Towards more inclusive informal science learning experiences
Tools and resources published recently by the research-practice partnership project Youth Equity in STEM prompted me to revisit a project earlier in my museum career. Following footprints was a project that shaped my understanding of the importance of museums and using these tools, I’ve been looking again at how it managed to successfully engage young people.
Dean Veall c.2007
For this one, I’m taking you back 14 (?!) years, when I was a fresh-faced zoology graduate one year into his first real job out of uni as a Science Educator at the Natural History Museum. I was pretty lucky, super eager to learn and keen to try my hand at anything. And jumped at the chance for a secondment with the New Audiences Team when offered it.
New Audiences Team
Between 2004 and 2010, a small team delivered various pieces of work to test out how the Museum could tackle some of the barriers groups such as minority ethnic groups, young people and people with disabilities faced. As is the way with exploratory work, some projects failed whilst others were pioneering, like the Slavery and the Natural World (2006–2008) project (which languished almost forgotten for 10 years until it was ‘rediscovered’ and helped kick start conversations around decolonising natural history museums).
The Team’s work often involved forging partnerships with agencies and organisations to build relationships with audiences. In 2007, one of those was the looked-after children’s review team at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC).
My work with the team involved working with the RBKC team to develop a project for looked-after children and their foster families, that project became Following footprints.
Across several visits over six months, foster families found and learnt about a specimen that they were interested in and became honorary Museum Tour Guides. During their first visit, families were set the task of finding a specimen from the thousands on display they would like to find out more about. Over further visits to the Museum, they learned about it in several different ways, utilising the museums' spaces and resources from exhibitions, going into collections stores, and meeting scientists who work at the Museum. Using their findings, each family produced a 10-minute presentation and learnt science communication techniques from the Science Educator team. During the finale event, Following Footprints with Families and Friends, the presentations were combined to make a unique tour of the Museum’s galleries with participating families leading their invited families and friends on a unique tour as honorary Museum Tour Guides.
Outcomes for young people
I ran Following footprints for three years and, over that time, met many foster families of all different varieties and got to engage with young people over a sustained period. Evaluating the programme, it was clear that it impacted the young people involved, particularly the looked-after children. Like the young person who turned up to every session, we ran, taking a proactive role in her own learning about the specimen and turned up to the finale event coordinating her outfit to match the colour of that year’s t-shirt design. Happening at the same time outside the project she had completely disengaged in her formal education, was placed in a pupil referral unit and was then suspended as a result of disruptive behaviour. Just one example of some of the many positive outcomes I witnessed over the course of the three-year run.
Tools to support social just practice
Over the last five years, I’ve increasingly come across ideas surrounding equity — a model of social justice that attempts to challenge and transform social inequalities and work towards more just power relations — mostly due to being in the orbit at UCL of the brilliant Emily Dawson.
But it wasn’t until the publication over the last few months of materials from the Wellcome/NSF funded research-practice partnership project Youth Equity in STEM (YESTEM) that the concept really made sense to me and my practice.
Reflect and Act
The model, the team of researchers and informal science learning practitioners, have developed is simple.
Firstly, Reflect. To create experiences that identify and address inequalities, practitioners need to understand how and why they are doing it. The team has created a tool, the Equity Compass, to support practitioners in reflecting on their work. The Compass encourages practitioners to map their practice across eight different dimensions of equity and, by doing so, assess their work and provoke their thinking with the aim of creating programmes that deliver more socially just outcomes for young people.
Secondly, Act. The team developed a set of eight Core Equitable Practices or learning approaches, that practitioners can draw upon to support young people’s engagement in STEM in empowering ways. Developed as a set of tools, these practices are intended as cross-cutting and connected actions to enable practitioners to create programmes that are inclusive and accessible for all young people.
Revisiting Following footprints
Reading the Equity Compass and each of the Core Equitable Practices insights, something clicked. These resources helped me realise how Following footprints managed to successfully engage the participating young people and helped explain some of the outcomes I was seeing. I’d created a programme that centred the young people, their needs, interests, and relationships with their wider placement family. It was a programme that developed and facilitated a relationship between the Museum and young people over a sustained period of time.
Tours of museums are no longer the once common sights in museums they once were. The Following footprints with families and friends tours were the culmination of six months of hard work by foster families, with young people leading visitors around galleries sharing their knowledge and passion about specimens on display at the Natural History Museum. The young people reclaimed the Museum space and were experts in their chosen specimen, deciding what knowledge was important to share with their invited tour attendees. Recognising this expertise, the Museum shared its authority with young people offering this platform with young people representing the Museum as ‘official’ tour guides, even in branded t-shirts.
Following footprints provided a loose framework for the programme, whilst all participating families experienced the same first visit — which served as an introduction to the Museum, and the project — the content of all subsequent visits were directed by the young people. The family, led by all the young people, which included both looked-after and ‘birth’ children, chose the specimen that would be their focus which often involved negotiation amongst the group and fostering understanding and appreciation of interests within the group. After understanding what was available for them, they decided what Museum assets — curators, scientists, exhibitions and collections —to draw upon to answer their questions and develop their knowledge of their specimen, re-shaping their relationships with the Museum.
Following footprints was an equitable approach to informal science learning. It gave these young people, who often have little control in their lives, agency and control over their own learning.
Over the course of my career, I’ve developed my practice in informal science and museum learning through an apprentice model, learning from some pretty talented people along the way. I’m not unusual; it’s the dominant form of professional development in the sector. Still, without frameworks and standards, you could argue that while there are pockets of innovation, on the whole, practice has developed incrementally over the years. The challenges facing society demand urgent action from government, business and civic institutions, including museums and science centres. Informal science learning practice needs to keep pace and address social injustices to fully empower and enable everyone to engage with these issues. These tools can be transformative to practice and transferable across to different audiences and settings, and I think marks an innovation for the sector.