Using Communication: Gaining Support for Center Programming

This page was developed as a synthesis of lessons learned by participants during an NSEC working meeting and is part of an extended set of toolkits for STEM Education Centers.

Main Themes
  • Gaining support will entail aligning a Center's mission to institutional and stakeholder goals. Communicating with these constituents for support depends on the target audience and in alignment with their needs. This is true whether a Center is seeking resources, partnerships or faculty buy-in. Read more>>
  • Centers are in need of securing resources in a rapidly changing higher education environment, therefore Centers evolve over time and must adapt to new initiatives of higher education, administration, development and public school partners. Read more>>

Every STEM Center requires different types of support that originate from a variety of sources. Support may be in the form of resources, administration backing, faculty buy-in, funding partnerships, collaborators, and individual participation. Each entity will come to the table with their own needs, priorities, and goals that should be taken into consideration when developing a Center's mission/goals and the corresponding communication. Furthermore, a Center will need iteratively evaluate its working model in response to a higher education environment that continuously evolves via shifting institutional priorities, administrator and faculty turnover, and limited resources.

Aligning a Center's mission and requirements to institutional goals; Tailoring communication to target audience and their priorities

Centers face challenges in obtaining funding, administration backing, and faculty buy-in among other forms of support. There is no universal model to overcome these challenges because every institution's campus culture will be different. Centers must spend time understanding their campus culture context and how that culture influences what people value, and how they may interact with the Center. An initial step in understanding campus culture is to identify the constituents of your institution and the broader participants that may interact with your Center. More on Identifying Partners » These constituents may include, but are not limited to, federal agencies, administration, faculty, staff, donors, students, foundations, K-12 administration and teachers, and other targeted populations. Each of these constituents will have their own goals and needs, which can be addressed by tailoring communication to them such as demonstrating your Center's impact with examples. Aligning your Center's communication to the priorities and goals of the institution, top-level administrators, and other constituents will quickly demonstrate the utility of the Center and build relationships that can continue to grow over time.

The Office of STEM Education at the University of Hawai'i STEM has created a Broader Impact Network to connect UH research and education with collaborators throughout the state.
The Bowling Green State University has created numerous communication document that vary depending on the intended audience (see below). More reports are available on their website.
BGSU STEM ED Research Reform (Acrobat (PDF) 1.1MB Jun7 18)

Types of communication

Communication to stakeholders and other interested groups should be tailored to address their needs and priorities. Your main message remains the core of your communication, but the included supporting content may change depending on the audience. Furthermore, audiences may prefer or consume information in different formats, which a Center must consider to effectively reach its audiences. In some situations, it may be useful to hire someone as a marketing agent to tell your story and develop a working platform. A relationship with the communication department could be a great asset or even acquiring a social media intern can go a long way. Creating communication documents that clearly describe your mission without explanation, will be helpful in mobilizing your collaborators to help tell the story of the Center. This can be through formal advisory boards or more informal, ongoing relationships as your collaborators share their experiences with their broader networks. When possible, go to your constituent group to make that personal connection through face to face interactions. For example, if it is a K-12 constituent, go to the school. If working with faculty, reach out to them in their home department, professional development opportunities, or around then time they are planning courses. Keeping your communication timely will seem more pertinent and useful depending on your constituents' needs at a given moment. Constituent groups are balancing a lot of demands/schedules that become crowded and reminding them of services at critical junctions will give your communication more impact. For example, Centers for Teaching Excellence should send reminders in language that is lay and friendly about services prior to the beginning of the semester when faculty are planning courses. Constituents may need reminders of your work and how it may meet their needs, therefore be prepared to retell your story and advocate for your Center's role in meeting, supporting, and communicating teaching on campuses today.

Communication is focused on efficiency in today's fast paced society. Access to administrators is limited and you will have minimal time and space to get your point across. Developing a well-honed and rehearsed elevator speech for various groups will be an essential tool in settings where impromptu conversations may occur (e.g., symposiums, on-campus events, and other informal gatherings). Social media is critical in communicating with college students and increasingly, more professionals as students enter the workforce. Most campuses have a pool of very talented undergraduates that could assist with social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that is increasingly becoming a part of their daily lives. Note that the popular media platform may change over time with new innovations or culture trends.

Other Communication Examples and Opportunities:
  1. STEM Conferences (undergraduates)
  2. STEM TedTalks
  3. STEM Counseling for Success Meeting to create STEM pathways
  4. Events such as symposia, research competitions, STEM in the Park, STEM Night, etc.

Programming Resources
CU-Boulder has a variety of resources such as:
Teaching Evaluation reevaluation - the Teaching Quality Framework
Departmental Action Teams
LA Program

Communication for Funding Resources

The path to acquiring funding resources will likely include relationships with constituents with different priorities and levels of involvement. A long-standing goal for a Center may be to become as financially independent as possible through grants, donations, and fee-for-service programs. The path to financial independence will likely take time and require collaborating with numerous stakeholders at various levels. These partnerships may also evolve over time as projects end and new initiatives come on board requiring a diverse portfolio of stakeholders and investors.

Potential avenues for finding resources: For more on Funding and Resources

  • Federal agency program officers may provide seed money for workshops to discuss successes/barriers with internal and external stakeholders
  • Advisory councils and including industry when possible to build collaboration and ownership.
  • Interacting with the local chamber of commerce to engage industry for supporting student internships, apprenticeships, and stipends
  • Your Office(s) of Economic Development may be useful
  • Collaborating with faculty about grants that might fit with the work they are doing
  • Identify the resources you have access to that can leverage for support of others
    • Example: recruitment opportunities through camps taught by STEM faculty (summer salary and materials support)
  • Activating donor participation by providing a clear path towards contributing through a hyperlink in the form a 'Donate here! Give' button on your website.
    Mercy College's example of communicating with donors. Mercy College Donor Handout (Acrobat (PDF) 220kB Jun7 18)

Centers will need to evolve over time to adapt to new initiatives, needs, and communication strategies

A common challenge that Centers will face is an evolving landscape of higher education and the composition of constituents. First, you will need to retell your story and mission as persons turnover at the institutions and new initiatives are launched. These can be opportunities to build new relationships and demonstrate the impact of your Center. For example, including graduate students in the Center will plants seeds of collaboration to take into their careers as faculty. When you understand your campus culture context, you will want to identify processes and mechanisms by which change happens. Change may occur through countless mechanisms (e.g., assemblies, working committees, new institutional initiatives), but if you have a good understanding of your campus culture context, you can strategically place your Center as a leader in campus initiatives. At this junction, your message has and will continue to change over time in response to your constituents and how their needs and priorities have changed. This changes are an opportunity to demonstrate your program success and initiate new goals and collaborations.

Effective communication in a rapidly changing higher education environment will be important for conveying the evolving story of your Center and remaining aligned with the institutions goals and missions as they evolve. Creating communication materials should be an iterative process. Taking advantage of marketing, communication, and journalism resources (e.g., resources, departments, experts, businesses) can help with navigating the quick pace of communication and best practices for effective communication.