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By Sarah Callan on

Reflecting on science capital in the Cooperstown Graduate Program

Whilst working to embed a science capital approach across the Science Museum Group, we have also been sharing our experiences with universities, museums and science centres across the world. Sarah Callan, Science Museum Studies student, SUNY Oneonta University, NY, shares her cohort's experience of applying the research to an informal education setting.

A group of Cooperstown Graduate Programme students smiling in front of their Explore Science Earth & Space fair banner.The Cooperstown Graduate Program is a museum studies program at SUNY Oneonta University, NY, that offers a unique degree in Science Museum Studies, where students, like myself, Katie Dragan, Alyssa Zajan and Miranda Sherrock, learn and practice the best strategies in science communication.

This year, Science Museum Studies professor Dr. Erik Stengler introduced us to the concept of science capital during his Science Learning course. For the course we took current research from a professional scientist and designed a museum education program around it. Topics our cohort chose ranged from soil science to dam engineering to geology and astrophysics.

After talking with the researchers, we designed programming through an iterative process that used the principles of Next Generation Science Standards, inquiry-based learning, informal science education, and science capital to refine our programming.

Beth Hawkins, Science Museum Group Academy Manager, video-conferenced into one of our development classes for a guest lecture explaining science capital and the Science Museum Group’s work promoting STEM engagement. Following this conversation, we re-examined our programming using some of the Science Museum Group’s tools for evaluation such as the Engaging All Audiences with Science booklet, the science engagement reflection points and the visitor learning outcomes planning tool.

Putting the research into practice

Everyday examples

Designing programming for museums that is accessible to all audiences can be very difficult, especially in science museums where visitors bring diverse backgrounds, experiences, and relationships to the material being exhibited.

“The general museum audience has a wide range of science capital levels, from kids who just learned about cells in school to astrophysicists who are out for a stroll. We strive to cater for all of these in exhibitions and programs in a museum setting.” – Katie Dragan, Student, Science Museum Studies, Cooperstown Graduate Program

A child and mother interacting with a Cooperstown Graduate Program student at their stand at the Explore Science fair.

Taking this on board, Katie has modified her programming on the geology of peat bogs to accommodate different levels of science capital. She wants the audience to be able to access and enjoy the experience without having to have a lot of background technical information. To link the content to people’s lives, she has added a map component to her project, an everyday example that allows visitors to point out their home and begin to talk about the geologic history of an area that they are very familiar with – transforming them into the expert.  Katie adds, “[With science capital] now, the phrase scientist in this case doesn’t mean working in a lab or doing experiments. The scientist can be anyone.”


Within the course, Alyssa Zajan created a card game based on astrophysics research. In her game, visitors look at various statistics about stars and planets and use those real-world measurements to make decisions about where they would want to live. Her game helps to broaden the perception of people who use and benefit from science in their work.

“Thinking about building science capital led me to create “role” cards for my galaxy forming card game. Each role card features a career that utilises science in some form, i.e. researcher, architect, farmer, etc. A player chooses which role they want to play and gets different expertise based on their career. I wanted to include many different careers to showcase jobs beyond just “scientist” that use scientific thinking or scientific understanding.” – Alyssa Zajan, Student, Science Museum Studies, Cooperstown Graduate Program

A mixed generation family trying out a water cycle experiment.Alyssa also noted the importance of raising the science capital of the whole family, “As I continue developing new educational activities and live shows, I aim to create opportunities for families to discover together. When adults and children learn together, they have a more meaningful experience and children can see the value of continuing to learn science through adulthood. Increasing the scientific understanding of the adults in a family builds their science capital as well as that of their children.”

Confidence and ownership

During the development process, Miranda Sherrock recognised that the introduction to the science capital research didn’t just change her programming, but how she viewed her role in informal education. She shares the importance and value of making everyone feel welcome and confident to take part in your experience.

“Science capital refers to the varied ways that someone relates to science. In my experience, creating room for audiences to share, and places for them to contribute during a program allows them to make personal connections and engage on a deeper level. Shifting the way I think of my role, from educator to facilitator, has changed the way I view and interact with the audience. Now I can recognize them as someone who may have something to teach me instead of someone who needs to be taught.” – Miranda Sherrock, Student, Science Museum Studies, Cooperstown Graduate Program

How did I use the reflection points and learning outcomes to develop my programming?

A student engaging a family in a soil activity.Following the guest lecture from the Science Museum Group, I started evaluating my programming by identifying what my visitor learning outcomes would be. I identified that my programming on soil compaction research had strengths in the ‘knowledge and understanding’ and, ‘attitudes and values’ categories.

With my specific learning outcomes in mind, I used the science engagement reflection points to critique my programming. I realised that the language I had originally used created some barriers to participation and did not encourage science talk. To deal with this, I have changed the language to address the visitor directly and have added images of people participating in the activity. I want to offer an experience where using ‘science talk’ feels natural for visitors and have incorporated more everyday examples to give them multiple entry points to engage with the topic.

The science engagement reflection points made me start thinking about the many reasons why someone might come into contact with dirt, and why they might care about compaction. During the process of refinement, I have found that highlighting the different reasons the research is relevant helps people become more interested in understanding it and more open to playing with it. I feel this helps positively reinforce the science capital they already possess, and provides opportunity to build upon it through programming.

The science capital approach and the resources provided by the Science Museum Group were very useful for the accessibility, and therefore the efficacy, of our programming. I feel that the skills learned from incorporating science capital into the design process can easily be applied to future programming and I am looking forward to using them.

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