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Tackling the Climate Change Conversation: Community of Practice Starts with IMLS Grant

February 20, 2014

By John C. Anderson
Director of Education, New England Aquarium

Museums and libraries work to shape the world to be better – better informed, healthier, more vibrant, more just or more sustainable. In 2008, IMLS funded the “Ocean Change Education Aquarium Network” (OCEAN), which set out to build capacity and a community of practice centered on a commitment to fostering productive, solutions-oriented conversations with visitors about climate and ocean change. That project seeded a lot more good work.

OCEAN began in 2007 after a handful of aquarium CEOs indicated staff training to address climate change issues was a high priority. The project sought to address this priority by bringing leading educators together with experts in ocean sciences and social sciences. Dr. Steve Katona reviewed recent ocean and climate science research, and leaders of the FrameWorks Institute taught the group about “strategic framing” – a research-based approach to communication. The experts met with pairs of colleagues from participating aquariums (New England Aquarium, Aquarium of the Pacific, Birch Aquarium at Scripps, Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Aquarium in Baltimore, and Vancouver Aquarium [not funded by IMLS]) annually in person and monthly by phone to learn, share, and practice.

Four Study Circle participants work to develop a poster.

At first the work was difficult, as participants tried to internalize and assimilate content that can be both intellectually and emotionally challenging. With time, practice, and support, participants found strategic framing compelling and useful for shaping training and programs at their own institutions. Colleagues shared reflections with each other and compiled resulting training information onto the Climate Interpreter website.

Relationships and learning stimulated by OCEAN fostered new collaborations and project proposals. In 2009, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) granted a collaborative award to the New England Aquarium, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, supporting development of small tabletop activities, youth training, and the development of the Climate Interpreter website to build a virtual community of practice among informal science center (ISC) educators. Activities posted include “EcoFootprint,” “Biomimicry,” and “Sink or Source.”

In 2010, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Climate Change Education Partnership program funded the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI). Some familiar colleagues from OCEAN joined with new partners to develop a plan for deeper and broader impact through study circles comprising pairs of colleagues from ten ISCs with pairs of early career ocean scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Each study circle gathers in person three times over six months with online learning activities between meetings. In addition, NNOCCI added new layers of evaluation and impact assessment to deepen understanding about educators’ learning experiences and how and to what effect they are using what they learn.

Results of the pilot NNOCCI project showed that participating educators felt more hopeful and more confident about their capacity to make a positive difference by stimulating positive conversations about climate change. They also increased the frequency of these conversations. Based on positive aspects of the pilot, NNOCCI developed a successful proposal for a five-year NSF implementation grant, awarded in 2012. As of January 2014, more than 100 colleagues from 50 informal science education centers have participated in five study circles with eleven more circles to be implemented over the next three years. The project will offer training and community support for about 280 lead interpreters from 140 ISCs and 30 early career ocean scientists. Collectively, these participants have the potential to reach thousands of other educators and volunteer docents, and tens of millions of visitors.

Through this extensive work, started with IMLS funding, we are confident that ISCs can help us reach a tipping point in the public conversation about climate change and the oceans. The result will be more frequent dialog that is engaging and that orients participants toward productive, creative, and solutions-oriented ideas about how each of us is empowered to shape the world.


Suggested Readings:

Anderson, J.C. and Williams, A.M. 2013. Engaging Visitors to Create Positive Futures. Journal of Museum Education, Volume 38, Number 3, October 2013, pp. 256–259

Falk, J.H.; Reinhard, E.M.; Vernon, C.L.; Bronnenkant, K.; Deans, N.L.; Heimlich, J.E., (2007). Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit. Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Silver Spring, MD.