Published: Aug. 31, 2018

In 2018, the Partnerships for Informal Science Education in the Community program will celebrate ten years of serving both the University of Colorado and Boulder Valley communities.  Originally conceived in conjunction with the CU Boulder Physics Education Research group, PISEC has remained an integral part of the JILA Physics Frontier Center's focus on broadening STEM participation of under-represented minority students through informal education and community involvement.  The program's unique focus on sustained partnership-based engagement, two-way benefit, and rigorous research has enabled it to evolve and grow through its decade of life, earning it several CU awards as well as additional funding through the National Science Foundation.

The first academic reference to PISEC can be found in an article published as part of a pair of articles authored by PISEC founder and then-Director Laurel Mayhew in the 2008 Conference Proceedings of the American Institute of Physics.  In Acting in Our Own Self-Interests: Blending University and Community in Informal Science Education, Finkelstein relates some of the benefits of partnership-based community engagement while in New Media and Models for Engaging Underrepresented Students in Science, Mayhew articulates the central aspects of program design and philosophy that contribute to PISEC's uniqueness:

Unlike many educational outreach programs, this community partnership model seeks to simultaneously serve the interests of both university and community agencies. In this program, we recruit university students to participate in science activities with underrepresented populations of precollege children. Within these programs, children develop an understanding, interest and identity in science. The participating university students have an opportunity to develop an interest and understanding of teaching, to enhance their communication skills, and to be exposed to working in the community - benefits that they will take with them as they become teachers or researchers at other institutions. The success of such a program hinges on creating social contexts in which activities can effectively utihze research-based technological and pedagogical tools, and employ a reasonable assessment strategy. This model of university-community partnership builds on theories of learning, which posits that individual development and learning is coupled with social, cultural and envirormiental contexts as well as the use of key educational tools.

PISEC has adapted this model to its community contexts, working throughout its tenure with primary schools, community centers, and other organizations to facilitate opportunities for young students to explore its physics-based, activity-focused curricula alongside their University Educator mentors.

In 2012, PISEC underwent a sizeable paradigm shift as, under the leadership of then-Director Katie Hinko, PISEC curricula were adapted from a highly content-focused format into a more open-ended, exploratory format designed to excite and empower students by providing them choices of activity and freedom to engage with the material according to their own interests, with the motivation of encouraging greater development of scientific identity.  A study published that year by Hinko, Finkelstein, and Rosemary Wulf, a PISEC affiliate at that time working with the CU Physics Education Research group, expounded the benefits of this identity-focused paradigm including heightened student agency and increased scientific communication without a decrease in content mastery.  Through these new, exploratory curricula, PISEC students would engage in authentic scientific practice alongside their University Educator mentors through collaborative scientific play.  Alongside its new curricula, PISEC would also go on to explore the intersection of science and art with its support of a grassroots STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) program -- as with its main programmatic offerings, this program would focus on facilitating pathways for under-represented minority students.

Accompanying the growth of PISEC's partnership-focused informal education program over the next few years, it saw the development of a robust, thriving research agenda.  Several aspects of PISEC's program design and implementation have been investigated including student agency and communication, benefit to University Educators, effects of participation on volunteers' conception of outreach in the scientific community, University Educator teaching paradigms (leading to PISEC's first Physical Review paper), students' motivations for and productivity in PISEC participation, and several other important topics. 

In 2017, PISEC expanded its programmatic offerings yet again, this time by incorporating programming for high school students alongside its primary school offerings.  Led by Director Mike Bennett, PISEC has begun to partner with high schools to provide opportunities for students to explore not only scientific concepts and practices, but to get hands-on experience with several aspects of the day-to-day responsibilities of career scientists, from project design and engineering to articulation and communication of results in academic settings.  Because PISEC's high school programs are implemented in schools and in grades where alumni of PISEC's primary school programs attend, the program has also begun to provide opportunities for high schoolers to provide mentorship themselves to their younger peers, taking an active leadership role in the program and gaining experience in pedagogy themselves.

At present, PISEC looks back with pride on the accomplishments of the last decade: a series of robust, long-term community partnerships; a strong, productive research engine leading to iterative improvement in program design; several prestitigous awards including multiple NSF Advancing Informal STEM Education grants; a thriving, supportive community of volunteers; and, most importantly, a long legacy of impacting not only the students who participate in PISEC programs but the volunteers who facilitate the programs and the institutions that support them.  Looking forward, PISEC will continue to lead the way in facilitating, implementing, assessing, and researching inforal STEM programs.

Here's to another ten successful years of community engagement!