Expanding Minds: Creating Engaging Science Outside of the Classroom
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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. "
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/