From the Smithsonian Institution to a small, do-it-yourself aerodrome in Brooklyn, the nation’s cultural institutions, researchers, and “makers” are using technology to overhaul the way they partner with K-12 teachers and students to deliver science education.
Waning are face-to-face outreach and prepackaged curricular content meant to supplement existing classroom lessons.
In their place are massive open online trainings, accessible to thousands of educators at the time and place of their choosing; interactive experiences meant to push students from being passive consumers of information to active producers of content and conductors of experiments; and tech-enhanced projects that seek to blur the boundaries between the classroom, the real world, and virtual environments.
For more on how institutions are engaging students in science learning, seeAugust 28, 2013.
“I think [these shifts] are happening in education across the board, and in informal education in particular,” said Lynn-Steven Engelke, who has overseen teacher programs and services for the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, since 2002.
Ms. Engelke’s office, formerly known as the Center for Education and Museum Studies, previously worked with about 2,000 K-12 educators each year, mostly through face-to-face presentations and courses. This year, the office was rechristened the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access.
The new name reflects the center’s new approach. A recent online conference called “” has reached almost 30,000 participants and counting, according to information the institution provided.
“Nothing beat spending two weeks with a group of 20 motivated teachers who wanted to dig deeply into how they could use our resources,” Ms. Engelke said. “But it was discouraging to know that, in the course of a year, you could only reach a limited number of people.”
The Smithsonian’s “Problem Solving” conference also highlights a more profound shift: Instead of focusing on how to share its collections, Ms. Engelke said, the institution now strives to help learners—both teachers and students—connect with experts housed at its more than two dozen museums, galleries, and research centers.
The new approach is a mash-up of the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that are sweeping higher education; the new Common Core State Standards, which are shaking up the K-12 world by emphasizing critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis; and the popular “maker movement,” which stresses informal learning-by-doing sparked by students’ own interests.
For teachers, making it all work requires a “secret sauce,” said Al Byers, the assistant executive director of government partnerships and e-learning for the. Models that allow for self-directed learning, that create communities of like-minded educators, that stress local relevance, and that focus on cultivating “citizen scientists,” said Mr. Byers, “are beginning to take off.”
But making the shift isn’t easy, cautioned Christopher Dede, a Harvard University researcher who is helping lead a project that seeks to combine “immersive virtual environments” and new “augmented reality” technologies to help middle school students conduct environmental science experiments that take place both online and in the real world.
Emerging partnerships in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math hold tremendous learning potential, Mr. Dede said, but the logistics of partnerships between school-based educators and outsiders remain challenging.
“School leaders say, ‘Show me where this is part of the high-stakes tests our teachers and kids are being judged on,' " he said, while many outside organizations don’t make the effort to understand the real constraints that teachers face.
Those groups’ attitude, Mr. Dede said, tends to be, “Kids love it, so why not just make room for it?”
Despite the hurdles, evidence of change can be seen across the country.
At theat the University of Minnesota campus in St. Paul, for example, researchers who have been at the forefront of the “adventure learning” movement for a decade are now revamping their approach. Instead of connecting classrooms with scientists on expeditions around the world, the lab has developed a new virtual environment that lets students and teachers conduct and share their own learning expeditions.
“We’re putting the power of knowledge-seeking and creation, the power of asking questions and finding answers, into the hands of teachers and students,” said the lab’s co-director, Cassie Scharber. “I think we may be getting close to the tipping point, where technology is helping press forward the idea that we are all co-teachers and co-learners.”
Coverage of informal and school-based science education, human-capital management, and multiple-pathways-linked learning is supported by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2013 edition of Education Week as Museums, Researchers Shifting to Online Science Ed. Outreach