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New Community Engagement Center Will Expand Fellowship Program

A group of people reach their arms into the center of a circle in a show of teamwork
The 2017 class of the Community Engagement Fellows Program brought together 18 professionals in the field for a yearlong professional development opportunity. | Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement

The American Association for the Advancement of Science launched a center on Oct. 25 to strengthen connections in scientific communities and support the professionals working in this emerging field.

The Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement, funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, will expand AAAS’ fellowship program for professionals involved in cultivating communities in the sciences, provide research opportunities for visiting scholars and create and deliver trainings for other organizations.

Community engagement, unlike engagement with the public about science, focuses on the inner workings of scientific communities, aiming to improve communications among, for instance, the scientists in a research group or the members of a scientific association like AAAS. These community engagement professionals facilitate the sharing of information and strengthening of relationships within a scientific community, with the goal of making data and information more accessible, teams more effective and science more efficient, said Lou Woodley, CSCCE’s director.

Because the field is not well-established, those working in community engagement lack specific career paths, professional development opportunities or chances to connect with peers, Woodley said. Many community managers, according to a survey conducted by AAAS in 2016, have advanced degrees in the sciences, but few have had formal training in community management – instead, they learn about scientific community engagement on the job.

AAAS has sought to both support community engagement professionals and advance and professionalize the emerging field through its Community Engagement Fellows Program, first established in 2015. The program, funded by a previous grant from the Sloan Foundation, brought together 18 community engagement professionals in 2017 for a yearlong training and professional development opportunity. With renewed support from the Sloan Foundation, the new center will build upon this work and bring together 25 fellows in 2019. Applications are now open for 2019 fellows, with further information on the center’s homepage.

The 2017 participants represented a diverse mix of organizations as well as experience levels. They held several meetings over the year at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. They also participated in monthly webinars and stayed in touch through regular correspondence in a private online platform. Each fellow also contributed blog posts about their experiences to expand what is now the largest freely available resource of online information about scientific community engagement.

Each fellow was required to produce a “playbook,” a manual documenting the factors that go into managing their particular scientific community. Consider Marsha Lucas, for instance, the publications and communications coordinator at the Society for Development Biology. She created an online community for underrepresented minority students to get to know one another outside of the society’s annual meeting and her playbook included a template for an invitation to join the community, a calendar of announcements and other information she shared with the community. She also provided a breakdown of the community’s subgroups – all of the materials that detail the work that goes into facilitating community interactions. A community, Lucas said, “is not going to run on its own.”

The importance of having a lasting document for participating organizations was made clear when four of the 18 fellows started new community engagement jobs during and after their fellowship. They were able to leave their organizations with a record of what they learned during the fellowship, Woodley noted.

The 2017 Community Engagement Fellows pose in blue shirts
The 2017 Community Engagement Fellows met three times at AAAS during the year and stayed in touch online in between workshops. | Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement

The fellows also worked on self-directed group projects throughout the year. Stephanie Vasko, who was formerly research associate and program manager at Michigan State University’s Toolbox Dialogue Initiative and became managing director at MSU’s Center for Interdisciplinarity during her fellowship, was part of a group that authored a guide for content-focused community managers, an ever-evolving document that will be handed off to the incoming fellows to update as the profession moves forward.

As part of that project, Vasko worked on a chapter about social media strategies. “It’s become a huge part of what I do,” she said, adding that the fellowship “has definitely helped me launch my career at MSU as an on-campus leader.”

As professionals in community engagement, alumni of the program have naturally recognized the importance of the community the fellowship program has established. Many fellows stay in touch beyond their fellowship year, Vasko said, sharing their successes and connecting one another with job opportunities.

“The cohort is its own community,” Lucas added. “There is this knowledge base and support system that I was so happy to be a part of.” With the intention of continuing to grow this nascent community of practice, center staff envision CEFP alumni serving as mentors to the new class of fellows.

Under the new center, staff also plan to introduce a visiting scholars program, in which community engagement professionals, researchers or evaluators have the opportunity to work at AAAS for a week on a specific team-based research project to advance the field of scientific community engagement. Alumni of the fellowship program could continue working with the center as a visiting scholar and may choose through their scholarship to contribute to the creation of domain-specific training materials for other community professionals.

The center will also build upon the trainings that AAAS staff members have already conducted for external organizations interested in improving their community management.

Said Woodley, “The center’s three areas of focus are tightly interlinked. Our research activities inform the iteration of our training materials and fellowship program. We’re excited to be able to combine theory and practice to support the vital role of the scientific community engagement manager.”

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Andrea Korte