My Path to Informal Science Education

It seems as though how one gets into informal science education is different for everyone. I’m going to share my experience of how I became an educator with Zooniverse at Adler Planetarium. I feel very lucky to be in my current position, and there was a lot of researching and networking involved in getting to this point.

My background is in Astronomy and Space Physics. I went to University of Kansas for my undergraduate career and earned Bachelors of Science degrees in Astronomy and Physics with a research certificate. During this time, I was engaged in outreach opportunities and practice presentations through departmental organizations and internships. We were asked to present our research for a variety of audiences, including professionals, school children, and the public. My advisors had taught me that it was part of the job of being a researcher to be able to communicate my work to anyone.

I went on to graduate school at University of Michigan for Space Physics. My graduate advisor was quite supportive of us participating in education and outreach, but I quickly learned that this is not the case with all advisors. After spending three years in a science program geared toward becoming a researcher, I changed my academic goals. I wanted to work primarily on informal science education.

I had been so focused on conducting research for the past six years of my life that I was not sure how I make such a jump to another path. I started by looking for volunteer opportunities and working on my graduate advisor’s NASA Education and Public Outreach (EPO) grant. I also asked everyone I met at museums and through NASA EPO about how they got into their informal education positions.

Some of the career paths I heard from informal educators involved graduate programs in education or museum studies, participation in teacher training programs, and employment or volunteering throughout high school and college at informal education institutions. I did a search for programs (programs I found are included below), but I ended up finding out that there was a graduate certificate program at Michigan that could be completed in one year. Within two months I had found the program, applied, met with the director, and was accepted for the following year’s program. No one from my department had been involved in this program and as it turned out very few science or engineering students ever had. I felt very lucky with how things worked out.

The Museum Studies Program at University of Michigan seems quite thorough for a program that can be completed in one year. The program includes museum seminar courses covering all aspects of museums, several museum visits to experience different types of museums, elective courses involving the museum area of your interest, and a practicum or museum internship. The practicum is where your networking skills really come in handy and was how I found an internship at Adler Planetarium. I interned in the citizen science department where I now work, and some of my fellow museum studies students also found work at the institutions they interned at. Most museum internships are unpaid, but the museum studies program at University of Michigan tries to help people out with funding during their practicum. Volunteering can also give you experience though, since some volunteers work on a particular project in an area that interests them.

From my experience thus far, I recommend a few things. First, volunteer, even if you only have 3 hours a week to help out. It shows that you are interested in being a part of that field and gives you experience. I also recommend taking advantage of as many opportunities as possible to learn more about informal education, because it happens in many places that you would not always suspect. Finally, make sure you get out there and network. It could be through workshops, volunteering, or even online sites such as LinkedIn. Meet other people in informal education to hear about the path of their career and to gain a connection with other institutions and people in the field.

Museum Studies Programs

Museum Education Programs

Informal or Science Education Programs

There is a group of informal educators at Northwestern University that have been putting together resources like this, you can find these resources at: https://sites.google.com/site/stembridgenetwork/home

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