Imagining futures for informal learning

Last month SySTEM 2020 held a series of online workshops to discuss issues around equity in science learning outside the classroom and how we can best produce a future that is desirable for all.

The SySTEM 2020 workroom participants making their commitment to action in zine form

At the dawn of the new decade, almost thirty years later, the words of renowned speculative science fiction writer William Gibson continue to ring true:

“the future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed”.

Science learning is a hugely powerful tool which at best, can enable citizens to understand, critique, and develop technologies and innovations which will be shared by all. But at worst, science learning can be ring-fenced for the most privileged, limiting engagement with science, technology and innovation to a small subset and further widen the gaps in society by reinforcing systems of inequality.

This year, Ecsite – The European Network of Science Engagement Organisations created the Ecsite workrooms, which was designed to provide science engagement professionals with a short series of online talks, group discussions and workshops, all centred around one specific theme. In essence, it was an opportunity for participants to broaden their knowledge together. At SySTEM 2020 we took this opportunity to propose a workroom whereby we would spend three weeks imagining a more equitable, just and desirable future for informal learning, answering questions such as: how do we make sure that the informal science learning sector works in pursuit of justice and equity? How do we empower a diverse generation of scientists, technologists, artists, engineers or mathematicians to be resilient agents of change, who realise a socially just world?

The workroom finished on April 7th, however, key moments were recorded so that viewers unable to attend could still access the presentations to hear from many key figures working in this field to push all of us to think about the kinds of futures we expect and the kinds of futures we desire.

Week 1 – Design for experience

The first week of the SySTEM 2020 workroom allowed us to set the scene, going over the challenges and opportunities we are facing in our field right now related to access, inclusion, and diversity. We were joined by Dr. Frederic Bertley: scientist, science communicator, diversity in STEM advocate and President and CEO of COSI – Center of Science and Industry, Columbus, Ohio, to discuss access and equity in science learning outside the classroom. As he said:

“The barrier is not science. The barrier is not chemistry, physics or biology, the barrier is us and the biases we have”.

Week 2 – Design for everyone

The second week focused on finding new ways to empower deep reflection and social justice in young learners. To do this we took stock from three influential figures in the realm of science learning outside the classroom:

  1. Aris Papadopoulos from LATRA, CEO of the non-profit organisation which in response to Europe’s current humanitarian crisis set up an innovation lab inside a refugee camp in Lesvos-Greece
  2. Sophie Perry, research and learning coordinator of Science Gallery Dublin at Trinity College a place where ideas meet between art and science, providing programmes and experiences that allow visitors to participate and facilitate social connections
  3. Urska Spitzer producer at Kersnikova Institute a not-for-profit cultural institution for artistic, technical and educational activities in Slovenia

Week 3 – Design for growth

It has always been a priority for us to place learners at the heart of the project. Throughout the project lifetime, young people have participated in hundreds of non-formal science learning activities. For example SySTEM 2020 learners have contributed to eight “Learner’s Perspectives” videos, a catalogue of their experiences related to out-of-school learning with a strong advocacy message for our field. We wanted to continue this theme for the final week of the workroom. For us to move forward and characterise the future we must not only listen to the present generation but we must also take inspiration from the next generation as well.

Three learners took centre stage. The above video introduces 11-year-old Marta from Serbia, who talks with The Centre for the Promotion of Science in Belgrade, Serbia. Ars Electronica in Austra and Parque de las Ciencias in Spain also sat down with one of their young learners – Sophie and Ines. The interviews of Sophie and Ines can be found on YouTube here and here respectively.

This workroom highlighted that we still have work to do in ensuring access to science learning opportunities is provided evenly to all, but it also acts as a testament that by working together we can get closer to a more equitable and just future. If anything though, the learners that took centre stage offer us some semblance of hope. Hope that if all kids growing up are like Marta, Sophie and Ines, we are in good hands. As Marta said:

“Science is big, and the world is small for science”

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