The Explorable Center (a pseudonym) is planned to be a major regional science and technology center located in northeastern Maryland, located on the I-95 corridor between Baltimore and Philadelphia. When the Center opens in 2023, it will provide families and tourists experiential science-based activities in an informal, playful environment.
Informal science – meaning science activities that take place outside of the formal classroom – plays an enormous role in developing a person’s capacity for learning and inquiry. Science, by its very nature, creates opportunities for exploration and experimentation. It requires a student to ask “why” and then engage in critical thinking. The benefits of informal science activities go far beyond helping students become better science students. Indeed, science learning helps students become better global citizens.
But not everyone benefits equally from informal science opportunities. Research shows that instead of erasing equity gaps in education, science centers can worsen the inequity by enriching those who are already succeeding in school and society, in what is known as the “Matthew Effect” (Merton, 1968; Stanovich, 1986, as cited in Feinstein & Meshoulam, 2014). This has the potential to have life-long consequences for those with little science literacy, because as an informal science researcher writes, “The role of science is sufficiently central to the different cultural, social, political, educational, and economic aspects of contemporary lives that being unable to access opportunities to learn about, participate in, critique, or otherwise enjoy science can be understood as a form of marginalization,” (Dawson, 2014).
And so, science centers across the country are grappling with how to create an inclusive and accessible environment for all learners. Through interviews with science center leaders, this paper explores how science centers are addressing diversity and inclusion and how they are making themselves accessible for all members of the community. This project also reviews recent academic research on practices that increase equity and inclusion, and those that do not. Findings from this research will be incorporated into a model and set of recommendations for use by the Explorable Center as they develop their diversity and inclusion strategy.
“I just wish someone would come up with a standard name and acronym for diversity and inclusion,” said the chief of human resources for a major science center in a recent interview. In their organization, DEA&I was the standard naming convention. In other organizations interviewed, DEI, IDEA, AIDE, and D&I were commonly used as shorthand for diversity, inclusion, equity, and access programs. Each of these letters – concepts – are distinct from each other and represent one facet of a complex challenge for organizations like science centers – how to engage and enrich people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences.
There has not yet emerged a consensus on the definition or priority of these components across the field of study or practice. And so, for the purposes of this summary paper and the client deliverable, we will create our own working definition of diversity, inclusion, access, and equity that draws from the thinking of several researchers and practitioners (Dawson, 2014; AAM, 2018; Molefi, 2021).
For the purposes of this paper, and in context of organization development and change, we will define Equity as the removal of barriers for individuals and groups so that the organization creates a level playing field for all participants. Diversity is often used to mean race, but in an organization, the definition of diversity expands to include differences of age, beliefs, class, culture, disability, education, gender and gender identity, language, nationality, and sexual orientation, in addition to race and any other variable that creates differences between people. Inclusion is an environment that is welcoming and comfortable to a widely diverse set of people, who feel respected and valued for their individual contributions. Access is the availability of facilities, programs, content, and services to all stakeholders, regardless of characteristics.
We are biased toward action; therefore, this paper recommends a framework in which each element is treated as a step, or category, of activity, toward reaching the goal of a maximally accessible science center (Michel, 2021). If we treat accessibility as the ultimate goal (see Figure 1), then equity becomes the first step toward reaching that goal. Equity in a science center means removing barriers to participating in the experience offered. These barriers may be physical, like exhibit height, or educational in that content assumes a degree of literacy and cultural competence, or institutional in hiring practices that implicitly favor a particular demographic. Removing these barriers is a crucial factor toward an organization achieving diversity among its staff and visitors, which is the next step on the journey to accessibility.
A diverse staff, and ample opportunities for diverse audiences to connect with science subject matter are two foundational elements for attracting people from underrepresented communities and creating an environment where visitors feel a sense of belonging. Research shows that even after implementing these interventions, science centers continue to struggle to attract diverse audiences, the reasons for which we delve into later in this paper. But without this foundation of diverse staff and representation, a science center cannot create an inclusive environment. In this way, diversity is a necessary step toward creating an inclusive environment.
Inclusivity is a set of organizational practices that ensures that individuals with different backgrounds are accepted and welcomed into an organization. A science center that embodies inclusive principles, such as valuing and promoting its diverse staff and actively welcoming visitors from all walks of life with multi-lingual exhibits, ramps instead of stairs, and low sensory experiences, can reach the goal of accessibility as defined by the American Association of Museums (Stein, 2018): “Accessibility is giving equitable access to everyone along the continuum of human ability and experience.”
Subsequent sections of this paper are organized using this framework and adopt the acronym EDIA as shorthand for equity, diversity, inclusion, and access. Figure 1 depicts the EDIA Action Framework.
Figure 1: EDIA Action Framework (Michel, 2021)
The Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), an international organization, polls its 473 members each year on a variety of metrics related to organizational health – attendance, funding, employee pay, and other data. Their most recent poll, which reflects data from 2019 – prior to the COVID shutdown – shows growth in the science center industry. Worldwide, science centers hosted approximately 108 million visits, 70 million of which were to U.S. science centers. This is an increase in attendance for 60% of survey respondents.
The Explorable Center anticipates hosting over 100,000 visitors a year once its full-scale facility is open. With the closest science center an hour away, the Explorable Center envisions filling a very important community need. Plenty of science resources already exist in the community due to a thriving science and technology sector, which is anchored by York Proving Ground, the Army’s primary site for research and development activities.
The research and development community in northeastern Maryland suffers from an inadequate supply of candidates qualified for science and technology positions, particularly in the area of computing sciences. Locally, many health science and technology development jobs remain chronically unfilled. For instance, as of last week in the two counties closest to the Explorable Center, there were 297 open jobs for nurses and only 59 applicants, according to the Maryland Workforce Exchange database. Similarly, there were 73 open jobs for Software Developers and 15 candidates – one candidate for every five jobs. This chronic shortage is also found across the state, limiting economic growth and in the case of the Army, potentially jeopardizing defense and national security.
The Explorable Center sees itself as part of the solution to this problem, and research supports that claim (Falk, 2010). Some studies show that informal science experiences have an outsized impact on whether students pursue STEM subjects and careers (Rodari, 2009). One study found that students who participated in summer and afterschool STEM activities were almost twice as likely to pursue a STEM career than students who did not (Kitchen et al, 2018).
Science Centers are also economic drivers for the communities that host them. A feasibility study commissioned by the Explorable Center estimated that based on local demographics and statistics from other similar regional science centers, the Center can anticipate contributing approximately $14 million in tax benefit and 187 jobs to the economy. In other communities with science centers, every $100 of economic activity created by its museum or science center generates an additional $220 in supply chain and employee expenditure impacts (Stein, 2018).
Currently the Explorable Center is led by an all-volunteer board of directors and supported by several consultants who assist with planning and programs. Its board is predominantly white and male, with significant representation from the local defense science community. The Center is preparing to hire an Executive Director to run day-to-day operations.
Urgency in the science center community to address issues of equity and accessibility tracks with the public’s increasing focus on acts of injustice, starting with the Trayvon Martin killing in 2012, which led to the rise of numerous social justice movements across the country. Today, diversity and inclusion are core values of many science institutions, and organizations are experimenting with a variety of practices to address the issue in their communities. As lamented in scientific literature and confirmed by interviews conducted for this project, there are few practices that have consistently proven to move the needle on a science center’s most visible measure – the diversity of visitors coming through the door each day. More research on effective practices is needed.
Building a physically accessible facility that accommodates all types of disabilities is a straightforward process. National construction standards as outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prescribe building specifications that ensure wheelchair access and remove barriers in new construction. Similarly, many science centers now offer “sensory hours” to expand access for autistic and neuro-diverse visitors, which is a relatively simple intervention. Yet, enormous challenges remain to attracting visitors from socially or economically underrepresented parts of the community. It has proven to be more problematic than simply offering transportation or reduced admission. In fact, much of the challenge stems from the perception that a science center is “not for us.” This is a cultural phenomenon, which like a corporate culture change initiative in an organization, can be more entrenched and difficult to change than removing barriers. “Social positions – gender, ethnicity, class, or age, may play a more important role in informal science experiences than barriers prevent those from participation,” (Dawson, 2014). Science center experiences where participants feel “othered” by lack of culturally relevant content, or non-diverse staff, reinforce the feeling that non-white, non-middle-class people don’t belong and further drive them away.
Nevertheless, science centers are embracing the challenge of reimagining themselves for a more diverse community and attempting to make a difference by employing a variety of tactics. In the Key Findings section of this paper, we will discuss tactics that science centers are using to build relationships with underrepresented communities.
The overall goal of this capstone project is to create a roadmap for the Explorable Center that will guide its facility and program EDIA development, thus ensuring that accessibility remains central to the vision for the Explorable Center. This project will not deliver a definitive EDIA plan, but instead provide a roadmap for the Board of Directors to develop their own plan, using the information gathered, analyzed, and presented for this project.
Assessment Model, Process, and Tactics
This project delivered a report and set of strategies and tactics for the board to consider as it assembles its EDIA roadmap for the future. To develop this report and recommendations, we followed the five phases of the Penn State OD Effectiveness Model™. During the first two phases – Inquiring and Strategizing – we asked and answered the following questions:
Process and tactics used to conduct and complete this project:
This paper is the first step in the Planning Phase of the OD Effectiveness Model™ as its research and findings build the foundation for a planning process that involves members of the Board and the community and delivers a set of research-based recommendations for the planning committee to consider. We envision facilitating a community forum where board members and key stakeholders develop a comprehensive EDIA strategic plan that will include a communications plan for building relationships with communities. This strategic plan will also map out implementation (Doing), and evaluation and sustainment (Revitalizing).
A few questions that will be asked and answered during the remaining Planning, Doing, and Revitalizing phases include:
Project Key Stakeholders and Decision Makers
To understand the current research about EDIA and its role in informal science, we relied on literature searches of current published, peer-reviewed papers. We focused on research conducted in the U.S. and the U.K. because of the demographic similarities to the Explorable Center. In these countries, science is predominantly the domain of white males (NSF, 2019), and the U.S. and U.K. share the same challenges in attracting underrepresented groups.
To learn about best practices in EDIA at other science centers, we sought to talk with the institution’s subject matter expert on the topic, rather than an administrative lead. In some cases, the interviewee was dual hatted as an administrative leader and the diversity champion.
To conduct the local community needs assessment, we talked with directors of government agencies and nonprofits with a mission to serve specific groups affected by inequities. These interviews focused on effective strategies and practices they have witnessed that serve their target audience.
This section is organized using a model developed by the Centre for Global Inclusion (Molefi et al, 2021), an international organization of equity professionals that is dedicated to advancing an inclusive culture and improve organizational effectiveness. Using this model, the Centre has developed a set of benchmarks for effective diversity and inclusion practices. The model groups practices into four categories – internal, external, bridging, and foundation. We will use three of these categories to organization our key finds and results.
A theme repeated throughout the interviews with science center leads was that their CEO or Executive Director was an active part of strategizing, building, funding, and implementing the center’s EDIA plan. This hands-on leadership with diversity and inclusion was named as a key success factor by five of the seven centers interviewed and is backed up by recommendations coming from industry leaders.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article (Cox & Lancefield, 2021) that listed the authors’ five top recommendations for infusing EDIA into an organization, “Ensuring the CEO positions themselves as the top champion for D&I efforts,” was the first recommendation. “The CEO needs to take a public stance, embed D&I in the organization’s purpose, exemplify the culture, and take responsibility for progress toward goals. They need to be out front, even if a CDO is part of the team.”
Here are remarks from project interviews on the role of the CEO: “You must have buy-in and support from the CEO,” “I report to the CEO,” the CEO is also the DE&I Officer,” “Our CEO went to [EDIA training],” and “I make sure my CEO is in alignment with my plans. We agree on how we demonstrate commitment and culture.”
The Boards of Directors appear to be an area of concern for many science centers. As a 2014 study of equity in U.S. science museums reports, “The board of directors was typically the least diverse group of people afﬁliated with the institution. The traditional role of board members as ﬁnancial contributors was a constraint on recruitment, so that even ethnically diverse boards were not economically representative of their communities,” (Feinstein and Meshoulam, 2014). Similarly, no center interviewed for this capstone project was satisfied with their Board’s composition by gender and race:
Also, Board leadership on diversity and inclusion was missing in many organizations:
First, each organization interviewed for this project had a diversity and inclusion statement on their web page. This is one of the best practices recommended by industry and academia because it helps to gel leadership support of the EDIA program internally and, because it is posted publicly, holds the organization accountable for its EDIA initiatives. The Centre for Global Inclusion recommends that vision and mission statements expressly commit to EDIA, and that the EDIA strategy be included as part of the overall organizational/business strategy and is reflected in values, policies, and practices. Specifically, the organization’s strategy should include “numerical goals resulting in equitable representation of underrepresented groups across functions and levels,” (GDEIB, 2021).
Second, a best practice recommended by interviewees and experts is that all leaders in the organization have EDIA embedded in their job responsibilities. GDEIB specifically suggests that “leaders promote DEI initiatives, communicate the strategy, and provide recognition for DEI champions and advocates.”
Third, Board members need to be recruited not only for the economic and functional skills they offer, but for the demographic they represent. Special care to deliberately go outside of existing networks may bear fruit. Center leaders can recruit assistance from local government and civic leaders to identify potential board members. As with any board member, once they are brought into the organization, it is a best practice to pair them with another board member for onboarding and relationship-building.
Building a diverse workforce is a topic of interest to researchers and science center leaders. All of the interviewees mentioned their staff composition and the need for it to reflect more diversity to be an essential part of their diversity and inclusion program. Many science center leaders said that visitors to the center need to see people who look like them when they enter the facility with the hopes that this will improve participation among minority and underrepresented groups. However, science centers vary in the extent to which they focus on hiring diverse staff. “At the passive end, staff diversity was delegated to the human resources department… The more proactive organizations used recruitment strategies that either drew upon the cultural and racial diversity of the local community or targeted a particular equity-related role of potential employees,” (Feinstein and Meshoulam, 2014).
In many centers, including those interviewed, organizations struggle with having a diverse “front of the house” team while the leadership team remains stubbornly white. “Participants from several organizations reported an inverse relationship between diversity and seniority, with non-white staff serving in lower-ranked and lower-paying positions,” (Feinstein and Meshoulam, 2014). Interviewees named ways they are working to diversify their staff:
Training of staff, volunteers, and board members arose frequently in interviews. Many organizations have delivered unconscious and implicit bias training at a minimum, and additional training on specific EDIA issues. One organization just concluded 10 sessions of equity training with their board of directors, another hosted a training on working with neuro-diverse visitors, and yet another provided training on disability awareness and policies. Several national training programs exist for science center staff members, such as the iPage program at the IDEAL Center in Minnesota, and the Association of Science and Technology Center’s Cultural Competence Institute.
For organizations interviewed for this project and throughout all the research literature, what emerged as a science center’s most important piece of equity work was increase the ethnic and socio-economic diversity of admissions. Visitor data suggest that people most unlikely to visit a science center may come from minority ethnic, working class, rural, or low-income backgrounds. (Dawson, 2014). There are numerous ways that science centers are attempting to increase the diversity of visitors – diversifying frontline staff, lowering admission prices, arranging for transportation, working on exhibits to make sure they represent a diverse community with culturally relevant material, and more. And while these tactics are important and help break down barriers, there is evidence that these practices do little to penetrate the culture of “not for me” that is often embedded in socio-economically disadvantaged communities. In the U.K., several museums eliminated entrance fees. And while their visitor numbers rose dramatically, it did not increase diversity. Existing visitors were just attending more often (Dawson, 2014).
Science centers are trying address this cultural divide in new ways – working in the community to attract more visitors to the science center and adapting the exhibit floor to be more appealing to diverse audiences. Collaborating on the development of content for science programs and floor exhibits with marginalized communities surfaced as a favored practice among science centers interviewed for this project and those participating in academic research studies. These organizations often also had community advisory boards to ensure representation and flow of information. Organizations also went into the communities with portable exhibits and demonstrations and hosted family science workshops at local neighborhood venues.
Multiple studies reviewed for this paper warned against taking a barriers perspective – seeing diverse communities as having barriers to visiting a science center – because it requires participants to change to fit the institution and adapt to the dominant culture’s norms. This in turn positions underrepresented groups of people as “problems to be solved” and outsiders, which perpetuates the feeling that the center is “not for me” (Archer, 2020; Dawson, 2018; Feinstein and Meshoulam, 2014).
So how do we overcome exclusion and non-participation of socio-economically diverse audiences in science? Minority ethnic communities? Women? A 2016 research study examined the “science identities” of disadvantaged families. A science identity is the extent to which an individual sees themselves as someone who is competent and interested in science (Carlone and Johnson, 2007, as cited in Archer, 2016). This is influenced by the person’s history, family, experiences, gender, class, and leads to the person’s understanding of what is “normal for people like me” (Archer, 2016). A science identity can be changed but it requires change at the cultural and capital level. Simple exposure to science experiences is inadequate. In fact, visits to science centers where a disadvantaged person’s culture and capital are not accommodated can do more harm than good for that person’s science identity (Feinstein & Meshoulam, 2014). Nevertheless, there are strategies that academic researchers have proven to move the needle on science identity, but the effort is extensive, and it requires informal science leaders to understand the relationship between power, people, and institutions, and recognize when organizational practices encourage inequity and inaccessibility.
Author Dawson (2014) proposes a three-part framework for evaluating equity in informal science, building on prior research on enhancing computer literacy. This framework also lends itself to developing equity interventions, which we discuss in the Recommendations section of this paper. The framework includes:
Center leaders may consider using this framework for strategic planning. Here, we organize our equity recommendations for the Explorable Center’s EDIA program. But first, let’s review some of our interviewees’ perceptions on community engagement:
The Explorable Center is located in a suburban area of Maryland between major metropolitan areas. It will primarily draw from communities within a 60-mile radius. For the purposes of analyzing its future visitor base, we limited our demographic analysis to the three closest Maryland Counties – Harford, Baltimore County, and Cecil County. There are additional regions that the Explorable Center will draw from – Baltimore City, other Maryland counties, southern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware – that bear more research because they represent very diverse communities.
Our first recommendation is that even though the Explorable Center needs to initially examine equity across the board, that it focuses on accommodating the needs of five diverse communities: Black, Hispanic, women, neuro-diverse, and those with physical disabilities.
Figure 4: Race projections in Northeastern Maryland
The second recommendation we make is that the Explorable Center engages the community in a diversity and inclusion strategic planning process. While this paper contains data about the local community and national best practices, it is critical that the Explorable Center create its own dialogue with diverse communities in the region. The goal of the strategic planning process will be to create a 5-10-year roadmap for EDIA programs and facilities. A best practice that other science centers have employed is standing up an Advisory Board that includes both internal and external stakeholders and whose charter is to expand access to science to the widest possible number of people regardless of ability, gender, race, ethnicity, etc. During this process, the Center should create a public statement that explicitly states its commitment to diversity and inclusion. Additionally, develop metrics to assess and revitalize EDIA efforts.
Third, we recommend that the Explorable work with its design vendor and exhibit planners to use Universal Design principles for creating experiences in the Center. Universal design accommodates a wide range of user requirements and preferences. There are many excellent resources on this topic, such as the National Equity Project, which has material on designing for equity. Additional sources are listed in the Resources section of this paper.
In addition to the above, we recommend the Explorable Center evaluate the following best practices found in other science centers:
Most centers interviewed for this project did not feel their efforts were adequately funded. One center’s strongly worded recommendation was to make sure that diversity and inclusion has its own budget line. Compensating workers, bringing in trainers and speakers, and funding outreach campaigns are several expenditures this center would make.
In Figure 5, we depict the costs associated with a year-long level of effort to lay the foundation for a comprehensive internal and external diversity and inclusion program. The cost estimate includes a range of effort – minimum and recommended. The work is scalable and can be funded relative to available revenue. For a start-up center that has under 30 employees and volunteers and 10,000-SF of exhibit space, we recommend a contractual team that could bring the flexibility and diverse skills to bear at the appropriate time. There would be deliverables associated with a statement of work they would be expected to perform. That statement of work would include:
Figure 5: Estimated cost for EDIA start-up new center – 1 year
The benefits of a science center investing in an EDIA program are many and varied. First, a science center’s very mission is to expose people to the joy of scientific exploration and discovery. Unless a science center is deliberately focused on diversity and inclusion, it is likely to only expose those who are already interested in science, according to many of the sources referenced in this paper. Therefore, to truly expand the reach of scientific knowledge, a science center must reach beyond its traditional audience into communities that do not typically visit a science center. Bringing new people to the science center is where the growth is and where the science center can truly fulfill its mission.
Another benefit is that it is well-known that organizations with extensive diversity on its staff and leadership tends to outperform its less-diverse competitors. According to a McKinsey study on financial performance and diversity (Dixon-Fyle, 2021), companies with at least 30% female executives were 48% more likely to outperform their competitors. Racial and ethnic diversity statistics were remarkable as well. The most racially and ethnically diverse companies outperformed the least diverse in profitability by 36%. There is little research on comparable effectiveness measures in this area for science center or nonprofit performance.
One of the most impressive aspects of these interviews with science center leaders was their commitment to continuous improvement of their organization in EDIA. “We will never claim we are an inclusive organization. We can never claim victory because it is not possible to be a fully inclusive organization.” “We are a work in progress.” “We’ve reached a level of inclusion, but we are always working toward the next goal. As a very small non-profit, this can mean progress feels slower than we would like.” “Wow, we’ve done so much but when I look at other museums, I realize we have leagues to go.”
The informal science sector itself is a work in progress. Certainly, science centers face tremendous challenges in building bridges to diverse communities. It is not the people of these communities that need to change, but the informal science institutions themselves. “Historically, the culture of informal science spaces tends to represent, value, and reproduce dominant, white, male, middle‐class values, histories, and identities,” (Archer, 2020). This culture must be challenged and a new one created where science is framed and interpreted through diverse identities, values, and experiences. By listening with empathy and humility, by respecting young diverse people’s identities and contributions, and by letting go of our preconceived ideas and expectations of how people engage with science, we can usher in a new generation of passionate scientists from all backgrounds and abilities.
Project Lessons Learned and Tips for Others
This was not a typical linear project that started on Step One and ended at its expected destination. It had many moving parts, and several key people were unexpectedly unavailable during the course of this project. To adjust, we added and dropped assessment tools, and swapped out interviews with science centers. This is much like a typical organization development client engagement that unfolds over a period of time, changing course and information is uncovered. A lesson learned from this project was to not hold too rigidly to the project plan created at the start. Be willing to change direction as the winds shift. You’re probably going to learn something very interesting by going in another direction.
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