Connecting STEM Faculty and Researchers to K-12 Schools: Interview with Jane Horwitz, Director of the Science Outreach Initiative at the School of Arts and Sciences, University of Pennsylvania

Posted on October 21, 2016

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds almost one-quarter of all federal funded research conducted at U.S. colleges and universities (see Perspectives on Broader Impacts). NSF emphasizes that research not only advances scientific knowledge, but also contributes a larger benefit to society. As a result, as NSF proposals must include a Broader Impacts statement, where scientists describe how they will bring their work outside of the confines of a laboratory and into the public arena to benefit the greater good. Increasingly, this means scientists are working with K-12 schools, but many research scientist and faculty may not have experience building K-16 partnerships. When faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania need help developing their outreach initiatives or building relationships with a K-12 school for an NSF proposal, they are encouraged to contact Jane Horwitz, Director of the Science Outreach Initiative.

Caitlin: What is the Science Outreach Initiative?

Jane: The Science Outreach Initiative was launched in 2013 and works with faculty and other researchers within Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences. There are two staff members in our office, myself and the Assistant Director Dr. Kristen Coakley, plus a part-time evaluator (Dr. John Baker). Kristen and I each serve as liaison to several natural science departments (Biology, Chemistry, Earth and Environmental Science, Linguistics, Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy, and Psychology); I also focus on early-career faculty and Kristen works with graduate students. We work to help them develop outreach ideas into proposals and then connect them with internal and community partners. We start with identifying the researcher’s area of interest in outreach, and then try to guide the researcher to existing programs to easily plug into; however, we can also help to support new initiatives and curriculum development.  We then make the necessary connections with K-12 schools or community organizations (e.g., out-of-school-time programs and museums). We also serve as a general resource for all of Penn’s STEM outreach programs in other Schools and Centers.

While our main constituency is Penn-based, we also interface with the community at large, listening to their needs and learning about what resources they might benefit from but cannot access. We are currently testing a new online system that will allow outside partners to request volunteers. We also have a searchable online tool, our STEM Outreach Matrix, for researchers here at Penn. This searches existing programs on campus that researchers may be able to tie into, instead of reinventing the wheel. You can filter for various parameters, such as target audience, and get a preliminary snapshot of what Penn does; a good starting point before having a face-to-face conversation with a member of our office.

Caitlin: How has the inclusion of Broader Impacts statements in NSF funding affected your work here at Penn?

Jane: NSF requires potential grantees to address how their research can benefit the common good and further the development of a scientifically literate society. This Broader Impacts criterion is incorporated into the merit (and peer) review process of the funding proposal. At the Science Outreach Initiative, we work to guide researchers through the development of these Broader Impact statements. During our initial contact with a researcher, we co-sign a Memorandum of Understanding that lays out a timeline, procedures, and required documents for developing the Broader Impacts plan. We aren’t a proposal writing shop, so we don’t write the original text, but we do a lot of editing! We also provide a description of the Science Outreach Initiative office and the services we provide; many researchers include this in their proposals’ Facility Statement.

While all types of Broader Impacts can be supported in an NSF-funded project (including the societal value of the research itself), the trend is to focus on educational outreach. When I begin to work with junior faculty on early-career awards in the fall, I guide them towards education literature as well as resources on collaboration and building partnerships with K-12. NSF grants are extremely competitive, so the Broader Impacts component of a proposal needs to be well articulated and able to be well executed and evaluated.

Caitlin: Since NSF funds research at colleges and universities throughout the country, do you know what other universities are doing in response to the Broader Impact requirement?

Jane: When we first were getting started with the Science Outreach Initiative, I looked at other higher education institutions (both private and public) and found that many already had a strong commitment to community engagement in the sciences. After some conversations and convenings I realized that while many other universities might have different models in how to engage in STEM outreach, we all shared a common purpose. There was a movement to build a community of practice of those involved with this work, so my colleagues in the field, along with myself, launched the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI) – itself funded with a grant from NSF. Our goal is to build the capacities of our institutions to engage in Broader Impacts activity. I am currently on the steering committee for NABI, and just this past April we held our Broader Impacts Summit at the University of Pennsylvania.

Caitlin: Have you experienced any challenges so far?

Jane: There is no requirement to go through our office before submitting an NSF proposal, so we really had to hustle to market our services on campus at the beginning and routinely remind people of upcoming NSF funding opportunities so that we have enough lead time to do our best work. Another challenge is that while we are one university, there are many researchers in the other Schools and Centers at Penn (e.g. Medicine and Engineering) that are outside of our purview. To build relationships throughout the University with those who engage in similar outreach work, we started the Penn STEM Alliance. We meet periodically throughout the school year to share best practices and ideas, and collaborate on proposals as needed.

Caitlin: How did you get involved in this type of work?

Jane: I’ve worked in the Philadelphia area within STEM outreach in various roles at the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden, the Franklin Institute and Penn’s Morris Arboretum. Prior to my current role, I co-coordinated the Penn Science Teachers Institute, an NSF-funded program housed in the Chemistry Department and involving other School of Arts and Sciences’ science and math departments as well. We developed the content and pedagogy knowledge of over 200 middle and high school teachers, many from the School District of Philadelphia, who received Master’s degree in either Chemistry Education or Integrated Sciences Education. The precursor to this program, which I also administered with funding from NSF, was the Graduate School of Education’s Penn-Merck Collaborative for elementary and middle school teachers.  Through this work I gained a lot of experience working with NSF and cultivated a great network of relationships within local K-12 schools and community organizations. It also made me aware of the impending implications for science funding that were coming down the pipeline from NSF through the inclusion of broader impact statements. My colleague at GSE, Connie Blasie, and I put together a proposal to the Schools of Arts and Sciences for the Science Outreach Initiative, and I’ve been with the project since then. My years of involvement with NSF-funded programming, along with stints in both the formal and informal STEM sectors, contributed to our success in convincing the School of Arts and Sciences’ administration to establish an office where Broader Impacts outreach activities could be centrally planned and implemented.

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