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Expanding Minds: Creating Engaging Science Outside of the Classroom

April 1997

Last year, families constructed windswept mountains, sand dunes, and vast deserts by directing fans at sand piles in San Francisco's Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum. In Pittsburgh, visitors put on 3-D glasses to go on a planetarium journey through a living cell at the Carnegie Science Center. Others took fingerprints, examined evidence and deduced Whodunit in the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History's exhibit of forensics.

At home, elementary school kids plopped down in front of "the tube " to watch the animated crew of The Magic School Bus travel through the water cycle. They also turned on the MTV-paced Bill Nye the Science Guy, which introduced them to "Way Cool " professional scientists and engineers.

Other NSF-funded informal science education projects take the form of radio shows, Web sites and films. They take place in aquaria, zoological parks, nature centers, community-centered activities and science clubs.

NSF's Informal Science Education (ISE) program is promoting quality science education in many out-of-school settings.

"Education in science, mathematics, engineering and technology involves a chain of links from pre-school, through K-12 to undergraduate and graduate study, and a parallel chain of informal learning experiences, " Luther Williams, Assistant Director for NSF's Education and Human Resources Directorate, writes in the brochure, Programs of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources. "Education must stimulate the interest of all students--indeed all citizens--so as to ensure that the nation will have ... the scientifically literate citizenry that our democracy needs. "

For ISE, reaching the public means using a multitude of approaches. The flashier projects grab the attention of busy children, adults and families. These projects strive to make science, math and engineering accessible and interesting by relating them to everyday activities. Hands-on projects teach problem solving skills and demystify the process of science and engineering, as well as the roles of scientists and engineers. Overall, the projects encourage learning that is "voluntary, self-motivated and self-directed, and is stimulated by curiosity and creativity, "says Barbara Butler, an ISE program director.

Support for the nation's science centers and museums is one of ISE's major funding areas. There have been science and children's museums with hands-on components since the late 19th century, but, says Butler, the number and popularity of interactive museums have skyrocketed in the last 25 years.

While many of the nation's thousands of museums, zoological parks, botanical gardens, etc. have interactive elements to their displays, the country also has over 300 hands-on science centers and museums, the majority of which opened in the last 20 years. Some of the better known include San Francisco's Exploratorium, the New York Hall of Science and the Museum of Science in Boston.

In 1996 over 100 million people visited U.S. science centers and museums, according to the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. "It is to NSF's credit that exploring science in these rich learning environments is so popular. The NSF investment is a catalyst for quality in exhibits and programs that excite youngsters, their teachers, and families, " says Bonnie VanDorn, ASTC's Executive Director.

Founded in 1973, ASTC is one of several associations that NSF works with in promoting informal education. ASTC has 500 members in 40 countries. In addition to science centers, its members include planetariums, natural history and children's museums, botanical gardens, aquaria and zoological parks.

These member organizations offer camp-ins and career days, teacher institutes and classroom kits, and demonstrations--from cow's eye dissections to chemical reactions. ASTC facilitates exhibits and programs, and helps the staff of the member organizations develop their management skills.

Going Professional

In 1991, ASTC started the NSF-funded New Science Centers Support Program which provided administrative and technical support to start-up and expanding science centers.

The support is needed, says Charles Trautmann, Executive Director of the Sciencenter in Ithaca, New York. Like most of the science centers founded in the last 20 years, the Sciencenter began in 1983 as a volunteer community effort set up in borrowed space. In 1992, the Sciencenter was preparing to move into a new home in a renovated water treatment plant.

Attending the 1992 ASTC summer institute gave the Sciencenter staff confidence in their mission, says Trautmann, an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, and the staff continue to appreciate ASTC backing.

"There is no formal training for science museum administration, " he explains. "The program provided support for museum operations, public relations, and reaching out to interested communities. It has made a huge difference in the science museum field. "

Last fall, the Sciencenter and four other small science centers had another chance to grow. They received an ISE grant for a traveling exhibit collaborative. Each science center will develop a separate traveling exhibit, which will circulate first among the five partners and then more widely on the ASTC circuit. The Sciencenter's contribution, Counting On You, will use playful, interactive exhibits to give visitors a taste of the kind of math that scientists and engineers use. The collaborative will also develop supporting materials that can be used by family audiences and teachers.

Science Pen Pals

Another project uses the U.S. Postal Service. Science-By-Mail, an NSF-funded program of the Museum of Science in Boston, offers a hands-on collaboration between children in grades 4-9 and adult scientists and engineers.

Over the course of a school year, the Museum of Science sends the children activity booklets and materials for experiments. In previous years, students have examined cartography, planetary science, photography, nutrition and garbage. The topics for 1996-97 are "Simple Machinesv and "Flight. " Students receive materials and instructions for constructing parachutes and for launching rockets made out of corks. They use the materials and experiments to explore such questions as how gravity, hot air and design affect flight.

As the students work on their experiments, their scientist pen pals answer questions, offer advice and encouragement, and, significantly, don't grade the young scientists' progress. The adult pen pals, including astronomers, pediatricians, microbiologists and veterinarians, are not necessarily experts in the field being studied, but help direct the students in the process of discovery.

Melissa Cotter, National Manager for the program, says that communicating with a scientist in an informal setting gives students a lively introduction to the scientific processes of asking questions, collecting and analyzing data, and working cooperatively.

In 1988, about 2,250 children and 100 scientists took part in Science-By-Mail. Last year, the numbers had risen to over 28,000 children and 1,500 scientists. As Science-By-Mail has expanded nationally, Cotter says, the program has focused on increasing the numbers of minority participants. Approximately half of the scientists and students are female, and minority students account for 25 percent of participants.

Targeting Young Minds

Science-By-Mail and other NSF projects often work with existing youth groups, such as Girl Scouts USA, to expand the distribution of their science projects and reach out to girls and minorities. Some science centers have their own youth-oriented projects. For example, in Ithaca, the Sciencenter's YouthALIVE! program offers both informal learning and work experiences for participants. With funding from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, this ASTC program brings pre-teens and adolescents, particularly those from low-income communities, into science centers for after-school enrichment programs and as volunteer and paid workers.

Last fall, NSF Director Neal Lane toured the Sciencenter and met with YouthALIVE! students, including Alexis O'Connor, a seventh-grader who volunteers at the museum once a week. Alexis trained to be one of the museum assistants, or "Blue Coats, " named for their blue lab coats. The student employees discuss the exhibits with visitors, assist younger children and invite experimentation. Alexis, who plans to study life sciences in high school en route to a career as a veterinarian, observes that as a Blue Coat she often refers to the activities she did during her first visits to the Sciencenter. "Sometimes these fun little experiments might seem pointless, but you can keep them to use as models to explain something later on. "

Building Bridges

As Alexis points out, even though some of the experiments seem to be "just for fun, " they can be the starting point for further informal learning, and often, more formal education.

NSF's National Science and Technology Week this month uses many excellent aspects of both informal and formal education by providing activity booklets for home, school and community centers; call-in discussions with scientists and engineers; and hundreds of special projects around the country that will involve scientists, engineers, mathematicians, business people and volunteers young and old.

Among those celebrating NSTW will be ASTC's Honor Roll of Teachers, nominated by science centers and museums for their ability to integrate informal and formal education and use the center resources to inspire students. In forging creative relationships between schools and science centers, the Honor Roll teachers, the science center staff, and the many other informal education project leaders demonstrate a theme that NSF understands well in its pursuit of excellence in education. The roots for lifelong learning grow best in an educational continuum that includes everything from television's The Magic School Bus, to the sand of the Exploratorium's Turbulent Landscapes exhibit, to the classroom and on to the larger community.

To locate science centers around the world write to ASTC: 1025 Vermont Ave., NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC 20005, or visit their Web site: http://www.astc.org/


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