Science Museums Step Up Efforts To be ‘Professional Homes’ for Teachers

By Peter West — June 10, 1992 7 min read

The museum also serves as the lead agency in the Florida Systemic Initiative, a national reform program of the National Science Foundation. (See Education Week, May 13, 1992.)

But at the end of the yearlong experience, he instead dropped permanently out of the classroom to indulge his newfound passion for teaching “informal science’’ to museum visitors, many of them school-aged children.

“I never went back,’' he notes wryly, “which is not the intention of that program.’'

Mr. Cooper now oversees a respected and highly diversified teacher-education program at the museum that annually provides in-service, and some pre-service, training to 1,500 teachers statewide.

Mr. Cooper’s program is typical of a fairly recent trend among science centers to direct considerable financial and human resources toward helping schools improve the quality of precollegiate science teaching.

“This is basically a professional home for teachers,’' notes Lynn Rankin, the deputy director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which receives state funding for its elementary and secondary teacher-training programs.

“It’s a place they can keep returning to,’' she says.

A Widespread Effort

Long considered havens for informal, student-centered education, science museums have begun to offer formal programs aimed at improving teachers’ knowledge of science and their ability to translate that knowledge into effective practice.

Cooperating with postsecondary institutions, state education agencies, and local school districts, increasing numbers of museums are offering teachers the opportunity to enroll in programs ranging from one-day workshops on aviation and summer institutes in paleontology to long-term internships for pre-service teachers.

While many museums offer programs for secondary teachers, most, like the Pacific Science Center, concentrate on helping elementary teachers build the self-confidence to discard textbook-based instruction in favor of the inquiry-based, hands-on science lessons that many experts consider critical to improving the scientific literacy of American students.

Some 600 institutions that offer teacher-training programs recently have been organized, under the auspices of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, into a Teacher Educators Network that links museum directors with faculty members at postsecondary institutions.

The association itself, meanwhile, began to pursue a reform agenda by co-hosting a conference in Philadelphia last month on the role of museums in education reform. (See related story, this page.)

“With these kinds of resources,’' says Bonnie VanDorn, the A.S.T.C.'s executive director, “there is an opportunity for us to play a major role [in education reform] across the country.’'

But doing so may require changing attitudes among some educators about the role of, and the expertise available in, science museums.

Mark St. John, a California-based educational consultant, writes in an A.S.T.C. report that professional educators tend to view science museums merely as sites for annual field trips, not as sources of innovative curriculum or teacher enhancement.

He also notes that museum educators, who often do not hold advanced degrees, are frequently held in low esteem by higher-education and public-school officials.

“These stereotypical images mask an emerging expertise and sophistication reflected in the exhibits, education programs, and professional educators now characteristic of many science museums,’' he writes.

But, according to David A. Swingle, a former public-school principal who now directs the education program at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., some museums are combating that stereotype by working with school officials to ensure that museum visits are high-quality experiences and, occasionally, by asserting their own ground rules.

“We recently got a call from a school district saying, ‘We want to blow off a day with a museum visit’,’' he says. “We basically told them not to come.’'

Drawing on his experience as a public-school educator, Mr. Swingle says he encourages administrators, who often must make round trips of a thousand miles to visit the museum, to plan their visits carefully with teachers to ensure that field trips coordinate with what is being taught in the curriculum.

A ‘Sheltered’ Environment

Mr. St. John notes that many of the education directors employed by science museums are former public-school professionals like Mr. Cooper and Mr. Swingle, and consider themselves “refugees from the schools.’'

Frustrated by the constraints of the public-school system, he writes, they often believe that, “unlike the schools, a museum is a place where you teach science the way it should be taught.’'

Drawing on their own student-teaching experiences, museum educators say that their institutions provide a professional home for teachers because they often are viewed as a safe haven where teachers can serve “apprenticeships’’ by teaching science to diverse groups of children and adults.

“Science centers provide an environment to help people get ready for the classroom, but it’s not like the classroom. And that’s good,’' says Andrea Anderson, the director of the A.S.T.C.'s Teacher Educators Network. “What we’re seeing is the opportunity for a ‘sheltered’ teaching experience.’'

Museums, she says, also offer a “nonthreatening’’ environment for teachers, especially elementary-school teachers--who may already have uncertainties about their ability to understand and relay scientific information--to learn science content.

“We will have teachers [come in] who would come to the museum [for a workshop] who would never come on their own and who may be a little intimidated by science and technology,’' says Janet O. Lacey, the manager of teacher services at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air & Space Museum.

In keeping with its national role, the Air & Space Museum offers longer workshops to educators from across the country as well as short-term ones for local teachers. It also has an in-house resource center where teachers can find materials and software applicable to their lesson plans about the science, history, and sociology of flight.

Even so, many large museums, including the Pacific Science Center, have no formal links with surrounding school districts.

Long-Term Efforts

The majority of science museums tend to support short-term in-service programs for practicing teachers.

In his report, however, Mr. St. John points out that an array of museums, large and small, are making protracted and in-depth efforts to provide both pre-service and in-service programs. For example:

  • The New York Hall of Science supports a program under which student teachers in the city can earn college credits from a number of institutions while advancing through the ranks of “explainers’’ who guide visitors through the museum.
  • The California Museum of Science and Industry is slated to house a new school that will serve as a teacher-training center for students seeking a master’s degree in science from the University of Southern California’s teacher-education program.
  • The Museum of the Rockies, which is operated by Montana State University, has developed the Science Teaching Institute of the Rockies to provide secondary teachers a means to earn master’s degrees in physics, biology, and chemistry.

The idea was an offshoot of an informal committee of university scientists, local teachers, and public-school administrators who meet regularly to devise ways that the museum can serve teachers, Mr. Swingle notes.

Individual museums also are making an effort to reach schools in underserved urban areas.

In Philadelphia, the Franklin Institute Museum of Science has long worked with the school district on several science-education programs, including the development of a kit-based elementary-science curriculum.

And the Exploratorium, which has supported a sophisticated in-house internship program for elementary and secondary teachers, is cooperating with the San Francisco Unified School District in a long-range effort to upgrade K-5 science teaching and curriculum.

Teachers at the Exploratorium cooperated to produce the “Science Snackbook,’' an illustrated volume that contains science lessons, based on Exploratorium exhibits, for use in the classroom.

In a few cases, museums are taking the lead role in statewide efforts to upgrade science teaching that have the blessing of the public-education sector.

The Miami Museum of Science, for example, has been designated by the Florida Department of Education as a “center of excellence in math, science, and technology.’'

The museum has formed partnerships with Miami Dade Community College and Miami State University to assist in the pre-service training of elementary teachers, according to its education director, Judy Chen.

The museum also serves as the lead agency in the Florida Systemic Initiative, a national reform program of the National Science Foundation. (See Education Week, May 13, 1992.)

Ms. Chen says that school districts can benefit from the unique facilities that science museums possess.

“One of the biggest problems with conducting teacher-enhancement activities is that they are very much dependent on access to a large number of materials,’' she notes. “And that involves a lot more than people realize behind the scenes. It would require schools and colleges changing their physical plant to do what we do.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 1992 edition of Education Week as Science Museums Step Up Efforts To be ‘Professional Homes’ for Teachers