Guest Speakers: Moira Zellner (GRI Faculty Affiliate), Renée Wallace (Doers Edge), Dan Milz, Leilah Lyons

Presentation Recording

Professor Rebecca Riccio from Northeastern University introduced the presentation by reminding attendees that the Myra Kraft Open Classroom is using Northeastern’s Social Impact Lab’s newly released Principles of Anti-Oppressive Community Engagement for University Educators and Researchers as an organizing principle. These principles acknowledge that a power and resource imbalance between universities and the communities in which they work can lead to relationships that are exploitive and result in unintended harm. However, these relationships do have strong potential to be constructive if universities bring their knowledge, expertise, and resources in a thoughtful and equitable way that deeply engages communities.

Moira Zellner began her presentation by explaining what participatory modeling is and how it can be used. According to Dr. Zellner, participatory modeling is designed to be used for socio-ecological problems that are complex and include multiple actors and factors, often referred to as “wicked problems.” What often occurs when groups tackle these “wicked problems” is scientists conduct work separately from policymakers and stakeholders. Dr. Zellner poses that participatory modeling can be used to create opportunities for “integrated analysis and decision-making” so that scientific models are used in collaboration with input from policymakers and stakeholders.

Participatory modeling is therefore defined as “a purposeful learning process for decision-making that engages the implicit and explicit knowledge of stakeholders to co-create formalized and shared representation(s).”

There are different kinds of modeling approaches that serve different purposes. Qualitative approaches help identify the problem, semi-quantitative approaches help understand the problem, and quantitative approaches help with the analysis of the problem.

Renée Wallace, CEO, and Founder of Doers Edge LLC, then spoke on the topic from the community perspective. According to Ms. Wallace, it is important to look at how engagement begins (who is the initiator?) in order to determine how participatory engagement can actually develop. How groups come together, whether the researcher initiates, the community initiates, or the two come together collaboratively, will affect what community-university partnerships will look like. Ms. Wallace also spoke to the importance of “balancing the team” in terms of project team roles, such that all can participate in both learning and decision-making processes. Incorporating participatory engagement and the “learning process” in each phase of a project is also of critical importance. This room for participation should be intentional and deliberately included in project design. In thinking about how to enhance stakeholder involvement, Ms.Wallace has developed a “pathway to participation” method that informs exactly how much level of engagement can be expected from each stakeholder.

Next, Assistant Professor Dan Milz of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa spoke about the facilitation of collaborative modeling. He began with the question, “how do we know that the participatory modeling process has actually gotten us the results that we are after?” Dr. Milz discussed how traditional approaches to projects are based on power asymmetries, focused on information acquisition rather than mutual learning. These approaches are often patronizing and do not validate the thoughts, perspectives, and needs of community members. In response to this problematic approach, Dr. Milz suggests an alternative approach in which the focus shifts from information acquisition to actually processing information and thinking about how communities are understanding the complexities of the problems they are facing. This approach also thinks of learning as a “distributive activity” and encourages practical solutions, such that learning is not one-way and solutions recognize the unique context of the community context and capabilities involved. The tools often used for this approach are diagnostic (surveys, concern profiles), formative (exit tickets, user tracking, participatory interaction analysis), and summative (surveys, interviews, focus groups).

Next, Miles McNall, Director of Community-Engaged Research at the University of Michigan, spoke about developing skills for participatory modeling through formal training. He became interested in systems approaches like participatory modeling after years of witnessing ineffective results from projects that used linear approaches. He became part of the Participatory Modeling Field School, which provides formal training for researchers, modelers, and community leaders interested in participatory modeling. The next Participatory Modeling Field School will take place in August 2022.

Finally, Leilah Lyons, Program Officer for the Education and Human Resources Department at the National Science Foundation (NSF), spoke about transforming the funding landscape to support collaborative learning. She reminded us that “the structure of funding shapes the structure of research.” She spoke to her own experience at NSF in seeing a shift in funding toward research approaches regarding community members as partners and encouraging communities to bring their issues or challenges to NSF rather than having institutions come into communities without consent or collaboration. Ms. Lyons then spoke about specific projects within NSF that combine STEM education with community impact.

Moira Zellner finished the presentation by summarizing lessons learned, including the skills necessary for participatory modeling, culturally appropriate processing, and reminding us that managing participation is just as important as managing a model building. She reiterated that the purpose of this process is to “build collective knowledge and social capital to address complex and environmental problems.” She closed with a discussion on the future of participatory modeling and how it can be scaled up and used more broadly to make engagement more collaborative and equitable.

The presentation was followed by a Q & A Session.