Curators Begin Dialogue With Schools on Science Reform

By Peter West — June 10, 1992 4 min read

“These groups traditionally are not your paying customers,’' she said. “But in my district, they’re the majority’’ of students, parents, and teachers.

Seeking to become “change agents’’ in the movement to reform science education, the curators of more than 30 science museums met here last month with federal and local officials to begin a “dialogue’’ about the resources their institutions can offer the the nation’s schools.

The two-day meeting was co-sponsored by the Association of Science-Technology Centers, the U.S. Education Department’s Eisenhower National Program for Mathematics and Science Education, and the Franklin Institute Museum of Science.

“I hear all the time about museums working with schools, [but] it’s not at all clear what that means,’' said Mark St. John, an educational consultant who helped draft an A.S.T.C. report on teacher training entitled “First-Hand Learning: Teacher Education in Science Museums.’'

“We’re very good at working with individual teachers, but not with districts,’' added Mr. St. John, who recently was appointed by the National Academy of Sciences to a committee that will develop national standards for science assessment.

The meeting, which was in part designed to brief museum officials on how to tap federal funds for their outreach programs--particularly efforts to provide informal teacher training--also featured an overview of the nation’s precollegiate-education system and a briefing about the national standards-setting process.

“We see it as the beginning of a conversation,’' said Bonnie VanDorn, the A.S.T.C.'s executive director.

Looking for Lead Roles

Allen Schmieder, the director of the national Eisenhower program, urged museum directors to concentrate their efforts on competing for Eisenhower grants at the state and local levels, where proportionally more funding is available and there is less competition for resources.

And Rick Davis, the coordinator of the state-level Eisenhower program, noted that science centers are uniquely qualified, by their very nature, to “turn [students and teachers] on’’ to science.

But many of the museum directors were adamant that the Eisenhower program, as now constituted, unfairly excludes their institutions from being lead agencies in reform efforts while encouraging colleges and universities to take on that role.

The dispute is “really about museums taking their place as major players in the reform effort,’' noted Lynn Rankin, the deputy director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco. “Why not make museums eligible as lead partners?’'

And several participants rejected outright Mr. Davis’s contention that science centers could have effective access to federal funds in their role as partners in reform efforts.

“You talk about higher education coming to us,’' said Wayne E. Ransom, the executive director of education projects at the Franklin Institute and a former professor of elementary education. “But, in reality, they’re not coming to us. And we’re not coming to them.’'

Mr. Schmieder pointed out that, to meet the demands of museum officials, the Congress would have to amend the Eisenhower legislation when it is reauthorized next year.

“There’s someone missing from the table here,’' Mr. Davis noted. “The changes you’re asking for are changes that have to come at the legislative level.’'

Some curators argued at the meeting that they are too inexperienced with the federal legislative process to bring about the needed change.

But Gregory Reaves, the Merck Gadsden Fellow at Merck & Company, the giant pharmaceutical firm, contended at the conference that corporations, which are major funders of museum exhibitions, are often overlooked as valuable legislative allies.

“What you need is a legislative advocate’’ at the corporate level, he said.

No ‘Quick Fixes’

The museum officials also said that, because the effectiveness of federal grant programs is generally judged by the numbers of participants served, their approaches may be deemed unsustainable under the current guidelines.

Alan Friedman, the director of the New York Hall of Science, noted that his institution, like many others, emphasizes the quality of its teaching programs, not the number of teachers served.

“It always seems to me that [you’re saying] ‘The schools will make systemic change, and the science centers will make systemic change, but the funders will make grants the way they always have,’'' he said.

The conference here also highlighted weaknesses in the existing connections between science centers and public schools.

The relatively few teachers who participated in the conference pointed out that their sparse attendance was in direct contrast to the stated purpose of the meeting.

And they also were unsparing in their warnings that “quick fixes’’ to the problem will not be well-received by teachers.

“We’ve seen the dog-and-pony shows,’' said Bill Metz, an award-winning teacher with the Philadelphia public schools. “What we need is a sustained commitment [from you]. A one-year or a three-year Eisenhower grant isn’t going to do it.’'

The racial makeup of the participants also highlighted a recurrent problem. Only a handful of attendees were African-American or Hispanic, reinforcing the contention that science museums are perceived largely as places frequented only by upper-middle-class whites.

Andrea Bowden, the science coordinator for the Baltimore city schools, noted that museums still lag in their efforts to ensure equal access, a potential weakness in competing for federal grants.

“These groups traditionally are not your paying customers,’' she said. “But in my district, they’re the majority’’ of students, parents, and teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 1992 edition of Education Week as Curators Begin Dialogue With Schools on Science Reform