Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Community Science Workshops and Shared Authorship of Space: Interview with Emilyn Green

Imagine the most community-based science center possible. Imagine it in a poor, immigrant farmworker community. It exists. It thrives. In California. In a Community Science Workshop.

A couple months ago, I visited a Community Science Workshop for the first time in Watsonville, CA. I was awestruck. A small room, packed with gadgets, packed with fossils, packed with tools, packed with PEOPLE everywhere making and exploring and building and learning. The people were of all ages--moms with babies strapped to their fronts, six year-olds using skillsaws, pre-teens building robots, teenagers doing homework. There was a spirit of conviviality and purpose and helpfulness and Spanglish in the air. The design and feel of the place was different than any science center I'd ever experienced. I knew I could learn a lot from it.

I sat down with Emilyn Green, Executive Director of the Community Science Workshop Network, to learn more about their history, design, and engagement strategy.

Can you give me the overview of Community Science Workshops? What are they and where did they come from? 

A Community Science Workshop is a place for kids to tinker, make, and explore their world through science. The first one was started in 1991 by a San Francisco educator, Dan Sudran, in his garage. The Exploratorium is great, but it wasn't super-accessible. Dan was living in the Mission neighborhood, which at the time was very kid-dense, mostly first-generation immigrants, and Dan noticed that when he was messing around in his garage with physics gadgets, he could not keep the kids in his neighborhood out of his garage. They were so fascinated and wanted to be there every day.
There are lots of great science museum resources, but not where these kids can walk after school. In most cases, they're not places where kids can go by themselves at all.

So the Community Science Workshop model is to put a drop-in, FREE community science center in a place that is walkable to kids' lives and schools. In a place where kids are already walking around after school.

The core program is a permanent, dedicated physical space, full of interactive hands-on physical exhibits, as well as a tinkering and making space, and recycled materials. Most Workshops also run a wide range of additional programs - supplemental school day programs, afterschool programs, mobile units that go to housing projects. There are a whole bunch of programs to disseminate the science but the central workshop space is the heart of it.

Where do Community Science Workshops fit in the informal science landscape?

It's kind of tricky. We don't fit the more common templates. The best explanation is "community science center." But in the more traditional lexicon, these might be defined as "informal spaces."

Now that there is a new emphasis on "ecosystems of STEM learning" - for us, that's really helpful. Our programs end up being the hub of the local science learning ecosystem--especially in communities where there isn't a science center for miles in any direction.

How are Workshop locations selected?

The first one was in the Mission. We received two rounds of NSF funding in the 1990s to expand. We've focused on farmworker communities--there are so many kids in these communities throughout California. At that time, we expanded to Watsonville, where strawberries come from. And Fresno in the Central Valley--a city of 500,000, hundreds of miles from the closest science center. And a couple other sites that didn't make it financially (more on that later).

I came on in 2010 to start the statewide nonprofit network. At that point, we opened three new locations: Sanger, Greenfield, and a new San Francisco workshop in the Excelsior neighborhood because the Mission has changed so dramatically. The Mission location is still a useful hub for San Francisco school programs. Excelsior is now the walkable neighborhood space.

What happened to the ones that folded?

We received NSF funding for three years and then it cut off. In places that succeeded, at that point, a local coalition was in place to fund the Workshop. Where it didn't work, no local support stepped up. That taught us a lot. Now, when people are interested in starting one, we emphasize permanence. It takes a local coalition of people who are really committed to this to have a program that lasts.

Who are those local coalitions?

We're really different from traditional science centers in our funding model. We don't have paying members. We're not going to do that. It's not a Community Science Workshop if it's not free to participants. In fact, we have almost no individual donors. We have a few shining, beloved exceptions, but that's not a significant part of our model at this time.

So we tend to have three legs of support: municipal, grants/donations, and fee for service (usually with the school district). The municipal support can be actual funding - from Parks and Rec, or Environmental Education/Public Works in Watsonville - or a free building, or free access to a van, or materials... or free access to the dump to get materials. Several Community Science Workshops also get Measure S grants - gang prevention grants - through their cities. Grants come from community foundations, small local family foundations, local businesses. And then the fee for service is mostly school districts that contract with the Workshop for science enrichment/science instruction.

What unique design elements make Community Science Workshops work?

Geography is key. We tend to overemphasize it, because it's the initial requirement for any kind of success in these communities. Kids in these neighborhoods are wandering around alone after school. So if kids can walk to us, they can participate.

Once in the space, there are a bunch of design features that continue to be about access. Our fundamental premise is that kids are really interested in stuff. Given a wide variety of stuff, they will find something that they are excited about and will take on projects. We assume the motivation is there. The interest is there. So if a kid is not engaging, it's likely some barrier to access.

One thing you'll notice when you walk in is a ton of user-generated content. Most is hand-made, by participants or staff or parents, and that is everything from our signage to our exhibits.

We tend to be fully bilingual where appropriate. Our staff is almost always Spanish/English bilingual. And we hire from the community. Over 30% of our staff statewide are either former Workshop students or parent volunteers. That's an important design principle for the space - who the kids see when they enter the space.

We have some considerations about height and accessibility. We make sure that kids can grab materials and tools without staff intervention. Part of this is practical: you can't facilitate making and tinkering for 30 kids if you have to hand them everything they need. And it shows kids that they can be the agents of their own learning.

And then there's the most important design element - it's MESSY. We've been playing around with different ways to describe this and not terrify people. It's not messy like “vermin-infested”. It looks like a space that is used by humans every day. It's "purposfully messy." It's organized enough so people coming in can learn the layout, but it's the opposite of sterile. Surfaces are dense, and covered, and richly layered, and there is nothing in the room that implies "don't touch me or you'll get in trouble." That bar is pretty low for kids - they really need to know they are welcome to explore.

I loved the feeling of the space. It made me think of the Spanish word "ambiente"--that convivial, welcoming feeling. It also made me think about some of what we learned in a recent ethnographic study in which some Latino moms talked about "American events being so organized, whereas Latin events have joyful chaos." I know that most of your design focus is on kids. Do you think there is also a cultural/ethnic aspect to the kind of access and design you use? 

I feel very careful talking about the ways that the particular populations who we choose to work with for social justice reasons are also the people who make our work possible because of cultural expectations. For example, kids and tools. It's much easier for us to work with kids with power tools in these Workshops than it might be with other families because a lot of these parents use tools in their own lives. They are comfortable with them.

I was amazed by how community-based and authentic it feels. Many science centers struggling to engage "underserved" people with informal science. You are succeeding. What do you think is the difference? 

I come back to geography. Easy access to the space. When I talk with people in science centers, some really dedicated people working on these questions, they acknowledge that geography is a big hurdle they have to get over.

But there also is a sense of community ownership. For example, the Exploratorium is an extraordinarily participatory museum, but it's not nearly as participatory as a Community Science Workshop. Any big museum has barriers and limitations to full community ownership. Anyone walking into a CSW could repair a broken exhibit--anytime.

And that's the way we respect the contributions of the families we are working with. They are authors in the space.

To make a sweeping generalization, it seems that the folks we work with--working class people, people who work with their hands for a living, people with larger extended families - are very comfortable with spaces where multiple people are authors. They are comfortable with shared authorship of space and events. Whereas formal organizations have a harder time facilitating a shared sense of space and events.

Really interesting. So there is authorship, but no bylines.

 No visible bylines. But they still exist informally. The bylines are in the community’s awareness of the space. "Aurora made that sign." "I helped paint that sign." "I was here when Sal was working on that." People know, but they know based on their real experience of it in the space.

When I visited, it was so clear that there are so many people who use the Workshop again and again, who build things over time, who get involved in different projects for different reasons. 

Yes. And it's hard for us to document. Half of our attendance per year is in enrollment and school-based programs, but half is in our drop-in spaces, where we don't track participants at all. We know anecdotally that a lot of these people are repeating and deepening their participation, but we don't have the data.

We're just starting to interview our alumni now and creating a catalogue of their stories. It's powerful. But that's not the focus of the program. The focus of the program is to make it work every day.

Big thanks to Emilyn Green and the Community Science Workshop Network for sharing insights in this post. Emilyn will be checking in on the comments here and can respond to your questions.  If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment, you can join the conversation here.
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