About science in vivo
Science In Vivo is a grant-funded project managed by the Experimental Practice team at the MIT Museum.
Since 2017, Science In Vivo has supported teams across the U.S. as they find new ways to integrate science engagement into existing public gatherings. While these teams all have experience with community outreach, Science In Vivo asks them to go beyond business-as-usual and find ways to participate in culturally meaningfully ways. This active participation is called situated engagement. If community outreach is about leaving home base to go where the people are, situated engagement is about taking the next step and doing what the people do.
Situated engagement holds the potential to transform science outreach and science-first organizations in ways that ultimately benefit local communities. The Science In Vivo project is designed to learn more about situated engagement and inspire others to unlock those benefits. This website is the first attempt to bring that learning together in one place. If the lessons shared here appear to be messy, it is because they are connected directly to real lived experiences.
All public-facing Science In Vivo activity documented here took place before the disruption of COVID-19, so social distancing and masks were not needed at the time.
Science In Vivo’s Unseen Work
An important aspect of the Science In Vivo project that is difficult to see from the outside is an emphasis on process over product. It is not possible to authentically join in at a gathering you do not control without first developing the cultural competency needed to act appropriately, and taking the time to forge new personal relationships that serve as a bridge into the community represented there. Some of the processes that teams followed for doing this are alluded to in the audio highlights on this website, but as is so often the case, the thoughtful care and effort that went into each team’s processes remains out of sight to those that were not there.
Another invisible aspect of the Science In Vivo project worth mentioning is the large amount of activity at sites not profiled here on this website. In 2015 and 2016 nine teams conducted site work for a project called Just Add Science. The learning gained from those experimental sites paved the way for Science In Vivo, but the project did not have the capacity to document or assess the sites in a systematic way. Similarly, between 2018 and 2020 Science In Vivo supported 20 sites in the U.S. Twelve of those sites are not profiled on this website, even though they played an important role in advancing what we know about situated engagement.
Science In Vivo’s Assessment: Observation and Critique
Situated engagement is a new practice for nearly every Science In Vivo team involved, and teams are often operating in highly visible ways within culturally sensitive settings. Honest and considered assessment of their activity is absolutely necessary.
However, the project’s wide variety of supported activity, the complex and layered character of the sites, and the ephemeral nature of live events makes evaluation a daunting challenge. On top of that, the experimental nature of the project is such that we often go into a site without knowing what we are looking for. Situated engagement is about adapting to a scene in order to meaningfully participate, so a science-first agenda often cannot be a team’s first priority. Situated engagement requires rethinking the stated goals and assessment rubrics of traditional science engagement. For example, what is powerful and what is risky about a science float in a massive parade? Before setting out to measure whether interventions like these “works” in a specific way, we need a much more involved consideration of the many ways they take on meaning in a highly nuanced cultural setting.
To resolve this, Science In Vivo borrows tools from the arts and humanities: observation and critique. Every site profiled here received a visit from a pair of carefully selected observers. Most pairs of observers included one person with experience in science engagement and one person with expertise in a different domain. Observers often had to travel long distances to attend an event. Once on site, observers followed a flexible protocol for participating in and documenting activity. Following a site's events, observers and site teams met together for a private debrief, and then met again for a two-hour, recorded final critique of the experience.
All final critiques took place in 2019. In 2021 sites were grouped into categories, and observers and team members were invited to listen to and highlight the final critiques from their categories. They were then invited to recorded conversations to reflect on their categories. All of the audio clips on this website are taken from the final critiques and category conversations.
While observation and critique are methods used widely in the arts and humanities, they are not often employed in the assessment of science engagement. Yet these tools have been extremely helpful in providing actionable advice to event organizers, flagging potentially negative unintended messages arising from activity, and unpacking the complex cultural dynamics at play in real world settings. These tools have also proven to be essential for documenting the fleeting experience of live events.
Science In Vivo’s timeline
2015 – 2016
The Just Add Science project works with nine U.S. teams to experiment with science experiences that “Go where the people are.” Initiatives range from parade floats, to pop ups at sporting events, to a road trip stopping in busy shopping center parking lots. Just Add Science was made possible by a gift from the Simons Foundation to the MIT Museum.
Building off of Just Add Science, the MIT Museum receives a grant for the Science In Vivo project from Science Sandbox, a new initiative of the Simons Foundation. The project issues its first call for applications for site activity and receives an overwhelming response with over 130 applications for site activity. While the majority of applications are crafted by experienced professionals, very few of the applications fully connect with the mission of adapting activity to a setting and context.
Teams begin working on Science In Vivo sites in two different ways. Experimental sites focus on trying new ways of integrating science experiences into public gatherings. Digging Deeper sites focus on putting community engagement processes first.
Categories of Science In Vivo activity begin to emerge from the sites that are active. Observation and critique protocols are established, and observers are recruited for nine sites. The observation process is logistically burdensome to manage, but yields rich recorded final critiques. Presentations on the observation and critique process at meetings of the Visitor Studies Association, AAAS, and the UK Science Festival Network are well received.
Several sites are cut short or prevented altogether by COVID restrictions. Science In Vivo’s final convening, timed to coincide with the Science Events Summit, is cancelled.
Audio recordings of Science In Vivo’s final critiques are processed into Cortico’s Local Voices Network system. Observers and team members are invited to use this system to listen to and add notes to the 2019 recordings of final critiques in their category. Observers and team members then join category conversations in June. These category conversations are recorded and processed into the Local Voices Network. Almost 250 highlights are identified by this process and tagged according to themes from a total of 24 hours of recorded audio. All media is collected on the website. A proposal for a second phase of Science In Vivo is prepared, and…we’ll see what happens next!