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On-Site Science

By Dennis M. Bartels — September 19, 2001 6 min read
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Museums, zoos, and other informal classrooms need to be a bigger part of education reform.

The number of science museums here and abroad has increased dramatically over the last two decades. The American Association of Museums puts the number of zoos, aquariums, natural history museums, botanical gardens, and science centers in the United States at 1,500. And last year, an estimated 150 million people visited the 420 member museums of the Association of Science-Technology Centers.

But while few question the value of these institutions as public education environments, they often are an afterthought in discussions about education reform. This is a case of missed opportunity.

Beginning in 1969, Frank Oppenheimer, the founder of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, began putting into action his deep commitment to teacher education and to convincing schools to make science learning more accessible to vastly more students. He did a simple calculation: The Exploratorium, he reasoned, could reach thousands of students a year for a few hours per visit—or it could work intensely with hundreds of teachers, for weeks or even years at a time, who might then reach hundreds of thousands of students over the course of their careers.

He was right. Over the last 20 years, the San Francisco museum has shared its expertise with nearly 4,000 elementary and secondary school educators in workshops of 100 hours each. Today, it produces about 100,000 hours of teacher professional development a year, having an impact on an estimated 345,000 students.

As few other educational settings could, the museum's environment is able to help teachers move from a third-person relationship with science to a first-person relationship.

The secret to the Exploratorium’s success lies in the 650 exhibits on the museum floor that provide the curriculum for teacher institutes. The genius of this approach to teacher-training is especially evident when teachers encounter exhibits that baffle them, compelling them to ask questions for days at a time and figure things out for themselves. As few other educational settings could, the museum’s environment is able to help teachers move from a third-person relationship with science—"science that other people do"—to a first-person relationship: science that they can do, and, in turn, can help their students do.

The Exploratorium, because of its close working relationship with formal institutions of learning, once was considered an exception. But no longer. Yesterday’s “invisible education infrastructure,” informal science institutions today are aggressively positioning themselves as significant support systems to K-12 schools: through the creation of professional-development programs for teachers, by working directly with students, and by developing new learning resources and technology tools to connect the outside world to schools. A 1996 survey of elementary teachers, for example, showed that informal institutions provided nearly half of their in-depth (35 hours or more) professional development in science. The National Science Foundation, as an investment partner, deserves much of the credit for this work, and for the overall capacity of the informal education sector today.

But the number and emerging educational presence of these informal learning environments are only part of the reason we should think of them as essential and strategic parts of the education infrastructure that deserve attention and resources. In this era of standards-based reform, informal educational institutions such as science centers can offer several unique features and advantages. Allow me to describe at least six of these:

Museums and science centers are, above all, places of content. They are devoted to their respective disciplines, as represented in their collections, exhibits, and staffs. Many scientists make their homes here: These are places where some real science (or data or expertise) resides—but in an accessible form.

Moreover, in comparison with formal institutions that excel in teaching representational understanding, informal science institutions are expert in creating direct experiences with scientific phenomena. In an informal setting, the participant gets to be the scientist (or the anthropologist or the historian), establishing an intimate relationship with the “stuff” of the discipline. The very essence of an informal science center is the daily challenge of making the fundamentals of science as accessible to as many people as possible.

In trying times, informal institutions can provide risk-takers and exceptional talent a safe harbor and community of support.

Beyond that, many informal science institutions can be incredibly nimble and quick. They are not encumbered by the obligations, responsibilities, and forms of accountability that more formal institutions must respect. Because of this, informal institutions can move more quickly, take more risks, and be more experimental when new educational challenges emerge. One current example is the ability of many science museums to take the lead in experimenting with the use of new digital technology as learning tools. Several museums also are formulating and testing new models of charter schools, teacher preservice education, after-school programs, and model schools in the tradition of the university-based laboratory schools. Informal institutions can serve as important learning research-and-development labs for the nation.

A fourth advantage is the fact that informal science institutions enjoy an unusual political immunity that traditional education institutions cannot seem to capture. They tend to be bipartisan in support. They appear insulated from many of the curriculum wars and educational dogma that often prove crippling in school debates. And they care deeply about both content and process—they won’t surrender this priceless middle ground.

Museums and informal science organizations also are able to offer many teachers a professional home away from home. Teachers have a natural affinity for informal institutions, and sometimes associate personally with them more than with their own school district or university-based programs. In trying times, informal institutions can provide risk-takers and exceptional talent a safe harbor and community of support. Thousands of mathematics and science teachers are already affiliated with them.

A final benefit comes from sheer reach. Today, the proliferation of interactive science centers and other informal science institutions can serve as a ready infrastructure, offering ideas, programs, and support to the education establishment. To be sure, not all informal institutions are at the same level of capacity and readiness, but with a little help, many more could be.

At the legislative level, one helpful policy change would be to designate informal institutions as eligible for all federal grant programs. At present, with the notable exceptions of the Eisenhower Postsecondary Education Program and the National Science Foundation, almost all education funding is limited to local education agencies and institutions of higher education. Another interesting idea would be to fund residencies for scientists and experts-in-learning at more of these institutions. I’m certain that the field is full of other creative ideas, if we but ask.

Perhaps the biggest change I am suggesting, however, is that we adopt a broader definition of what constitutes a place of learning. It is difficult today to imagine what the dominant educational institutional forms will look like in the next 20 to 30 years—one or two generations away. Already, many of our notions of learning (who learns what, when, and where) are being loosened. If scientific literacy for everyone is truly our goal, then it is clear to me that the next generation of science educators and reform leaders needs to expand its thinking and examine the power and possibility of all types of learning in many different settings. What better training grounds exist than these nonschool educational environments that illuminate important features of learning design without sacrificing content?

Dennis M. Bartels was formerly the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. He is now the president of TERC, an education research-and-development organization in Cambridge, Mass.

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