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Inside this issue:

It's All in Their Heads: Capturing and Building Intellectual Capital

Growing Our Own: The Science Career Ladder

Best People, Best Practices: A Development Strategy for Success

Advancing Each Other: Lessons from the ASTC RAPs

Outside the Box: Staff Redeployment as a Strategic Tool

Learning to Speak 'School': A Part-Time Program for Museum Educators



Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: September/October 2003
September/October 2003
Why Staff Development Matters
Advancing Each Other: Lessons from the ASTC RAPs

By Carolyn Sutterfield and Sally Middlebrooks

In October 2000, ASTC's Professional Development Committee initiated a new form of learning opportunity for the field—the single-topic Roundtables for Advancing the Professions (RAPs). Conceived by Committee co-chair Emlyn Koster as two- or three-day, in-depth workshops hosted by individual science centers, the RAPs were designed to address a perceived need for learning opportunities that would be shorter, more focused, more affordable, and closer to home than the ASTC Conference.

Since April 2001, when the program was launched, 18 RAPs have been held at 16 science centers and museums. Approximately 250 registrants representing nearly 100 organizations, plus some 80 staff members from hosting museums, have participated. At this writing (updated mid-September), one RAP remains for 2003.

With more than two years of experience under our belts, it's time to take an overall look at the RAPs. Participants have been nearly unanimous in giving the workshops high marks for the networking opportunities they offer—one of the program's chief goals. In what other ways are people benefiting from this form of learning opportunity? What are the challenges and rewards for the hosting science centers? How can RAPs be made even better? A review of participant evaluations and feedback from organizers provides some answers and directions for the future.

Secrets of successful RAPs

All RAPs follow the same procedural guidelines-participants pay for their own travel, lodging, and off-site meals, and host sites charge a modest fee (the recommendation is $50 for members and $100 for nonmembers) to cover direct expenses. Content and logistics are determined by the host. A typical schedule includes an arrival day, with museum tours and an evening social gathering, plus one or two days of planned sessions.

Each RAP is aimed at a particular job function or group of job functions. For example, exhibits and education professionals were targeted in the August 2001 "Outdoor Science Parks" at SciTech Hands-On Museum, while education, outreach, and development staff were the audience for the April 2002 "Selling Outreach Programs to Corporate Sponsors" at COSI Columbus.

Typical RAP activities include staff presentations, participant sharing, talks by outside experts, hands-on activities, behind-the-scenes tours, and social occasions. At the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, organizers Chad Hallyburton and Shawntel Landavazo fielded a museum team of 12 for their February 2003 "Youth Programs: Creating a Sustainable Future for Your Institutions," which was aimed at both youth program and development personnel. Staff from the administration, finance, and animal departments joined representatives from education, youth programs, and development to lead sessions, participate in focused discussions, and attend social functions. Says Hallyburton, "Having the president and two vice presidents there really helped to validate the workshop."
  Colleagues swap ideas at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science's 2002 "Community Partnerships" workshop.
Networking is a priority for RAP participants. Here, colleagues swap ideas at the Denver Museum of
Nature & Science's 2002 "Community Partnerships"
Photo courtesy DMNS

In "Strategies for Renewing Science Center Experiences," hosted by Exploration Place in August 2001, CEO Al DeSena ensured lively participant sharing by asking the senior-level managers who registered to consider four key questions in advance and prepare short presentations. DeSena credits the strategy with creating "a good balance of input" for the workshop. "Participants took their 'homework' seriously," he says. "It helped to focus our discussion, as well as assure that all participants had an opportunity for sharing experience and ideas."

Betty Faber, organizer of Liberty Science Center's March 2003 "Animal Collections at Science Centers," made good use of outside speakers. Liberty's program included a USDA official who handles permitting and a representative from New Jersey's Raptor Trust. Of the latter, Faber says, "He has been taking care of birds for 20 years. His views are not necessarily our views, but we wanted that diversity of opinion." Faber also invited staff from the Newark Museum to give a presentation on animal husbandry.

Rating the RAPs

One meaning of the word "rap" is an opportunity for free exchange of ideas and experiences. From the start, evaluation has been part of the RAPs program. Hosts are encouraged to schedule time for this at the end of the workshop, and participant response has been good (around 90 percent). The evaluations not only provide valuable immediate feedback for hosting science centers, but also help to shape ASTC's advice to future hosts.

As mentioned earlier, networking tops the list of positive outcomes. In their evaluations, respondents almost universally express gratitude to their hosts and enthusiasm for the chance to network with colleagues. (More than 95 percent have checked "Outstanding" for this goal.) In addition, some attendees single out as "most valuable" a telling moment in a workshop:

  • "The chance to hear from project participants—children, parents, teachers! This was unique and very powerful."

  • "The frank discussion of failures as well as successes."

Participants also offer their appreciation for techniques and tools they can use at home. As one respondent put it, "[Now] I have information with which I can hit the ground running." Examples of "most valuable" tools include

  • "Good ideas for team building"

  • "Nuts and bolts section, almost impossible to duplicate at a conference"

  • "Articles, a great source of information"

  • "Project grants-planning information."

RAP evaluations sometimes note that managing the flow of discussion is a challenge. Some express frustration with speakers who talk too long or conversations that wander from the topic at hand. But participants also offer many constructive suggestions (see "Seven Tips for a Successful RAP," see below).

The host's viewpoint

Although there is no formal evaluation instrument for science centers that host RAPs, many organizers have shared their joys and frustrations with ASTC through e-mails, letters, and telephone conversations. From these sources emerges a picture of RAPs as a challenging but rewarding staff-development tool for host sites as well as for registrants.

As specified in the RAPs plan, ASTC actively markets scheduled workshops, individually and as a group, through the ASTC Annual Conference program, ASTC's web site, ASTC Dimensions, the INFORMS newsletter, and the ISEN-ASTC-L listserv. Announcements are sent via e-mail to individuals listed in ASTC's database and to regional museum associations that have listservs and/or newsletters. Hosts also receive address labels for ASTC-member institutions in their region, which they can duplicate for multiple mailings.

Despite these efforts, response is sometimes low. When only six people had signed up a week before "Family Science in Museums," a 2001 workshop at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, organizer Maddie Ziegler got on the phone and filled her roster. Says Ziegler, "No matter how much marketing is done, personal calls will make the difference." An intimate workshop may not be a bad thing, however; even the smallest RAP so far (five participants) garnered positive evaluations.

With average revenues running between $750 and $1,000, RAPs generally cover direct expenses for food and supplies but not the cost of staff salaries. Workshops are time-intensive, both before and during the event, and management must understand the effort involved and commit to the level of funding and staffing necessary to provide a quality RAP.

Says Mary Lou McGiff, one of two organizers of "Science Discovery Rooms That Work," a June 2003 RAP at the Sciencenter, "If I had it to do over, I would recruit more help from staff and volunteers. I spent time setting up tables and A/V equipment when I should have been participating in sessions."

Staff development
Registrants are not the only ones to benefit from networking at RAPs; host-site employees—even those not directly involved in planning the workshop-also gain from the chance to meet staff from other museums. "[Exploration Place] staff did not organize the RAP, but they were equal participants in the discussion and social gatherings," says DeSena. "This was a great way for them to get to know their colleagues and learn about other institutions

Hosting a RAP can also spark institutional collaborations. Nipun Patel, organizer of Liberty Science Center's September 2002 "Changing Technological Trends," reported after his workshop that "we are meeting with the New York Hall of Science in a few days to exchange experiences." And two months after the "Youth Programs" RAP in North Carolina, regional attendees got together on their own to stage a follow-up session.

Challenges and rewards
Most organizers admit that the process is demanding, and sometimes you have to cut corners. Says Faber, "It was tiring, but not so much in the planning and presenting. It was more like the way you feel when you give a party, and you want it to work. It's the angst that's tiring." Anita Sohus, who ran the Jet Propulsion Lab's April 2003 "NASA Earth Science Enterprise" workshop, regretted running short of time and resources: "With only two days, and no facilitator except me, we never got to 'what you could do with this info now that you have it.'"

But when it all comes together, it can be exhilarating. "Highlights for me [included] the "ah-ha" moments that folks shared when they heard something…they'll definitely use to address a challenge in their own program," says Mary McIntosh, co-organizer of the November 2002 "Camp-Ins" RAP at Boston's Museum of Science. "We could easily have spent another day." Adds Faber, "After the RAP, the LSC team all went out to dinner together, and we invited the participants. We wanted to continue that feeling of inclusion."

Going forward

Of course, it is disappointing when a RAP has to be cancelled. One frustrated organizer spoke for many when she wrote, "We really pursued this… and were prepared to go the distance. It is unfortunate that folks are too strapped to do the things that might make for increased revenues in the long run."

We can't know exactly why people choose not to come to a RAP. Certainly, museum staffs are busy, and budgets are tight everywhere. But two things stand out that might make a RAP more attractive.

The first is that successful workshops tend to offer content for multiple audiences. All of the RAPs that filled were aimed at educators, but most also included at least one additional job function, and one—Liberty's "Technological Trends"—targeted five staff "professions."

The second is that people are looking for "take-home" information. "Our topic was good because it was pragmatic," says Betty Faber. "People who take care of animals really need to know the facts." For those unsure of a topic's appeal, she suggests, "Try prototyping the idea at the ASTC Annual Conference. It's not the same amount of labor, and you can test the response."

In a field known for its generosity of spirit and can-do attitude, the ASTC RAPs represent a unique opportunity to enrich both those who host and those who attend. Experience shows that the program has strong potential; it's up to science centers to take up the challenge and find the rewards.

Carolyn Sutterfield is the editor at ASTC, and Sally Middlebrooks is director of education projects and coordinator of the ASTC RAPs. Host applications are still being accepted for 2004. To learn more about past and future workshops, or to propose a RAP, go to:

Seven Tips for a Successful RAP

Here, in their own words, are suggestions from participants that can help move a RAP from "good" to "great":

  • Provide specified time to visit exhibits, meet with staff, look around behind the scenes.
  • Try to incorporate more than one job area; people don't work in a vacuum.
  • Balance presentations with group discussions and sharing of experiences.
  • Set rules for discussions to make them more beneficial to all.
  • Make presentations by participants a requirement, or at least more aggressively encourage them.
  • Have handouts at all workshops.
  • Schedule a wrap-up, where we list what we've learned and how we might use it.

LIST OF ASTC RAPS, 2001 to 2003

New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Albuquerque; June 22-24; Family and school partnerships; 15 registrants and 2 staff
Exploration Place, Wichita, Kansas; Aug. 11-12; Strategic planning; 20 registrants and 7 staff
SciTech Hands-On Museum, Aurora, Illinois; Aug. 24-26; Outdoor science parks; 9 registrants (staff attendance not available)
Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Dec. 7-9; Early childhood spaces; 20 registrants and 8 staff

Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Colorado; Feb. 2-3; Community partnerships; 23 registrants and 10 staff
Science North,Vancouver, B.C., Canada; Feb. 22-23; Volunteers; 5 registrants and 5 staff
SciTech Hands-On Museum, Aurora, Illinois; Aug. 24-26; Outdoor science parks; 9 registrants (staff attendance not available)
Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Dec. 7-9; Early childhood spaces; 20 registrants and 8 staff

North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, Durham; Feb. 6-7; Youth programs; 24 registrants and 12 staff
COSI Columbus, Feb. 22-23; Overnight experiences; attendance information not available
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California; April 27; NASA's Earth Science Enterprise; 9 registrants and 2 staff
Sciencenter, Ithaca, New York; June 20-22; Science discovery rooms that work; 27 registrants and 4 staff
Science Museum of Virginia, Richmond; July 18-19; Outdoor science parks; 20 registrants and 3 staff
St. Louis Science Center, Missouri; scheduled for Dec. 5-7; Exhibits for youngest visitors; attendance information not yet available

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