Representatives of U.S. Federal agencies share current programs and future opportunities in science engagement and STEM education during a February 2020 event convened by ASTC.

Many U.S. Federal agencies have programs that science and technology centers and museums use to support STEM education and public engagement with scientific research in their states and local communities. Below, you will find a list of current programs and future opportunities for support, partnership, and funding.

Connecting Federal Agencies to the ASTC Community

ASTC facilitates connections between our community and Federal agencies through the ASTC Annual Conference and during special networking and learning events throughout the year. For example, we hosted a half-day briefing with eight Federal science agencies in conjunction with Museums Advocacy Day 2020. Read the recap.

For examples of Federally-funded projects at ASTC member institutions, download this resource.

Overview of Federal Programs Supporting STEM Education and Engagement

NASA’s Teams Engaging Affiliated Museums and Informal Institutions (TEAM II) program within NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement has helped the agency meet numerous goals identified in its strategic plan—including advancing the nation’s STEM education and workforce pipeline. TEAM II—formerly known as the Competitive Program for Science Museums, Planetariums, and NASA Visitor Centers (CP4SMPVC)—provides awards to support informal science education institutions in delivering and participating in NASA-based activities, better utilize NASA resources, and provide students with the opportunity to contribute to NASA’s mission. The Office of STEM Engagement also supports NASA’s Museum Alliance by connecting this professional network of more than 2,000 informal educators with current NASA science and technology offerings.

NASA’s Science Activation (SciAct) program, through the Science Mission Directorate’s Science Engagement and Partnerships Division, provides $46 million of funding per year. Science centers and museum networks are among the grantees, and several science center professionals served on the committee of a recent National Academies study that reviewed the program.

NIH’s Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program builds relationships between the biomedical research community and educational organizations—including museums—that improve life science literacy nationwide. A dedicated website houses project descriptions and resources dating back to SEPA’s start in 1991.

In addition, there is growing awareness within NIH of the importance of public engagement: it is a core aspect of several major initiatives that intersect with societal interests and public concerns, such as the BRAIN Initiative and the All of Us Research Program.

NSF is a major source of direct support for STEM research and education and provides about two-thirds of all Federal funding for biological, geological, and anthropological research at America’s colleges and universities.

Among NSF’s directorates and programs, the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL) within the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) is an important source of support for research on learning in informal education settings. This research is primarily through the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which is supported by the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE). AISL has historically funded the development of innovative science and technology center and museum exhibitions, programs, and outreach models.

Other relevant programs within DRL include Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST), STEM + Computing K–12 Education (STEM+C), and Discovery Research PreK–12 (DRK12).

The NSF Directorates for Biological Sciences, Geosciences, and Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences have all supported museums in the areas of field and collections-based research, collections improvements and digitization, database development, and educational programming. Through the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, museums involve undergraduate college students in field and laboratory research.

NSF’s “Big Ideas,” which are 10 long-term research and process ideas that identify areas for future investment at the frontiers of science and engineering, will each receive at least $30 million in dedicated funding. The Big Ideas include topics like harnessing the data revolution, navigating the new Arctic, and broadening participation in STEM (i.e., NSF INCLUDES). EHR has specifically encouraged the education field to participate in these competitions.

Finally, all NSF projects must address “broader impacts,” which NSF defines as “the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.” Approaches to broader impacts are diverse, up to the individual Principal Investigator, and often include education and outreach activities. The expertise of science and technology centers and museums can strengthen and scale activities that bolster broader impacts. This can be supported on the local level through collaboration with higher education institutions—a growing number of which have centralized offices for broader impacts—and via scientists’ professional networks. The NSF-funded Center for Advancing the Societal Impacts of Research (ARIS) helps scientists and engagement practitioners build capacity, advance scholarship, grow partnerships, and access resources so they can engage with and demonstrate the impact of research in their communities and society.

Two vital programs within NOAA’s Office of Education—the Environmental Literacy Program and the Bay Watershed Environmental Training (B-WET) program—help zoos, aquariums, science centers, and museums bring real world examples of ocean, coastal, weather, and climate science to students nationwide. 

Several NOAA offices and programs have initiatives for community outreach and engagement in marine and coastal science, including the Office for Coastal Management, Marine Debris Program, and the National Marine Sanctuaries. NOAA’s Climate Program Office works to foster a climate-literate public and museums can support those strategic goals.

Finally, NOAA is a pioneer in citizen science. The National Weather Service has one of the longest-running government citizen science efforts in the world and museums are positioned to help connect communities and researchers through all types of citizen science.

DOE is the nation’s largest funder of basic science research in the physical sciences, and their expertise in energy awareness, basic science, genomics, and photonics (which includes coronaviruses) could inform museum-based public dialogues, exhibits, and educational programming.

Every one of the 17 U.S. National Laboratories are required to do community engagement, and ASTC members that are nearby can reach out to explore a partnership.

A quarter of DOE’s budget goes to university research, so museums can also engage with the university community around DOE research.

Finally, DOE supports a handful of historical museums, exhibits, and parks across the U.S that display its scientific missions and accomplishments.

USDA Agricultural Research Service labs are located in almost every state. While their primary role is to conduct scientific research, some labs conduct public outreach on a volunteer basis.

USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) supports a network of land grant universities and cooperative extensions who could take on new outreach and education partners. Cooperative extensions support a variety of community initiatives in urban, suburban, and rural counties. They provide education and civic engagement opportunities for all age groups related to agriculture, the environment, and human health and well-being, including the widely-known 4-H Positive Youth Development Program.

Rural museums and museums with rural outreach programs could be supported through partnership with USDA Rural Development.

DOD has a national network of laboratories that are able to partner with museums on an individual basis.

Nonprofits are eligible to apply for the National Defense Education Program (NDEP) for STEM Education, Outreach, and Workforce Initiative Program (another round is expected later in 2020) and the Army Educational Outreach Program (the current award process is under review).

In terms of expanded collaboration, DOD STEM has several school-based K–12 education programs, that could include museums as partners or could take place in out-of-school learning environments. DOD could also support museum outreach programs to engage families and children on military bases.

Coming soon: The Department of Education, the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH).

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