April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Expressing Diverse Institutional Identities through Web 2.0

Cynthia Graville-Smith, Saint Louis Science Center, USA


This paper examines digital outreach efforts by the School and Community Partnerships Department of the Saint Louis Science Center (SLSC.) The department's work is centered on Youth Exploring Science (YES), an extensive work-based science outreach program targeted to urban youth facing multiple risk factors. ‘Web 2.0’ has served as a facilitator of the YES program and participants’ identity to both internal and external audiences.

Keywords: Web 2.0, diversity, community, teens, identity


Few would dispute the claim that museums have an obligation to reach out and meet the learning needs of non-traditional audiences. In order to do so, it is essential for museums and cultural institutions to meet those needs through an open-ended, systemic commitment to diversity and power sharing (Karp, Kreamer, & Lavine 1992). Recently released in the Saint Louis Science Center's (SLSC) Strategic Vision Statement, the institution vowed to meet the future achievement needs of non-traditional audiences by “sustaining lifelong science and technology learning for a diverse audience of youth, parents, and teachers” (Saint Louis Science Center, 2008).

This paper is not a discussion of how to involve underrepresented audiences with museums. Rather, it is a description of how the SLSC utilizes Web 2.0 technology to capture, highlight, and deepen those interactions. It should be noted that technology alone is not sufficient to draw into museums audiences that have traditionally been intimidated, ignored, or unwelcome within cultural institutions. To change the diversity of a museum audience, the museum itself must change. Participatory technology can become a part of the vehicle with which museums begin to reinvent themselves and make themselves open to the needs of new audiences.

If the images and words of underrepresented audiences are featured without effect on the majority standard, the community is given input without impact. Offering voice to communities without giving power relegates their position to one of "tokenism". (Association of Science and Technology Centers, 1998). Museum Web professionals are not immune from this danger: representations of museum audiences often fall to the museum Web site. The commitment to diversity must extend beyond the act of designing Web pages with photos of African-American children in the galleries.

As a historical enabler of racism, the field of science (and by extension, science museums) has a particular responsibility to contribute to the collective positive imagery and artifact of African Americans and other minority groups engaged with science. To capture and distribute this content in an authentic way, a science museum must first be a place where African American and other minority groups engage with science.


Youth Exploring Science (YES) is an extensive work-based science outreach program targeted to urban youth facing multiple risk factors. YES teens demonstrate confidence in various scientific disciplines by engaging in inquiry-based Learning Labs and work-based skill workshops. Teens also demonstrate their understanding of core STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts by facilitating hands-on activities, workshops, and demonstrations to a variety of public audiences.

Currently, the YES program works with 150 teens, with an institutional commitment to enlarge the program 10% per year for the next 10 years (Saint Louis Science Center, 2008.) The teens are divided into 5 sub-components, focusing on various science-related topics, including system dynamics, renewable energy, and chemistry. The components meet every Saturday during the school year, and five days a week during the summer. YES teens are paid minimum wage, working as hourly employees of the SLSC.

A majority of YES participants graduate from high school; they pursue higher education at significantly higher rates than their fellow classmates do. Of the 2007 senior YES cohort, 30 out of 32 teens graduated from high school, and 29 continued their education at two- or four-year colleges and universities. This graduation rate (93.75%) compares to the 55% high school graduation rate of Saint Louis Public Schools (SLPS), the base school district of the SLSC and the majority school district of YES teens (Gay, 2007). The college attendance rate of SLPS students is currently in dispute; however, the percentage was recently a major factor in the decision to strip accreditation from the district.


The YES program has long struggled with its identity, both inside and outside the institution. The program is centered in a facility that lies a quarter mile away from the “main” SLSC building. Although the site, the Taylor Community Science Resource Center, is a spacious, custom-renovated facility perfectly suited for the program, its physical disconnection from the museum has become a barrier. In fact, only recently have YES teens been incorporated into positions within the museum’s galleries.

Weaving 150 teen employees into the fabric of an institution is not without its challenges. Perceptions of the teens are varied: not all staff in the institution have the same high expectations of the teens as the Community Science staff do. During a citywide power outage in the summer of 2006, the help of the YES teens was requested as the SLSC opened as a cooling center. The staff hoped that the teens would be utilized as trained and experienced facilitators of hands-on science activities for the community members seeking air-conditioned shelter in the museum. The planned role for the YES teens turned out to be one of physical labor: rearranging furniture in the museum (Polman and Miller, 2007).

A separate incident that occurred earlier in May, 2006, had already cemented the Community Science department’s drive to take control of the identity of the YES program. An article was published for a local paper and highlighted the institution’s commitment to education through an interview with the president of the SLSC. He talked extensively about the YES program, and one of three accompanying pictures bore the caption “Douglas King, president & CEO of the Saint Louis Science Center, poses with a group of YES teens.” It was an extremely positive article, except for one issue: the students in the picture were not YES teens. It was a picture of the president with a group of adolescents from a collaborating school in light blue shirts, many of whom happened to be African American.

Figure 1

Fig 1 : Screenshot of Saint Louis Commerce Magazine’s Article “Saint Louis Science Center: One of the Five Greats”

After the article was published, many on staff in the Community Science department (which runs the YES program ) were bothered by the inaccurate depiction of the YES teens. Questions arose about the lack of attention to detail from the “main building”; rumors and conspiracy theories spread. In the end, it was discovered that the paper had specifically requested a picture of YES teens with the president. Due to a lack of consistent image production management in the Community Science Department, none were available. Someone in an outside department found a picture of what appeared to be YES teens in their light blue uniform shirts, and submitted the picture.

At that point, it became clear that there was a need for an organized plan to guide the creation and management of digital assets This plan needed to meet the greater goal of using these digital assets to respectfully represent YES teens and their valuable but often unnoticed and overlooked contributions to the Saint Louis Science Center as a whole. Led by the framework of Dr. Eric Jolly's "Model for Community Change," the department translated the guidelines for “physical” community involvement and diversity outreach into the guidelines for “virtual” community involvement and diversity outreach. The Community Science department chose to take on the role of identity facilitator for the YES program. This initiated the “positive education” of both internal and external audiences through proactive production and distribution of YES media content (Association of Science and Technology Centers, 1998).

The current SLSC institutional Web site is run by a rigid content management system designed by an outside firm. It is, by design, a marketing-driven site. Before a YES Web site was built, the teens' work was highlighted with science- fair style posterboards displayed throughout the building, and was not accessible for public showcase other than through museum related sessions, a brief description on, donor newsletters, and occasional articles.

Figure 2

Fig 2 : Screenshot of the YES Program page on the main Saint Louis Science Center website.

The decision was made to create for the YES program a separate Web site that would be managed within the Community Science department. It would be hosted by an outside company, and serve as the main portal of information about the YES program, with both basic program information and highlights of the teens' work.

Why Web 2.0?

The Community Science department has long struggled to highlight the work of the YES teens in respectful, mutually beneficial ways. Because of the extensive, multi-faceted nature of the program, materials such as brochures or static Web sites offer superficial insight. Having the teens create artifacts solely for grant evaluation or donor cultivation is at best inauthentic, and at worst “tokenism.” With increasing numbers of YES participants, multiple NSF grants, and growing national attention, the YES program needed to take charge of their media.

Web 2.0 met the first set of requirements outlined by the department: it is

  • Cheap
  • Easy
  • Able to handle multiple authors
  • Immediate
  • Updatable

When the secondary set of goals were outlined for the new site, they only reinforced the appropriateness of utilizing the participatory technologies of Web 2.0 for the new site, The goals:

  • To create a vehicle for showcasing and deepening the science inquiry of YES teens, both to internal and external audiences
  • To introduce authentic technology experiences to YES teens through participation in viable Web communities, and aggregate all of those artifacts in one place
  • To provide a relevant forum for the literacy growth of site participants, including reading, writing and critical thinking, by way of publishing personal, academic, and work-based reflections
  • To contribute to the collective imagery and artifact of African American and other minority groups engaged in STEM, providing associative models for urban youth to see “their own” reflected within the culture of science.

The current Web site was created with Drupal by the Educational Technology Manager and the Project Supervisor for the YES-2-TECH project, and launched in November 2006. The teens began using the site in January of 2007.

Figure 3

Fig 3 : Screenshot of the Youth Exploring Science Web site

It was important that the new Web 2.0 efforts align with the established learning philosophies of the department, including ‘constructionism’. The teens are not viewed as passive recipients in the transfer of knowledge from YES supervisors; they are seen as actively constructing their own knowledge through exposure and experiences. These teens are more likely to construct knowledge when also engaged in the creation of a corresponding external artifact that can then be reflected upon and shared with others (Kafai and Resnick, 1996). Participatory technology has the capacity to aid the construction of meaningful artifacts within the learning process; it was hoped that could capitalize on that power.

Youth Exploring Science


YES teens post weekly blogs about their learning labs and respond to comments from other teens, staff and partnering science and engineering professionals. Three major considerations in the way that media are created and managed by staff correspond to the risk factors that many of the YES teens face.

The blogs are written and posted directly to the site, without a "queue." One important pedagogical benefit of blogging is the immediacy it provides to users: by making the teens wait for someone to "approve" posts, that advantage is negated (Kajder & Bull, 2003). In addition, this creates an atmosphere of suspicion: what might you post that is inappropriate? For a large number of YES participants that attend failing schools, mistrust permeates the social atmosphere traditionally associated with learning. The YES program constantly strives to reshape the students' perceptions of learning, learning environments, their own intellect, relationships with adults and peers, and their future orientation. It was important to establish a workflow that reflected that effort. The site has adopted the policy of "radical trust" with the teens; and it has yet to be even minimally violated (Spadaccini & Chan, 2007).

Teens are allowed to post unedited by staff: although this leads to grammar errors, content inaccuracy, and spelling mistakes, it is a respectful way to honor and therefore encourage teen participation in the site. Coaching YES teens toward the “formal register” utilizing standard English, grammar and syntax is part of the blogging process; however, all thoughts, reflections and contributions are given the same value (Payne, 1998). Growth in blogging skills (and underlying literacy) is a process; stunting this through "school-like" monitoring and correction would simply feed back into negative associations with formal education.

The risk factor of generational poverty has associated implications with two-way communication; therefore the staff takes great care in utilizing the comment function of the blog. While embedded into face-to-face practice, all staff are coached into using the “adult” voice when commenting to teens’ posts. This means supervisors must remain non-judgmental, and factual, with a win-win attitude, when responding to the teens’ writings. For teens that grow up in generational poverty, hearing the patronizing, authoritative, and critical “parent voice” can be unbearable, and at the very least inhibits positive supervisor-teen interactions (Payne, 1998). Questions and comments from staff are formulated to draw deeper reflections from the teens, not to “correct” information. The post below shows a posting from a teen after a learning lab that was extremely disruptive and unproductive. The post includes a supervisor response that uses the “adult voice.”

WWwwhaaaaaooo booooy!! . . idk

Today we DidN't have a usual saturday session. From the outside looking in one would suspect that we(learning places as a whole) didnt make that much progress-----but in actuality we did.

Right arounnd about 12 o'clock the learning lab got a little out of control. Mesa, the HEad SUpervisor(haha felixlol), took it upon herself to confront us learning places teens of our unproffesional behavior. to make a long story short---------we ended up having an interesting discussion where we brainstormed, reflected, dicussed etc ways to better conduct our LP work. This discussion was beneficial. Both the supervisors and teens appropriately expressed thier greivances but also admitted to their mistakes.---------------the end.

Supervisor Response

I agree that sometimes you must go backwards in order to move ahead. I'm glad that you still felt that you got things accomplished today in lab. I'm also glad that would could all have a very mature conversation about how to make our work more productive. (

Rather than chastising the teen, the staff member moves the issue forward on an encouraging note. This honors the teens posting while constructively moving the situation to a positive place for the next meeting.


As the originator of the “call to action”, the Community Science Department solved the photo management problem by department-wide use of Flickr ( Flickr has impacted the way Community Science operates by investing all teens and staff in creating visual records of their activities. Digital photography has become a standard element of every YES learning lab and Community Science event. All YES components shoot, upload, categorize, describe and tag their digital photos through Flickr.

Figure 4

Fig 4: Screenshot of the "youthexploringscience" Flickr page,

Over 9,000 photos have been uploaded to date. This has made requests for pictures a non-issue, as any member of staff can now easily access and retrieve specific full-resolution pictures through the collection, category, and tag features. To take advantage of the vast collection, random pictures from the Flickr photostream are fed into, offering visitors and members alike a new set of pictures on every page. The pictures of ‘youthexploringscience’ have been viewed over 12,400 times.

Flickr’s basic features have reinforced the goals of the YES program in unexpected ways. The City Science lab component of YES used Flickr photo notes for identifying different colonies of bacteria culled from the building, capitalizing on a feature that many teens were familiar with from Facebook and repurposing it for an extended scientific experience. The teens immediately connected with the ‘scientific’ purpose of using photo notes: as scientists, they had an obligation to report their data.

Figure 5

Fig 5: Screenshot of "fred+marwin's dish" on Flickr, 694474635/in/set-72157600602924651/

Flickr also offered a way to fulfill one of the more abstract goals of the Web site. After tagging all 9,000 pictures “Saint Louis Science Center” and “Scientist, ” it is hoped that the YES teens will become a part of the collective identity of both terms. The sheer volume of photos has made the YES program the face of the Saint Louis Science Center within the Flickr community.


In the Summer of 2007, the YES-2-TECH component was looking for a dissemination outlet for the plans for their low-cost geodesic dome. The component had re-engineered an expensive geodesic dome to be affordably built for local community groups and food shelters. The respective purposes for the dome, as an outdoor classroom and as a supplemental food source, resonated so strongly with the teens that they wanted to broaden the impact of their work. The determined avenue was the creation of an Instructable. (Instructables ( is a collaborative “how-to” Web site that makes designing and posting instructions easy.) The content was available from previous postings on the blog and the Flickr site.

Figure 6

Fig 6: Screenshot of YES-2-TECH's Geodesic Dome Greenhouse on Instructables

The YES-2-TECH group created a 31-step instructable on how to build a geodesic dome greenhouse. It won first prize in the "Go-Green" contest co-sponsored by and Popular Science, and runner-up in the "Science Fair" contest sponsored by The two awards have allowed the teens’ work to gain attention from both outside and inside the institution. The project was featured in an article on The instructable itself has been viewed 8,360 times, and has a community rating of 24. Perhaps most importantly, it has 25 mostly content-based comments from Instructable community members, offering either respect for the design or suggestions for improvement.

Figure 7

Fig 7: Screenshot of comments on YES-2-TECH's Geodesic Dome Greenhouse on Instructables

The prestige of being associated with Popular Science,, and has gained the teens’ work a greater level of visibility and respect with internal audiences as well. The “award winning” Instructable not only allowed the teens to showcase their complex accomplishment of designing and building the geodesic dome, but also deepened the experience through collaborative writing and production.

The Results

Teen Engagement

To make blogging a part of the teen program first required multiple technology professional development sessions with staff. The topics ranged from posting blogs and downloading pictures to the deeper pedagogical issues of using participatory technology to facilitate inquiry, and blogging to deepen the teens’ scientific content mastery. As of Fall ’07, all components of the YES program were blogging regularly.

From data-entry-style posts January of 2007, to audience-directed musings in January 2008, many teens have begun to show growth as authors on the blog. These teens are becoming more cognizant of their audiences, especially the Internet-at-large. In the first post below, the teen gave a relatively bland summary of the day’s events. In the second post a year later, the teen not only began to address the reader, but she also shows personality and expresses opinions, all while discussing scientific content. Samples follow:

January 2007

Hydorponic Plants

In my hydroponic plant I grew a Lima bean plant in perlite. So far it has grown very well for only being in the perlite for about two weeks. And after examining my plant I discovered that there are leafs growing but one of the leafs fell I will have to just see if the plant will keep growing or if it will die beacuse of the extra supply of food” (

January 2008

Is Yes-2-Tech Still Trying To Save Energy?.........Yes, They Are And Doing A Good Job At It!!!!

There were many things that were accomplhished today in Yes-2-Tech. Like we first had to find out which type of car we would want in the future and how much everything would cost and how long would the car last but that was just the start of it. Then after we figured the prices of everything for a car that all led up to the fact that we are still building and making wind turbines for our domes. So we went on to find out the different types of wind turbines that were all over the country that could be made and this is the one that I found the most well organized and has complete instructions on how to make the turbine. The name of this turbine is Home Power Plant and some other things that I found from this instructable was that the turbine had a average watts of 1000 and that the wind has to blow at least 20 MPH to reach this rate. Then I figured that the price of the supplies would be varied because of the different amounts that would needed to be supplied. But I personally think that with a few days of experimenting more then we would be able to do this and make our own instructable yet again. But then at the same time I think that we could try to make the turbine that we looked up a few weeks ago when we called an expert at building turbines and the idea that he has could also be a great impact on the production of a wind turbine from Yes-2-Tech. So keep checking out my blogs and other blogs from Yes-2-Tech to find a weekly update. ( energy-yes-they-are-and-doing-a-good-job-at-it).

Some teens are beginning to develop their own style of blogging, occasionally inserting humor and sarcasm as peaceful protests against the perceived rigors of the work-based program. These posts are encouraged, both to build a sense of ownership of the Web site among the teens, and to add general humor for the teens and staff.

I was in a group that stapled the plastic on the dome. It was hot and tormenting. I couldn't stand that torture. The small dome is like a hell chamber. It was so hot that I couldn't breath. I felt sorry for all those dead plants. They were probably crying inside in their last moments of the living world. The big dome is pretty cool. It took a long time to build and it too was a very hot experience. I went through sweat, blood, and tears building that thing, but at least I got on fox2 news for it. I think it still works like it did when we originally build it, but it's still hot. (

Evaluation Data

By virtue of the medium, the artifacts of the teens Web 2.0 work have created an increasingly vast collection of data for evaluation. Teens have been given an authentic space to reflect on their STEM learning. By positioning the process of reflection within the relevant avenue of blogging, teens have engaged with sharing their growth in STEM content knowledge. Staff use the posts on a weekly basis to help gauge growth in STEM content knowledge, literacy, and overall connectedness to the larger projects. This internal evaluation has shown an increase in audience connection, STEM specific writing, and overall participation in blogging. In addition to these internal evaluations, the YES-2-TECH component is working with an external evaluator to measure the impact of YES programming (specifically the YES-2-TECH component) on technology skills.

The Year 3 NSF Evaluation Report for the YES-2-TECH project shows that the cumulative Web 2.0 project, the Instructable, was successful not only in fostering the technology skills of the teens, but also in deepening their STEM experience. The report stated that the project:

created a large number of needs and opportunities for STEM problem-solving. The teens needed to describe what purpose their geodesic dome greenhouse served; document the exact specifications and amounts of the supplies needed to create their dome design; capture and place digital photos documenting the process of dome construction; draft, revise, and finalize their text describing the steps in detail for an audience with the understanding that the audience would have only their descriptions to rely on. Along the way, they had to overcome problems like how to transfer texts and images, how to describe three-dimensional processes, and how to predict trouble spots and prevent them through text and images. In order to complete this task, they used a process of iterative design, where they drafted text on their blogs, moved their revisions to, added in images, assessed their needs for more images, added in more images and revised their texts again, and presented their directions to peers and supervisors multiple times. This iterative design process for the website, much like the iterative design process they used to create the greenhouse structure during the previous year, was a key to their success, and it is also the way that website design is conducted in the real world. (Polman, 2007)

Polman (2007) also noted that the Instructables project

built on fundamental concepts like managing files, copying and editing; utilized contemporary skills of designing text, images, and motion pictures to communicate processes and ideas; and fostered the intellectual capability to sustain a complex project over a two-month period.

Impacting Internal Audiences through Reaching External Audiences

The Youth Exploring Science Web site has proved to be an effective tool for communicating with internal audiences. By using the submission of an incorrect photo as the initiator of a Web 2.0 campaign, the Community Science department opted out of unconstructively reacting to the incident and preventing departmental and institutional growth. By creating an organized and coherent collection of media, the department is now in the position to advocate for the positive and respectful distribution and usage of the YES identity.

In many cases the awareness has come from the outside in: external attention such as the Instructables awards have given credibility to the quality of the teens’ work. Many SLSC staff outside the Community Science department used the two awards as a catalyst to visit for the first time. The reaction has been uniformly positive, as the Web site has given the teens’ work a venue to “speak for itself.”

The institutional commitment to a ‘community standard’ over a ‘majority standard’ is being strengthened by the expression of its diverse identities (Association of Science and Technology Centers, 1998). Web 2.0 has become a vehicle for both showcasing and deepening the work of the YES teens, and aiding the projection of ‘at risk’ urban youth as scientists to audiences inside and outside the institution. Photos, blog posts, videos, and other digital records and reflections of African Americans engaging in STEM activities can serve as associative models for other youth looking to see ‘their own’ reflected in the culture of science. Internally and externally, the Saint Louis Science Center is becoming known as a place where African American and other minority groups engage with science and technology. By facilitating diverse representations of their institutional identity, museums can begin to reach out to communities in a way that is both sustainable and mutually beneficial.

What’s Next?

One of the most exciting opportunities for the Community Science department results from organizational change: the Community Science and the School Programs departments merged to become the School and Community Partnerships department. The experience that the YES program has gained through its successful science inquiry in out-of-school time will now be utilized within formal K-12 education. The programming will still involve both teacher professional development and direct-to-student delivery, but it will be refocused around the needs of the learners.

It was discovered within the first month of the merge that schools were interested not only in the science expertise of the department, but also in the use of Web 2.0 technology to deepen engagement and to support literacy. This was an unforeseen benefit of both the Web site creation and the departmental merger: the School and Community Partnerships Department is now in the position to share its experiences with participatory technology within the context of science inquiry.


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Cite as:

Graville-Smith, C., Expressing Diverse Institutional Identities through Web 2.0, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted