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Plan a Showcase: Community Engagement Starts with a Big Finish!

by Eve Tulbert and April Luehmann

Medical Mentors share knowledge with students at Irondequoit HS, 2019

It’s 9:00pm on a Monday night, but we’ve got 40 students--and parents, teachers, administrators, community members and medical mentors--on a Zoom call. It’s Science Showcase time, and we’re adapting a ritual that matters to the digital classroom. The youth share public service announcements that they’ve made about COVID, and discuss how to keep safe during the pandemic. They answer tough, authentic questions about masks, air flow, dining out, and taking airplane rides. They know how to apply what they’ve learned, and bring it home. School administrators in attendance request that youth share their PSAs on the school’s social media streams.

“You’re the ones they’ll listen to,” says medical mentor Dr. Jim White, beaming with pride. “What you’ve learned here will help you to keep others safe.”

These students have spent six weeks preparing for this showcase, a teamwork oriented presentation of learning. They’ve designed their own mask-wearing experiments. They’ve practiced contact tracing--a key public health tool--within their own networks. And they’ve discussed and debated hard questions about the pandemic, such as “Why are their racial disparities?” And “who’s job is it to keep our country safe?” Science showcases can create ongoing community dialogue around student-led investigations.

Research of teens in after school activities shows that well-designed programs add a key ingredient to the soup of youth experience: they build to a big finish. Anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath explains that great programs create a “temporal arc” (Figure 1), where, over time, youth dedicate attention to get ready for a public event that matters to everyone involved. In other words, learning matters when we design in a cycle: 1) start with content and skills that feel relevant and important, 2) work together as a team to create something new--even through many iterations of trial and error, 3) get ready for a real audience, and 4) perform what you know.

Figure 1, from Eisenhauer, Afterschool Matters, 2018

By starting a program journey with the destination in mind, students understand that science isn’t science unless it shared and discussed through co-created understandings with others. Student lab meetings, that could otherwise feel like a disconnected set of activities driven by adults, now find new found purpose. Students leaders start to work together to develop an understanding about something they care about, and the broader community needs to understand. As they consider their audience’s questions, students prepare a story of their science experiences in relation to others. This helps them to make connections, provide evidence and explain the relevance of their findings.

Tips for planning Science Showcases:

  1. At the onset of the program, set a date, and send a Save the Date card home early, encouraging families to display it on their refrigerators. Encourage youth to invite those who matter most to them - pastors, neighbors, aunts. Invite “important” others that youth may know by name such as politicians or book authors.

  2. Form collaborative groups with clear objectives for the showcase, such as a presentation of research or community education on social media.

  3. Create structures for the showcase that scaffold youth participation in public discourse - pre-recorded videos, for example, reduce some of the pressure of public presentations.

  4. Invite the press! Develop a press release with a “hook” that highlights youth making an impact.

  5. Ask “what if?” questions during the program. Imagine together how the Showcase can lead to next step impacts.

Read the next Strategy: Drop Your Anchors in Community Waters


1. Heath, S. B. (2001). Three’s Not a Crowd: Plans, Roles, and Focus in the Arts. Educational

2. Eisenhauer, S. (2018). The Micro Temporal Arc: A Practical Planning Tool for Afterschool Student Engagement. Afterschool Matters.


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