AN News: “Outreach and Engagement in a Science Museum” by Leslie C. Moore (The Ohio State University) et al.

In recent years, several sociolinguists have published accounts of successful integration of Outreach and Engagement into their research and/or teaching, including outreach to middle and/or high school students, university service-learning courses, and meaningful involvement of students in research as participants. We have found it exciting and effective to engage with the public through informal science education in a science museum. In 2012, the Language Sciences Research Lab opened at the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio. The lab is better known as the Language Pod, a research-in-real-time exhibit that consists of a glass-enclosed room inside which research is conducted within the public’s view. The lab space was created and is maintained through a partnership between COSI and the Ohio State University (OSU). The Language Pod is run by the Executive Committee: Laura Wagner (Psychology), Kathryn Campbell-Kibler (Linguistics), Cynthia Clopper (Linguistics), Kiwako Ito (Linguistics), Leslie C. Moore (Teaching and Learning), and Shari Speer (Linguistics). Over the past four years, we have developed a repertoire of practices that integrate research, teaching, and outreach to serve our mission of conducting research that will expand our knowledge about language while also exciting the public about linguistics.

Integrating Research and Outreach

At universities, it is common practice to have subject pools that encourage undergraduate students to participate actively in research. In the Language Pod we have applied and adapted this practice to the science museum setting. Data collection protocols are designed to be short (under 20 minutes long) and interesting to the general public. Debriefing explanations are constructed to be informative for a diverse population of museum visitors that includes adults with advanced degrees, adults with no college education, and young children. Participants and their companions are encouraged to ask questions and engage more deeply with the researcher(s) about the research.

Integrating Teaching and Outreach

We have developed a university-level course for undergraduate and graduate students called Training in Science Education Outreach, known as the Pod Course. One of the aims of the course is to develop future researchers who can effectively communicate scientific understanding of language to diverse audiences, drawing on principles and practices of informal science education. The course involves classroom instruction and hands-on time at COSI, where the students engage in outreach activities with museum visitors. These activities center on a set of demonstrations that illustrate concepts in linguistics. The capstone project calls on students to create guidelines for a new demonstration, a challenging assignment that has resulted in several student-created demonstrations now used on the museum floor. In the summer, the course is combined with a research internship for students admitted to our NSF-funded summer program for undergraduates, The Science of Language and the Language of Science.

Integrating Research and Teaching

Since the Language Pod opened in 2012, well over 100 students have been involved in the Pod as research assistants, participant recruiters, and/or explainers of ongoing research. Students in the Pod Course are integrated with the research component of the Pod; they complete human subjects research ethics training and are listed as key personnel on Pod research projects. They also receive training in the recruitment of museum visitors to be participants in ongoing research. To facilitate their recruitment efforts and their potential future relationship with the Pod, students learn about the different studies being conducted in the Pod, interact with student and faculty researchers, and witness what language science research in action looks like. Several students have gone on to become research assistants in the Pod.

The Statement of the SLA Committee on Language and Social Justice calls for linguistic anthropologists to increase awareness among the general public of the ways in which language is implicated in social discrimination. Social justice is not explicitly part of the Language Pod mission. However, many of the Language Pod demos relate to English language variation and present non-standard varieties in a way that destigmatizes them. Indeed, several members of the Pod Executive Committee do research related to variation in English, and all believe that increasing public understanding of linguistic diversity is one of the most important contributions we can make at COSI.

More recently, we have given increased attention to bi- and multilingualism. We have recruited bi-/multilingual students as Pod Course students and/or research assistants, and we encourage the development and/or revision of demos to raise public awareness of bi-/multilingualism and of languages other than English. One of the authors of this column (Moore) has partnered with COSI colleagues to study informal science education programs and practices for preschool dual language learners and to increase awareness of and attention to the needs of young children learning (science) in an additional language (http://u.osu.edu/expandingrepertoiresinformalscience/). The project examines COSI’s practices on the museum floor and in their outreach and engagement work with families, preschools, and community organizations. The project team is also conducting a national needs assessment of science museums and children’s museums, and we have partnered with science and children’s museums around the country that are doing innovative work with young dual language learners.

Museums are increasingly interested in partnering with university researchers to bring a real research experience to the public, and one of our goals in the Language Pod is to apprentice upcoming researchers into working in and with museums in ways that are exciting and productive for them. Laura L. Allen, a doctoral student in English, studies digital rhetoric, race, and community literacies. This past semester she took the Pod Course, and she is currently conducting at study at COSI on the way different demographics of youth talk about and perform tasks on their mobile devices. She has observed that participants in the museum setting are easy to recruit, highly engaged by the study tasks (ranking of common cell phone tasks on familiarity, performance of tasks, reflection on each task performance, and an interview about their cell phone use), and eager to ask questions about her research. Laura has begun developing a demo based on her study, and she is already thinking about her next study at the Language Pod.

If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of our work in the Language Pod, please see:

Wagner, L., Speer, S. R., Moore, L. C., McCullough, E. A., Ito, K., Clopper, C. G., Campbell-Kibler, K. (2015). Linguistics in a science museum: Integrating research, teaching, and outreach at the Language Sciences Research Lab. Language & Linguistics Compass, 9, 420-431.

The Executive Committee of the COSI Language Pod includes Laura Wagner (Psychology), Kathryn Campbell-Kibler (Linguistics), Cynthia Clopper (Linguistics), Kiwako Ito (Linguistics), Leslie C. Moore (Teaching and Learning), and Shari Speer (Linguistics).

Please send your comments, contributions, news and announcements to SLA Contributing Editors Aaron Ansell (aansell@vt.edu) or Anna Babel (babel.6@osu.edu).

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