Sharing Power: Aquariums & Community Groups Advancing STEM Literacies in Climate-Threatened Areas

A study of cross-organization collaboration shows ways to create equitable partnerships.

by Rupu GuptaNicole LaMarcaJohn FraserKathryn NockKate Flinner
Jan 11, 2021

In 2017, the New England Aquarium (NEAq), with its partners, received National Science Foundation funding through NSF Grant #1713428 to pursue a project called Changemakers: Advancing Community Science Literacy (CASL). That project set out to develop and pilot test a capacity building program that leveraged a community change theory to build partnerships and advance community STEM literacies through informal learning programs. This report presents results of that work, which spanned three years.

NEAq and the Aquarium of the Pacific (AoP) were the informal science learning center (ISLC) partner organizations for this project. In this case, both ISLCs were aquariums, but we expect that other types of ISLCs, such as gardens and zoos, can also fill these roles. In the first year of the project, both ISLCs established City Teams by partnering with local non-profit entities working to address environmental justice and social disparities that trouble the people living in areas where threats will increase due to climate change.

The City Teams completed a training program, established a long-term partnership plan, and gathered "public knowledge" on both community threats and aspirations. The teams then set out to deliver co-programming that could work with social science-based recommendations for climate communication, as well as resources to support community dialogue. They also led some initial programming focused on developing STEM literacies. The process revealed asymmetries in the partnerships between a large public cultural institution (the aquariums) and their local partners, leading to greater interest in culturally responsive approaches to the collaboration.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a combination of furloughs, reprioritized work for remaining team members, and an overwhelming workload, the CASL final activities to a premature end in March 2020. Fortunately, the team members were able to transfer all records to the evaluation team at Knology so they could present the outcomes achieved for this project. Based on this information and the preliminary evaluation studies, Knology developed the following conclusions and recommendations.

Allocate Time to Build Relationships

Effective team work to develop symmetrical resources, power, and authority requires authentic, inclusive, and thoughtful participation. Results suggest that this process requires at least one year of meetings, shared workshops, social engagement, and budgetary commitments or alignment. This includes work to support partners in understanding and finding alignment between individual and organizational values and priorities.

Develop a Shared Definition of Resilience

The project demonstrated that ecological and social resilience represent different meanings for the communities most vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate events. By focusing on the lived experience of people residing in ecologically vulnerable areas, we were able to understand how the co-morbidities of low socio-economic status and historical racial inequities impacted their relationship to where they live and how they want to improve conditions there. By incorporating the connectedness of human and environmental goals into the collaborative programming, the project was able to lay the foundation for equal partnerships and power sharing.

Situate Community Aspirations as Context for STEM Learning

By focusing on community aspirations, a new power-sharing collaborative laid the foundations for highly engaging collaborative programming that drove interest in learning about the local ecology and how human actions can adversely or positively affect them. The community-focused approach helped situate the literacy advancement in meaningful action. In this case, the ISLCs’ role moved to a supporting position, leveraging their expertise as a complement to that of community partners. As a result, the project made the case for future initiatives to advance this line of inquiry and practice by prioritizing community organizing theory and professional development.

Redefine ISLCs’ Role as Service, not Destination

ISLCs have the opportunity to leverage their trusted status in their communities by refocusing on service. This approach will look more like community organizing, where ISLCs support local social action organizations and participate in local initiatives that align with both partners’ goals. The project demonstrated the need for a more pointed approach to community partnerships, by using community organizing theory. As a potential field of study and practice for ISLCs, it emphasizes training and preparation to develop proficiency and can help staff at the ISLCs build cultural competencies that might not be part of traditional training in informal science communication.

Commit to Transparency and Equity in Funding

There are asymmetries in organizational resources among ISLCs and community organizations that require careful management. Small local community action organizations rely heavily on volunteerism and social networking, and funding is typically hard to come by. ISLCs on the other hand, tend to have more access to funding. Without clear funding to support the community development and training meetings in collaborative projects, local non-profits are not able to prioritize partnerships and might even distrust the ISLCs. Transparency in funding and allocation of resources to offset community partnership development is essential to maintaining an effective collaboration.

About the Project

This work was produced for Changemakers: Advancing Community Science Literacy, a research project funded in part through The National Science Foundation, Award #1713428. This article was adapted from the executive summary of the project's final report, which can be downloaded with the Get the Document button above. To learn more about the foundations of the project, read this story: "Partnership-Building in Climate Resilience Work."

Photo credit: Corleone Brown on Unsplash.

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