Partnering with Community Organizations to Support Science Learning: Research-based Tips for Forming Partnerships

Guest posters Claire Christensen, Corinne Singleton, Kea Anderson, and Danae Kamdar share their work investigating approaches to school-community organization partnering, perceived benefits to participating organizations and local children and families, and challenges they encountered along the way. Claire Christensen is an Education Researcher at SRI International who researches how young children learn from educational media. Corinne Singleton is a Senior Education Researcher at SRI International whose research focuses on education for underserved populations, innovative teaching and learning, education technology, and math education. Kea Anderson is a Senior Education Researcher at SRI International who specializes in informal STEM learning and supporting equity in STEM. Danae Kamdar is an Early STEM Education Researcher at Digital Promise, and her work aims to better understand how to promote STEM teaching and learning in public early childhood settings. 

In Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, a veteran educator and coach added new hands-on ocean-science learning activities from PBS into a longstanding teacher professional development workshop. In Columbus, Ohio, elementary students learn about habitats and ocean species using materials from curriculum kits developed by staff at the local PBS station WOSU.

Image of cartoon fish named Splash and Bubbles

In these and five other communities around the country, elementary teachers partnered with local public media stations and other organizations to engage young children in ocean science and protecting local waterways through activities related to the PBS KIDS show, Splash and Bubbles. The partners collaborating in the examples above sought to create relationships, strategies, resources, and plans that would outlast the grant that supported their partnering.

In this post, we draw on findings from a recent partnerships study to offer guidance for school leaders and teachers interested in pursuing similar collaborations. As part of a study conducted for The Jim Henson Company and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, we conducted 22 teacher surveys, 4 teacher interviews, 12 partner interviews, and 4 observations at 6 locations across the country to investigate partnering approaches, perceived benefits to participating organizations and local children and families, and challenges they encountered along the way. Here are a few key considerations based on what we learned. 

Is partnership worth it? We found that teachers and their partners valued their Splash and Bubbles partnership and felt it furthered their shared goals. On teacher surveys, teachers said that the partnerships gave them new ideas, materials, and activities for teaching ocean science. They also felt partnering improved both their teaching and knowledge of ocean science. Notably, teachers said the partnership helped students have new experiences, develop stronger connections to the community, learn about local waterways, and have fun!

Considering potential partners. Partnering works best when plans are jointly developed, and the relationships and activities are mutually beneficial. For example, in a museum-school partnership, a school might benefit from new educational experiences provided by the museum, and the museum might benefit by reaching new audiences with educational content that is aligned to its mission. Here are some examples of community partners involved in this study, and how they supported ocean science education.

  • Museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums – In our study, teachers partnered with these types of organizations for both field trips and classroom visits. Field trips often included tailored tours or scavenger hunts based on Splash and Bubbles ocean science content. To prepare students for field trips, or as a standalone activity, some museums, zoos, and aquariums arranged for staff to visit classrooms with live specimens or related artifacts. One partner also provided classroom kits with reusable materials related to their zoo visit.
  • Conservation organizations – Teachers partnered with local conservation organizations to host watershed clean-up days, either as a component of a field trip or as an event for families. Conservation organizations also provided tours and interpretation of local centers, parks, and preserves focused on protecting the local watershed and how to protect it.
  • Local PBS stations – Local PBS stations received grant funds to connect teachers with other community organizations. They provided these partnerships with funding, lesson plans, and activities related to Splash and Bubbles. Many local PBS stations can partner with schools and community organizations to provide activities and lessons related to PBS KIDS content in science, math, and literacy. 

Of course, your partnering options go beyond these examples! Get creative when identifying science education resources in your community, such as local farms, national parks, or universities. 

Approaching potential partners to ensure a good fit. You probably already have relationships that can help connect you to a potential partner. Share your goals with in your school community to discover a parent or other educator who can make an introduction. Cold calls also work! If a particular organization may not be a perfect fit, a staff member there might be able to introduce you to colleagues at another relevant one. 

As you explore potential partnerships from those you’ve brainstormed, consider your needs and constraints. Your partner may share your educational goals but may not be aware of your needs and constraints. Communicate any scheduling or resource constraints clearly.  Here are some common needs to consider:

  • What long-term benefits can the partnership provide? In what ways does an ongoing relationship benefit those involved? What can you create in the partnership that will serve as a lasting resource?
  • Does the partner have experience working with this age group? A partner who understands child development may be able to play a larger role in activity planning or facilitation. Partners who have less experience with young children may need you to take the lead.
  • Can planned activities take place within your scheduling constraints? You may need events to coincide with a particular unit, or to conclude before a school break begins.
  • Can the partner make help science locally relevant? In our study, coastal communities focused on ocean science while inland ones took a watershed perspective. Teachers and students can have higher engagement with science concepts when they apply them authentically in their own communities. How can you highlight local assets in your partnership? 
  • What resources are available to support your continued collaboration? Developing a common understanding, inventorying resources and expertise each partner can contribute, and planning joint activities takes time. It is helpful to discuss funding and time constraints for this work. 

Brainstorming partnership activities. Once you’ve identified potential partners, work together to brainstorm potential activities that meet your goals, such as helping your students to explore natural phenomena or building teacher capacity to support hands-on science, and your partners’ goals. To inspire your thinking, here are some additional ocean science activities we learned about in our study:

  • A family science event to celebrate World Oceans Day, in which families rotated among stations with hands-on science activities
  • Beach and waterway clean-up days and a recycled art project
  • Webinars on implementing ocean science lessons for educators to view anytime
  • Educator open houses, in which teachers were invited visit booths from local potential partners such as the library system, a local Department of Environmental Services, and a university extension office
  • Classroom lessons using clips from Splash and Bubbles and/or crafts activities
  • A pen pal program in which students shared information about their local watershed areas with a classroom in another part of the country
  • Field trips to zoos, aquariums, and museums

Selecting or developing activities based on your educational and practical needs. As you and your partners refine your plans, consider your learning goals and logistical constraints. Here are some examples: 

  • Plan activities you can use repeatedly,to make the most of your joint work. In addition to the examples above, these can include add-on activities for long-standing regular events such as family nights or after school programs. 
  • Extend one-time experiences, such as field trips. One-time activities are most beneficial when supported by additional learning opportunities. In one partnership, zoo staff visited the school before a planned a field trip to the zoo to prepare the class and extend learning.  
  • Consider supplies, cost, and time. If the partner develops lessons for use in the classroom, you may need help preparing materials. One community partner pre-cut all paper materials to create “grab and go” lessons.  

Local partnerships can help make science local and lively for your students. We hope these tips will inspire you to build new community connections and strengthen existing ones! 

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