funding (“Publicity and marketing … is staff-intensive work.”) and turnover in personnel at partnering companies and universities (“I may have a contact from one year who may not be the same person the next year”).

Like scientists, museum staff saw partnerships with graduate students and postdocs as a promising direction: “There is some leverage that could be gained from giving young scientists in training more interest and skills in communicating more broadly…. We would be moving toward the larger goal of having a more science-literate society.”

Training

Interviews with scientists and engineers revealed a general level of resistance to formal training by museum staff and a lack of interest in direct interaction with museum visitors:
“First of all, [we] don’t believe in training. Scientists have never heard the words ‘professional development.’ Personally as a scientist, I don’t know what that means.”
“Being a scientist, I wanted to just deal with the science…. There was just so much other stuff that went along with it. I wanted to help them deal with the science, interpret the science—nothing more, nothing less.”

Museum staff are aware of these attitudes. “Certain scientists and engineers are great with people,” said one coordinator, “and certain ones are not. What we take advantage of is their interest level … and desire to share knowledge.” Another acknowledged that “there is a perception that we cannot ask them to commit to many hours of training.”
Some scientists admitted they need help in approaching new audiences. “It’s easy to … make assumptions that are invalid simply because you’re not used to speaking to such an audience,” one confessed. “That’s a challenge the museum can help you meet.” But instead of classroom-based training, several suggested a partnering relationship, in which the volunteer would contribute knowledge and passion about content, and the staff person would contribute knowledge about museum practice.

This idea makes sense to museum personnel, too. Some favor “face-to-face” training for scientists and staff on how to collaborate successfully; one wished for an online “repository of great exhibits … or case studies [to show] potential volunteers about successful experiences.” Unlike the volunteers, some staff members expressed a desire for related professional development, particularly in keeping up with science research and best practices.

As with recruiting, finding the time and resources to manage volunteers is a challenge for museum staff, “not so much because of the volunteers but because of the work load and how thin we are spread right now.” As one coordinator said, “Staff do not necessarily have the time to get to know them [the scientists] the way we do with our regular volunteers.”

Nurturing the relationship

Most of the collaborations involving study participants were time-limited. Short-term projects appeal to volunteer scientists because they are manageable and to coordinators because they provide a positive initial exposure to museum culture.

But even more rewarding, some said, are relationships that are sustained and long-term—the kind that become, as one coordinator put it, “necessary to daily operations.” To achieve that goal, mutual understanding and respect are essential. “There are some cultural barriers between museums and scientists, but I think these can be breached,” said a volunteer. “You have to know how to interact with each other.”

One thing on which most agree is the importance of recognition, regardless of the scope of the activity. One scientist said, “It’s the little things that let people know they’re valued…. Once an exhibit is up, bring us in and show it to us. Put our names on a plaque. It’s just a nice gesture.” Another stressed the significance of feedback: “It’s important to have some sense of accomplishment, some evidence….
I’m a scientist. [We like] to know that what we’re doing with our free time matters.”

For staff, appreciation consists not only in providing appropriately challenging work and recognition, but also in demonstrating a commitment to ongoing relationship. “Our volunteer program has a full-time manager, a volunteer association, formal events … all signifying that [they] are a serious business to us,” said one coordinator. “The most important thing for me,” said another, “is to … get buy-in from the volunteer. It is important that the volunteer see what the science center is doing, and what its purpose is, to give them that ownership.”

Formerly a senior research associate at Randi Korn & Associates Inc., Alexandria, Virginia, Renee Miller recently accepted a position as an elementary and middle school science teacher at the Langley School, McLean, Virginia.
Volunteers TryScience: A Fresh Look at a Longstanding Relationship

Scientists and engineers have participated actively in science centers for decades. But many of these partnerships have occurred in isolation, with little chance for others to learn from their example. Even within a given organization, there may be roadblocks to learning from experiences with content experts.

VolunteersTry Science (VolTS) is a partnership among the New York Hall of Science, IBM, ASTC, the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEEE), and the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) that seeks to facilitate more involvement of scientist and engineer volunteers with informal science education institutions through better communication, training, and resources. Funded in 2005 by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, VolTS represents an opportunity to share stories of exemplary accomplishments and ongoing projects and to initiate a broader conversation, from the perspective of both sides, about effective ways to manage those relationships.

For more details, or to participate in VolTS, contact Eric Marshall, emarshall@nyscience.org.