What is experimental practice?

Temporarily suspends business as usual

Experimental practice puts aside established ways of doing things even if they are not broken. This should be constructive, not disruptive! Practitioners are used to providing services, and used to working to be better at providing those services, but we’ll never learn what is possible if that is all we ever do. This is driven by generative, “What if…” questions with uncertain outcomes.

Inherently Collaborative

Answering “What if?” usually requires many iterations of experiments. For “what if” questions where cultural context and relationships affect the outcome, an isolated experiment only shows what works in that specific instance. Therefore, creating useful knowledge requires collaborative experimentation by many different teams in many different sites.

Making room for new ways of knowing and doing

Experimental practice is an approach to creating new knowledge and capacity. It’s not just research, it’s not just practice, and it’s not just bridging research and practice. Allowing for emergent outcomes requires an open stance toward success and evaluation.

Establish a relationship between institutions and experimentation

Advancing institutional change is long term work and requires our home institutions to be open and experimental, ready to accept new processes and new ways of defining success. Experimental practice is as much about developing our internal culture as it is about our impact on audiences.

What is experimental practice?

The Science Festival Alliance

The Science Festival Alliance (SFA) fosters a professional community dedicated to cultivating a healthy relationship between science and society through festivals and other public events.

The SFA is a collaborative network of member institutions, initiatives, and individuals committed to sharing resources and working with a diverse group of stakeholders to spark curiosity, encourage experimentation, and engage our communities.

We founded the SFA in 2009 to connect the handful of independent science festivals that existed in the United States at the time. Since then, more than 75 festivals across the US and Canada have become SFA members. Instead of paying dues, SFA members volunteer time and resources in support of our shared goals.

Science Events Summit

As varied as they might be, public science events organizers are united in practicing the same craft. That’s why we have a Science Events Summit.

Who comes to the Summit? Anyone with an interest in live, in-person public science events.The Summit brings together public science event organizers, evaluators, collaborators, and sponsors.Past meetings have averaged between 100 - 150 attendees. Many attendees are professionals, but for most event production is only one part of their job. Whether you are interested in massive science festivals or intimate science cafes, high-production stage shows or community-based science experiences, you’ll fit right in at the Summit.

Science Festival Accelerator

The Science Festival Accelerator supports new and emerging science festivals in communities with a relatively small resource base.

We measure the Accelerator’s success by the degree to which each newly launched science festival serves new populations, rallies new collaborators, elevates new leaders, and provides experimental test cases that the broader science festival community can learn from and apply.The first two iterations of the Accelerator were two-year programs that saw the launch of 21 new festivals across the country. In 2018, our third Accelerator expanded to a three-year program, which let us spend time specifically prioritizing issues of diversity and inclusion in public science organizations, programs, and audiences. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted that timeline, but presented unanticipated opportunities to have meaningful community engagement within the Accelerator cohort and beyond.

Evolving Culture of Science Engagement

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The Evolving Culture of Science Engagement is an initiative to explore how the public connects to science, how science connects to the public, and how it’s all changing in the 21st century.

The Evolving Culture of Science Engagement initiative is an attempt to take a fresh look at how the public connects to science, how science connects to the public, and how it’s all changing. What happens if we view those connections in the broader context of contemporary culture instead of the traditional categories of science communication and informal science learning? What happens if we start with the innovations in practice—and the innovators themselves—rather than with the goals or outcomes of science communication and education? And what if we try to include all the settings, vehicles, audiences, and professional communities of science engagement, to take in the whole landscape in which adult non-scientists encounter science today?

Just Add Science

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In the spirit of research and development, this initiative supported a dozen festivals as they experimented with new ways of integrating science learning opportunities within existing community events.

This predecessor to the Science in Vivo project experimented with new types of science learning at existing community events.

Science Live

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Science Live supports the development of a distinct professional sector based on live public science events so that the practitioners, researchers, and external supporters of this sector are able to maximize the beneficial impacts of events and widen participation in this activity.

The field of informal science learning and communication is comprised of many sectors—after school programs, science center exhibitions and programs, television and film, print and new media, to name just a few. Each of these is understood to make unique contributions, present unique opportunities, and require unique support. Science Live began with the observation that it time to similarly acknowledge the practice of live public science events.

Science in Vivo

Wandering off from our spaces forces us to put down the teaching tools we're used to: our hands-on activities, our demos and diagrams, our usual bag of tricks. This means we are finally free to stop, look around, notice what everyone else is actually doing, and find ways to join in.

We call joining in like this "situated engagement." If community outreach is about going where the people are, then situated engagement is about taking the next step and doing what the people do. We're experimenting with situated engagement through the Science In Vivo project, and dozens of teams from across the U.S. are taking part.It's been an incredible ride so far, and we're glad you're here to share it with us. We're finding that situated engagement reorients our whole approach to what we do. The Science In Vivo website is built around audio clips of professionals processing this reorientation first hand. The site is full of gems, but to appreciate their real value you will need to slow down and listen.

Science Near Me

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Science Near Me is a free resource to help you quickly find opportunities to engage in all types of science.

Science Near Me is a free resource to help you quickly find opportunities to engage in all types of science, technology, engineering, math, (STEM) events, projects, and programs near you, in person and online. Enter your search preferences and Science Near Me will scan our partners’ opportunities and present a list of options for you in seconds. Search by location, topic, audience, and more to find the experience that is right for you.

Modeling Community Listening

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many science organizations shifted their programming online, accelerating a digital divide that is already a barrier to diversity and inclusion in public science engagement.

With SFA Accelerator Advisor and community organizer Daniel Aguirre, we launched a series of listening sessions. Community members including teachers, parents, and students set the agenda based on their own priorities and public science practitioners participated in “listen-only” mode. These sessions were moving and informative, and, most important, a model for community engagement that every organization can bring into its own public science practice.Participants were then guided to initiate a private cross-cultural conversation with a listening partner to whom they are already connected, sharing their own cultural lenses, pushing through discomfort, and practicing active engagement.

Planning a Center for Neuroscience & Society

What does a healthy relationship between neuroscience and society look like? How do we set the conditions for that relationship to flourish? A set of teams at MIT lead by the MIT Museum’s Experimental Practice Group is working on these questions with a five-month planning grant from the Dana Foundation.

This project is a response to the increasingly urgent need for action that addresses the gaps between three domains that should be more interconnected: 1.) neuroscience education, training, and research; 2.)scholarship in the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of neuroscience research; and 3.) public engagement.

One of the core principles we are testing is whether and how these three domains can work together hand-in-hand towards mutual benefit and with mutual respect. We envision a Center that directly connects established and training neuroscientists with established and training practitioners of public engagement and the arts, and to do so with frameworks, observation, and critique provided by ELSI scholars, along with the full participation of the public. Bringing that reality to fruition requires experimental practice.