Museums Step Up as Resource for New Science Standards

By Liana Loewus — April 11, 2014 7 min read
West Ridge Elementary School teacher Sherry Perazic, at center, discusses a pendulum display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago with students, from left, Aun Mohammad, 11, Antonio Jones, 12, Dzeneta Aslani, 11, Ethan Cloud, 12, and Muhammad Khan, 12.
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As a small but growing number of states adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, science museums and centers are positioning themselves as a key resource for helping teachers adapt to the vision for instruction reflected in the new guidelines.

Some educators say that professional-development sessions held at museums—unlike those at conference centers, universities, or districts—give teachers immediate access to the kinds of hands-on activities that the common science standards call for. In addition, such institutions often bring a wealth of expertise on both content and pedagogy, employing a mix of scientists and professional educators.

A new study bolsters the claim that teachers should look to science centers for effective training, finding that a museum-based professional-development program at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago led to gains in both teacher content knowledge and student achievement.

However, some educators caution that museums need to be purposeful in creating professional-development curricula and exhibits that align with the common science standards—adopted by 11 states and the District of Columbia so far—rather than assuming what they’re already doing fits the bill.

Anthony “Bud” Rock, the CEO of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, a nonprofit group representing about 600 science centers internationally, said the U.S. institutions are putting “a special emphasis now on how to provide techniques for the Next Generation Science Standards and the common core, and more broadly on interdisciplinary approaches to science education. We’re very attuned to the evolving landscape for teachers right now when it comes to science education in the classroom.”

Just last week, the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford was scheduled to gather more than a dozen leaders from science centers across the country for a workshop on how to better align their work with schools’ needs, with particular attention to the new science standards.

Greater Need

Student Javier Muniz, 10, of Gallistel Academy examines a baking soda and vinegar experiment during a recent visit to the museum.

Hank Gruner, a vice president at the Connecticut Science Center, said that although museum-based professional development is not a novel idea, schools are newly interested in preparing teachers for inquiry-based learning, prevalent in both the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core State Standards, which cover literacy and math.

“I do think you’re going to see more centers starting to look at professional development now that there will be more of a need for it,” he said. “Our feeling is there are opportunities here.”

The Next Generation Science Standards, completed in April 2013, were developed by 26 “lead state partners” in collaboration with national organizations. In some states, science centers and other informal STEM learning institutions were among the most vocal proponents of the science standards, which focus not just on mastering scientific facts, but also engaging young people in scientific practices, such as doing investigations, building models, and analyzing data.

“Science centers excel by definition” in that type of learning, said Mr. Rock of the Association of Science-Technology Centers.

Each of the lead states convened a broad-based team of stakeholders to review drafts of the standards, and many of those included representatives from science centers.

In Illinois, where the common science standards were adopted earlier this year, the Museum of Science and Industry provides free professional-development courses, led by scientists, university professors, and K-12 educators, for about 200 teachers a year in physical, life, earth, and environmental sciences.

The standards dovetail nicely with what the museum has been doing, said Nicole Kowrach, the museum’s director of teaching and learning.

“Asking questions, designing and carrying out investigations, that’s the kind of learning and way of thinking we’ve encouraged,” she said.

The new study of Chicago’s science museum found that its course about energy was successful in improving teacher knowledge and student learning. For the study, 85 teachers in grades 4-8 who applied to participate in the program were randomly assigned to either take the course or be part of the control group and receive no training. On a post-test about energy, the mean score was a statistically significant 8 percent higher for teachers who took the six-session course than for those who did not.

Also, the participants’ students were assessed, and those whose teachers had the professional development performed better by a statistically significant amount on an assessment of student understanding and on a separate test of their application of that knowledge.

Teacher Judy Katsaros of Matthew Gallistel Elementary Language Academy in Chicago oversees work by 4th grader Jacquelyn Salazar, 10, at left, and Alexia Amezcua, 10, in a learning lab at the city’s Museum of Science and Industry.

William H. Schmidt, a professor and the co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, who led the study, said the random assignment—a feature not present in most research on professional development—allows for causal inference, meaning the professional development explains the difference in test scores.

It’s significant that museums “have the real world inside their buildings,” Mr. Schmidt said. “And the results came to show that, in this particular case, that worked.”

Ms. Kowrach agreed that having hands-on activities and exhibits on-site is a boon for teacher training. “If you’re doing professional development in a school or university,” she said, “you can’t walk outside the classroom and have a giant inclined plane and start experimenting with potential and kinetic energy.”

Teachers who receive professional development at the museum walk away with a bin full of tools and activities for their classrooms.

Ronald Hale, a 5th grade teacher at Chicago’s Hayt Elementary School who has both taken and led professional development at the Chicago museum, said the take-home resources are key to teacher buy-in and classroom implementation. When instructing other teachers, “the number-one question you get is, ‘Can we have this?’ They want it in their bin,” Mr. Hale said. “It’s like when Oprah gives out keys to cars. They get so excited.”

‘A Safe Place for Teachers’

Another reason science museums can be an attractive professional-development option is that they exist outside the K-12 bureaucracy.

“We’re a safe place for teachers,” said Ms. Kowrach. “Schools have the pressures of testing and teacher assessment, and we’re not part of a school district, the state, or a university where [teachers are] trying to complete a degree.”

“We are neutral, we don’t have any baggage associated with us,” said Mr. Gruner of the Connecticut Science Center, which offers everything from one-day workshops to three-year professional-development programs for schools.

That outsider status also makes science museums potentially more nimble than many formal learning environments. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is “years ahead of the district,” said Mr. Hale, in staying up to date with teaching practices. For instance, although Illinois only formally adopted the Next Generation Science Standards in February, the museum has been incorporating the ideas behind the standards into professional development for several years, he said.

Some other science centers ramping up their teacher offerings pegged to the new science standards are in states that have not adopted them, such as Connecticut, where the regional conference for science centers took place.

The American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, is developing tools to help teachers create lessons and assessments on the standards, said James B. Short, the director of the museum’s Gottesman Center for Science Teaching and Learning.

New York was a partner state in developing the standards, but has not yet adopted them.

“Even if New York doesn’t adopt, we’re finding these tools help teachers think better and think more deeply about instruction,” Mr. Short said.

The Exploratorium in San Francisco, which has been offering teacher programs for 30 years, is making a concerted effort to ensure that all of its professional development and related activities are aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. (California adopted the standards last September.)

“Even though our bread and butter has always been hands-on activities and inquiry-based [learning], I hesitate to just do what I see happening a lot--to put the Next Generation Science Standards sticker on what we’re already doing,” said Julie Yu, the director of the museum’s teacher institute. “We’re trying to be thoughtful on what this means and what teachers need.”

Ms. Yu said the Exploratorium is sifting through its more than 1,000 STEM activities to create a portfolio of only those that are a good fit. She urged other science centers to do the same. “We felt the [new science standards embody] what we do, but we all need to take a step back and make sure that we’re honestly doing it,” she said.

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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 Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2014 edition of Education Week as Museums Step Up as Resource for New Science Standards


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