Special Report

Science-Rich Institutions Provide Venues for Exploration

April 01, 2011 11 min read
Jackeli Queli views her multiplying faces inside a giant kaleidoscope during Family Science Night at the Explora Science Center in Albuquerque, N.M.
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On a recent evening, hundreds of children and their families climbed off school buses and filed into a science center in this city’s historic Old Town neighborhood. The event that drew them, dubbed Family Science Night, was no invitation to hear a lecture on climate change or quantum physics, or to catch a documentary on a gigantic IMAX screen.

Instead, families from two high-poverty public schools dived into an array of hands-on, interactive exhibits separated into small alcoves in a place aptly named Explora, Spanish for “explore.”

And explore they did. Children got their hands wet—literally—as they manipulated objects in water-based displays in the Water of Life, Life of Water exhibit area. They tapped on a keyboard in the Shapes of Sound section that produced not tones but deep vibrations felt through the bench on which they sat. Over in the Moving Air section, they sliced up paper cups to see how different sizes and shapes would float or twirl when placed atop a barrel with a fan inside blowing air toward the ceiling.

“Hey, Daddy, come and look at this!” a young boy blurted out as his paper creation in the Cup Copter exhibit danced in the air.

Amid concern that the United States is failing to adequately prepare young people with the knowledge of science and related fields they need to thrive as individuals and keep the nation globally competitive, recognition is growing that the vast American landscape of science-rich institutions can play a powerful role in addressing the situation.

Science centers and museums, botanical gardens, zoos, aquariums, and natural-history museums, among others, help the public gain a better understanding of science. They also excel at inspiring curiosity and a passion for science-related topics in ways that experts say are all too rare in the classroom.

Such organizations have a big audience. In 2008, a majority of Americans said they had visited an informal science institution such as a zoo or natural-history museum over the past year, according to a report from the National Science Board. About one in four had visited a science center like Explora.

Science centers and museums, in particular, have mushroomed in recent decades, both in the United States and abroad, notes Alan J. Friedman, a former director and chief executive officer of the New York Hall of Science in New York City. Still uncommon in the 1960s, they can be found today in virtually every major metropolitan area of the country—and plenty of smaller communities, too—from Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum in Michigan, to one of the pioneers, the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

The most explosive growth occurred during the 1970s and 1980s, according to Mr. Friedman, who said there are now more than 350 science centers, museums, and related institutions across the nation.

“That’s just astonishing to build cultural institutions at that rate,” he said.

Experts say most science centers and museums, like schools, have a core mission of educating the public, but plenty of big differences exist. Perhaps most obvious, they are “free choice” environments: People can take them or leave them. And visitors decide where to linger and what to ignore. Also, most visitors come only on rare occasions.

The forte of these institutions is highly engaging, and usually hands-on, activities and exhibits that try to bring theoretical concepts to life with power and immediacy.

‘Inspirational Discovery’

Explora, with a stated mission of “creating opportunities for inspirational discovery and the joy of lifelong learning through interactive experiences in science, technology, and art,” was born in 1995 as a result of the merger of a small science center and a children’s museum. Financial support comes from several sources, including earned income, public dollars from the city and the state, and corporation and foundation grants.

Museum Menu

Explora offers a host of programs and initiatives to promote science learning and engagement.

Growing a Scientist
A biweekly program in which children ages 2-4, accompanied by an adult, explore basic science principles together through playful experiences.

Science to Grow On
Children from K-3 learn about science through questioning, experiencing, and investigating in this biweekly program.

Helping Hand
Free annual museum memberships for low-income families.

Teacher Professional Development
Offers half-day workshops for educators on topics such as designing learning environments, asking questions that support cognitive growth, and facilitating a science fair.

Classroom Explorations
Offers more than 200 hourlong, experiential programs, called “explorations,” for preschoolers through 12th graders facilitated by Explora educators and benchmarked to state standards. Examples include How Does Your Garden Grow?, Light and Shadow, and Triangles and Tribulations. Also offers some explorations for older adults.

Youth Intern Program
At-risk high school students participate in a three-year internship in which they are trained to help with various educational programs—and in some cases run them—as well as interact with visitors on the center’s exhibit floor.

After-School Clubs
Runs clubs both onsite and in the community, including Robo Task Force, focused on robotics; Art/Tech, which explores science-art connections, especially using digital technology; and Niñas Explorando la Ciencia (Spanish for “girls doing science”).

Portal to the Public
Local scientists, working closely with Explora staff members, give a presentation on the exhibit floor with materials-based activities to convey their research to the public.

Spring Break and Summer Camps
Offers half-day or full-day camps focused on activities that explore science, technology, and art.

SOURCE: Explora

With about 20,000 square feet of exhibit space, Explora is on the small end among science centers and museums, dwarfed by venues such as the California Science Center in Los Angeles and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, which, according to its website, is home to some “35,000 artifacts and nearly 14 acres of hands-on exhibits.”

Indeed, while some of these institutions have significant collections, and even house full-fledged natural-history museums, Explora does not.

Its exhibits are essentially learning activities, said Paul Tatter, the associate director.

“The place is organized into clusters of very small exhibits,” he said. “Most of the exhibits are things that you can hug. You can get your arms around them. They fit on tabletops.”

Visitors are invited to investigate with their hands, rather than spend a lot of time reading explanatory text. One kindergarten teacher visiting recently with her class gushed that her students “get to touch everything.”

At the Cup Copter display, visitors experiment with how changing variables about the paper cups, such as modifying the wing length and angle or changing the weight, alter how they float or spin.

“Part of it is the process of investigation,” said Betsy Adamson, Explora’s exhibits director. “Visitors get experience with scientific concepts even if they don’t get the names.”

Mr. Tatter, previously the center’s executive director, said Explora is not designed to teach specific content: “We don’t determine ahead of time what the experience is supposed to be.”

Staff members say that great care is taken in providing materials that will foster meaningful exploration and learning. In addition, the members of the floor staff are seen as integral to facilitating the experience.

“The staff is part of the exhibit in a sense,” said Kristin W. Leigh, the director of educational services.

The Albuquerque center has drawn national notice for its work.

Explora is on the “innovative edge” among science centers and museums, said Mr. Friedman, who now consults with such facilities around the country. “One [example] is the physical arrangement on the floor to encourage families to stay longer and get deeper into each activity,” he said. “Another is the use of on-floor staff who pose questions more than answer them.”

Like many science centers, Explora has developed a big menu of educational offerings and activities that go beyond the exhibit floor. For example, it runs after-school clubs and summer camps and provides professional development for teachers. It’s established an extensive youth-intern program that provides support and training for high school students who help with various educational programs—and, in some cases, run them—and interact with visitors on the exhibit floor.

Alessandra Chavez, a 2nd grader at Tomasita Elementary School in Albuquerque, reaches toward a paper creation floating above a barrel blowing air at the Explora science center's Cup Copter exhibit. The occasion was Family Science Night.

Explora also offers a selection of some 200 hourlong, hands-on classes, called “explorations,” both on site and in public schools, community centers, and senior-living facilities, that are run by the center’s staff of full-time educators. The explorations are benchmarked to New Mexico’s state standards in science, math, or art.

Experts say most science centers try to ensure a diverse audience—including minority and low-income families who ordinarily may be less apt to make use of them—whether with regular free days, limited free memberships, or other strategies. The California Science Center, in Los Angeles, is free to all comers.

Leaders at Explora take the matter of access seriously. One strategy is Family Science Night, which the center offers about 20 times a year. It’s a partnership with the 90,000-student Albuquerque public schools funded through the district’s federal Title I aid for disadvantaged students.

“We had these free family memberships, and we saw that not a lot of people were using them,” said Patrick Lopez, Explora’s executive director and a former school administrator. “OK, they don’t really understand what a science center is, so that’s how we got Albuquerque public schools involved.”

In addition, many Explora floor-staff members speak Spanish, Mr. Lopez noted, and some speak Native American languages.

“We make it a priority to hire people that reflect the community,” he said.

Sara Keeney, the principal of Los Padillas Elementary School, one of the two local public schools invited to Family Science Night in late February, said it’s a big hit.

“This is definitely our biggest family event of the year,” she said. “All the families know about it; they all want to come.”

In December, Explora won a national award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for what the federal agency described as its creative approach to lifelong learning and its success in reaching out to the community in effective and inventive ways.

Science museum officials around the country say connecting with the community and serving as a resource in multiple ways are high priorities.

“You would be hard-pressed to find museums that only work under their roof,” said Kirsten Ellenbogen, the senior director of lifelong learning at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. “Museums are finding more and more ways to make sure they’re fully integrated into their communities and being a resource.”

“Common to all of us is: How do we connect to the communities we serve and add relevance and value?” said Nancy J. Stueber, the president and chief executive officer of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, in Portland. “We want to go from being ‘nice’ to being really necessary and seen as integral to advancing stem learning.”

‘A Perennial Challenge’

To be sure, Explora looks a lot different from many science centers and museums, especially the bigger ones. For example, it doesn’t have an IMAX theater, nor does it feature the traveling exhibits popular at many such centers.

One current touring exhibit that’s drawn plaudits is Race: Are We So Different?, put together by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota. The exhibit, which got support from the National Science Foundation, explores the science, history, and everyday experiences of race in America through interactive exhibits, historical artifacts, photographs, and multimedia presentations. Another recent exhibit, Charlie and Kiwi’s Evolutionary Adventure, which debuted in 2009 at the New York Hall of Science, uses a child-friendly story line to help young people discover the link between dinosaurs and modern birds.

Experts say an issue among science museums is tension between the educational mission and the pressure to bring in revenue.

“This is a perennial challenge for science museums, because most are funded to a large degree by earned income,” said David A. Ucko, a former senior official at the NSF.

On average, only 17 percent of the operating revenue for U.S. science centers and museums comes from public funds, compared with about 50 percent from earned income, according to recent survey data from the Association of Science-Technology Centers, based in Washington. And the recent recession has created still more budgetary pressure,with at least some museums getting fewer public dollars and seeing a decline in visitors, such as students on field trips.

Few would argue that there’s anything wrong with science centers’ featuring fun activities that draw visitors and sell tickets.

But Ms. Ellenbogen from the Science Museum of Minnesota said she’s among those who worry that some blockbuster exhibits, particularly those sponsored by private companies, may be high on gloss and entertainment but thin on educational value.

She points, for example, to Harry Potter: The Exhibition, which has been featured at several major science museums. “It’s not designed to be a science learning experience,” she said.

Mr. Ucko suggests there’s a larger public-policy matter at issue: “Should informal science institutions be getting more dollars from the large amount of money that the nation spends on education?”

One emerging area of work in the science museum world that could help make the case for expanded public financing is research, driven in part by the NSF, to gauge more carefully and in more sophisticated ways the impact of museum exhibits and activities. Some institutions, such as the Oregon and Minnesota science museums as well as the Exploratorium, even employ substantial in-house research teams to continuously evaluate their offerings and conduct broader studies to advance the field of informal science learning.

An ongoing challenge is figuring out ways to better connect museums and other informal learning institutions to the formal school world. Plenty of examples of such partnerships exist. But a recent report suggests such endeavors have generally failed to “institutionalize,” and experts caution that forming such ties can be tricky.

“The schools have standards and curricula and assessments, and none of them are designed to work with what happens outside of school,” said Mr. Friedman, who also serves on the governing board for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. “They don’t measure a lot of things that really matter to us, like are students interested in science, do they improve their interest over time?

“We offer an alternative channel,” he added. “I cherish all the ways we are different, and I don’t want to lose those.”

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This story was underwritten by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as Science-Rich Institutions Provide Venues for Children to Enjoy Exploration


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