Delving into the subject of community engagement, I stumbled upon an instructive approach proposed in 2011 by the (U.S.) National Institutes of Health (NIH). In the context of community-based health policy, NIH suggested that community engagement may be defined in two ways: first, relating to the target community in need of health care services, and second, referring to the wider community in which health care facilities must operate and coordinate to be effective.
In both of these definitions of community engagement there are close parallels to the work of our science centers and museums. Our missions are frequently defined by the target communities that we strive to impact—youth, lifelong learners, students, educators, underserved communities, the highly motivated, and more. At the same time, we know that our successes depend upon our ability to reflect the wider communities in which we exist and to collaborate effectively with people who share geographic proximity but are often diverse in culture, economics, skills, and interests.
The important message here is that to reach our target communities, we must embrace our wider communities. To truly collaborate with (and learn from) our community partners requires skill and commitment. NIH refers to this effort as a blend of science and art—the science of human interaction and the art of applying this knowledge of human dynamics to productive ends. As I visit science centers and museums everywhere, I am always impressed by the ways in which we successfully serve our communities by reflecting their identities and joining with community partners who share our societal goals.
To reach important target groups, our role within the wider community is to ignite passions about science and enhance critical thinking skills, technical workforce development, and societal commitment to health and sustainability. We are a vital part of the organizational effort to help our communities thrive.
ASTC was pleased to assist the Noyce Foundation in its recent announcement of the Bright Lights Community Engagement Awards initiative to recognize U.S. science centers, children’s museums, and natural history museums that have done an outstanding job of engaging their local communities, particularly underserved groups. Key criteria for recognition include consultation and partnership with other community organizations with related missions. I thank the Noyce Foundation for helping to raise awareness about this important community role for science centers. ASTC looks forward to helping expand this concept throughout our global membership.