Making the Case

By Sean Smith
From Dimensions
September/October 2013

For many years, ASTC has attempted to “make the case” to local, state, and national government officials for funding competitive grant programs that can benefit science centers, museums, and their communities. While some of our traditional talking points about engaging audiences with science, technology, engineering, math (STEM), health, and environmental issues remain influential, these messages, like the field itself, have evolved in recent years. Government officials’ perception of the field, too, is evolving.

Recently, ASTC and its Public Policy Committee (which is charged with helping to set, approve, and implement our advocacy agenda) have found that U.S. legislators and congressional staffers are becoming increasingly interested in—and supportive of—some of the field’s important but lesser known capabilities. Among these, teacher professional development (offered by 82% of ASTC’s U.S. members) and curriculum materials (offered by 75% of U.S. members) have been especially well received in light of the pressing need for improved STEM education.

ASTC’s work at local, state, and national levels

ASTC and its Public Policy Committee highlight these contributions whenever possible, and we are beginning to see the results. In one example, we have laid the groundwork for science centers and museums to compete more directly for U.S. federal teacher professional development funding under a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind). While the prospects for the passage of a new law during the current session of the U.S. Congress appear tenuous at press time, we believe our outreach has led to a deeper appreciation among elected officials for the field’s contributions to local communities.

In an effort to illustrate how U.S. governors can meet their STEM goals by engaging with school districts, teachers, and science centers and museums, ASTC provided input to the (U.S.) National Governors Association (NGA) for their Governors Guide to STEM Education. A related NGA issue brief, The Role of Informal Science in the State Education Agenda, can be downloaded here.

To learn more about ASTC’s current advocacy efforts—and get involved—visit the ASTC Legislative Action Center.

Engaging government officials

ASTC strives to support our members’ efforts to engage their government officials. Click here for background information, talking points, and U.S. federal budget overviews and analysis, and let us know what other resources would be helpful to you.

When you approach your elected officials, keep the following points in mind:

  1. Build relationships with your legislators and their staff members early—ideally, before you need anything.
  2. Know the legislative calendar. (In the United States, bills are introduced throughout the entire session; the President typically submits his budget request to Congress in February; appropriations hearings usually begin in March; appropriations bills are supposed to be wrapped up by the October 1 start of the next fiscal year; and Congress stands in recess for much of August, which means they’ll likely be in their—and your—home districts and possibly available for meetings.)
  3. Know the committees on which your legislators serve, their areas of particular interest, and their voting records.
  4. Include your legislators’ offices on your mailing list and invite them to exhibition opening receptions and other events.
  5. Strive to be seen as a resource to your legislators. If a STEM-related bill is being considered, make sure your perspective is not only sought, but valued.
  6. Make a compelling case for the essential contributions of your science center and the field to the global education infrastructure. In addition to illuminating teacher professional development, science centers might highlight their impact on the lives of traditionally underrepresented groups, their programs for older adults, their partnerships with scientists, and the “real” research taking place in their institutions. These diverse angles may help shape an exciting new perception of your institution and the field in the minds of public officials.
  7. Always say “thank you” . . . even if it’s a stretch!

Sean Smith is ASTC’s director of government and public relations.

About the image: Andrea Ingram (center), vice president of education and guest services at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, testifies before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, on the role science museums play in STEM education. Photo by Kevin Frank/MSI