Cultivating a scientifically-minded public.
The Curiosity-Driven Science Initiative aims to increase active public engagement with and in science through catalytic investments in design and development of experiences that enable youth, their communities, and the interested public to draw on curiosity to ask questions, use and pursue evidence, and solve problems in areas that matter to them. We hypothesize that these activities — the hallmarks of scientific exploration — combined with the right tools can empower ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Alongside our grantees and partners, we aim to expand access to the meaningful experiences that give rise to exploration, with explicit intent towards reaching youth and communities who have been historically underrepresented in the sciences. Addressing this gap in opportunities to experience and engage in authentic science is critical for cultivating science interest, developing scientific and evidence-based reasoning practices, contributing to understandings of the natural world, experiencing the joy of discovery, and building confidence that one can ask and pursue questions, and figure things out.
Why this work matters
Most of the foundation’s Science Program grantmaking seeks to unleash scientists’ curiosity at the cutting edge of select scientific fields to accelerate the quest for new knowledge. A much smaller fraction of the foundation’s work attends to the enabling conditions required for science to flourish. This initiative is a response to the need to nourish the future vitality of science.
A starting premise of this work is that broader public support for and trust in science benefits science. Our vision has science occupying a central and steadfast place in the fabric of society. This vision hinges upon a curious and openminded citizenry that values science, respects its judgments, and turns to evidence-based decision-making in personal, professional, and civic arenas. We recognize that having a thriving science enterprise in this country requires earning the public’s support for science and inspiring the next generation to pursue it. This is an ambitious long-term vision requiring concerted collaboration among scientific and educational organizations as well as philanthropies.
The Curiosity-Driven Science Initiative’s slice of this larger vision is motivated by research that speaks to the value of experience and active engagement in science for sparking and developing interests, understandings, skills, confidence, and trust in science.
The Curiosity initiative is grounded in these key principles:
Science-rich experiences provide a foundation for future engagement and learning.
Exploring the natural world matters: getting your hands dirty, taking things apart, and questioning how things work or what contributes to inconsistencies fuels meaningful and sustained engagement with science. The value of doing is reflected in decades of academic research on learning. This body of work demonstrates that learners of all ages who experience authentic and phenomena-rich science come to view science as an open-ended arena for discovery and problem solving, rather than just the assortment of facts and information too often characteristic of science in school.
Privileging curiosity and problem-solving improves engagement and learning outcomes.
Curiosity drives science forward yet is often an afterthought for science engagement and education efforts, which are too often focused on facts and information rather than the process that generated them in the first place. When unleashed, scientific curiosity can propel engagement and problem solving in non-scientists just as it does for scientists.
Community and out-of-school settings provide good contexts for science-rich engagement.
A burgeoning research literature confirms the importance of out-of-school opportunities for promoting scientific curiosity, problem solving, and solidifying life-long interests in science. Pursuing science more locally — in one’s backyard, in one’s community, in areas of one’s concerns —can lead to greater interest and deeper, more sustained engagement. This holds true for 9-year-olds and 99-year-olds.
Youth should be a critical audience for science engagement efforts.
We focus on opportunities for youth because it is far easier to keep them interested, engaged and curious about science and the natural world than to re-engage adults who have been turned off from science. Moreover, today’s youth are the decision makers and problem solvers of the not-too-distant future; some of them will become tomorrow’s scientists, but all of them are tomorrow citizens.
The lay-public is a secondary but important audience.
For one, they include the youth’s parents and neighbors and are today’s decision makers. They can support, organize, and participate in science-rich local activities; they can be mentors and brokers for youth and others. The emergence of communities organizing around local science-relevant issues, expanding community and citizen science opportunities, and expanded access to engineering-relevant activity, enable broad and deep participation in science that should be supported.
Guided by the above principles, we aim to expand opportunities for active engagement in and with science by youth and community members. By active engagement we mean participation that reflects the habits, dispositions, activities, and reasoning practices of science. This is satisfying work, deeper and more durable than enjoyment or fun alone.
Specific initiative strategies include the following:
- Develop and disseminate tools, experiences, and resources that enable broad participation in science, promote curiosity, and engender problem-solving.
- Target research and evaluation to better understand what is effective, for whom, and under what conditions.
- Advance efforts and partnerships that support deep engagement in science by youth and communities historically underrepresented in the sciences.
- Catalyze and expand collaborations and networks to support implementation, dissemination and scale.
Building on past investments
The Curiosity-Driven Science Initiative builds on and extends earlier grantmaking by the foundation to support broader public and community engagement in science.
Exploratory grant making had two major thrusts: The first involved the development and distribution of low-cost, high quality and durable tools, along with supporting materials, to bring science and exploration to the broader public. Just as tools and technologies open new possibilities for scientists to ask and pursue questions that could not be asked before, low-cost tools open new possibilities for broader public and community engagement with science and for learning. The early grantmaking began testing the notion that these tools could be distributed through existing communities and networks to produce a catalytic effect of the foundation’s investments.
A second intent of these early grants sought to improve the way science engagement and learning outcomes are assessed. This effort was motivated by the lack of metrics that could accurately assess the factors that really matter for lifetime engagement with science. Another motivation was the challenges those inadequacies posed for understanding the impact and informing the design of science learning and engagement interventions.
From 2013 to 2018, we made more than 30 exploratory grants. Our exploratory work helped refine the foundation’s focus and approach to investing in science-rich learning experiences.