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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 7

Exploring Science at the Museum

Professional development and after-school learning opportunities at science centers and museums can promote teachers' and students' interest in science.

Many educators and parents wonder how they can encourage young people to study science. According to a National Science Foundation study, more than half the scientists with Ph.D.s say that they first developed an interest in science between the ages of 5 and 10 (Roper Starch Worldwide, 1998). Forty-five percent of those surveyed report that either a teacher or a parent influenced that interest. Another 11 percent were influenced by a field trip or a science fair; 10 percent by toys, books, and equipment, such as a chemistry set; and 6 percent by such factors as a class or a television program. Twenty-eight percent of the scientists either didn't know or could not cite a significant influence.
Knowing that teachers and other adults can influence students in their educational paths and career choices, schools need to make sure that teachers develop their own interests in science and that they can provide learning resources to students. Science centers and children's museums offer rich programs that often link directly to what students are learning in school and also provide an informal, inquiry-based setting for exploring concepts in math, science, arts, and social studies. Partnerships between school districts and science centers and museums can provide programs that stimulate teacher and student interest and guide them on the path to lifelong learning.

What Teachers Should Know

Teachers need to be familiar with the museums in their area and the programs that they offer. Science centers and museums can provide information to teachers about student programs and learning opportunities; develop field trips that link to the school curriculum; and offer teachers professional development opportunities that address science content and effective instructional strategies.
Teachers should also know what research says about how high-quality after-school programs affect student achievement and attitudes toward school and learning. Students who attend high-quality programs, particularly those from lower socioeconomic levels, have better peer relations, emotional adjustment, grades, and conduct in school compared to their peers who are not in such programs. Students who attend high-quality programs spend more time engaging in academic and enrichment activities and less time watching television than their peers (Baker & Witt, 1996; Kahne et al., 1999; Posner & Vandell, 1994, 1999; Vandell & Shumow, 1999). Teachers and principals report that students who participate in the programs become more cooperative, learn to handle conflicts better, read more, and receive better grades (Pierce, Hamm, & Vandell, 1999; Riley, Steinberg, Todd, Junge, & McClain, 1994; Schinke, Cole, & Poulin, 1998).


Knowing the benefits of participating in high-quality, after-school programs, the Association of Science-Technology Centers—an international organization of science centers—formed a project to help science centers meet the needs of students and teachers. Youth Achievement through Learning, Involvement, Volunteering, and Employment (YouthALIVE!) was funded by the Wallace Reader's Digest Fund from 1990 to 1999 and introduced science centers and museum staff members to the skills and knowledge necessary to support the developmental needs of young people. The initiative also focused on ways to integrate young people ages 10–17 from low-income communities into the life of a science center.
As a result of YouthALIVE!, many science centers now provide structured after-school, weekend, and summer enrichment activities for students ages 10–13. The activities help students become competent in science and the arts and foster self-awareness and social interaction. These programs include homework assistance, computer training and use, assistance with making presentations, and guidance for using science center resources. For young people ages 14–17, programs usually focus on work-based activities. With training from museum staff, older teens from low-income communities become paid exhibit explainers, demonstrators, and outreach workers. These teen workers make it possible for the centers to serve families who cannot afford fee-based classes (Beane, 2000). For many young people, their entrance into these rich and exciting programs depends on their teachers' abilities to motivate their interest in science and direct them toward science centers and museums as a source to foster and fully develop that interest.

Teacher Leadership Centers

Providing professional development opportunities for teachers can support student learning and enhance teachers' abilities to develop students' interest in science. In 1996, the Orlando Science Center in Florida approached the Harcourt General Charitable Foundation with a proposal to fund the building of a teacher leadership center as an integral part of a new facility. With Lockheed Martin, the foundation cosponsored the construction of a 7,000 square-foot center that includes a math and science teaching resource library, four laboratories, a computer lab, a meeting room, and offices for staff members and teachers.
A key element of the plan for the teacher leadership center is a partnership with the Orange County School District to fund teachers to work full-time in the center to plan, write, and deliver a professional development curriculum, to develop and present inquiry-based laboratory experiences to classes visiting the center, and to develop materials to support field trips to the center's exhibit halls. These materials include previsit activities, an in-depth exploration of one exhibit, and postvisit activities to help students and teachers link the field trip experience to the classroom curriculum and to Florida's state standards.
Teachers work in the center for two years and then return to the school district where they are assigned a position—such as curriculum resource teacher or staff development specialist—that allows them to use their expertise to improve the quality of the math and science programs. The teachers are selected from the primary, intermediate, and secondary levels on the basis of a competitive interview process. In the center's first four years of operation, eight teachers have completed internships. New teachers cycle into the residency assignments each year so that the center has some teachers in the second year of residency and some new teachers entering the program. This plan allows a steady team of master science teachers to return to the schools to provide professional development to their colleagues.
Because of the success of the Orlando Teacher Leadership Center, the Harcourt General Charitable Foundation has funded the development of similar centers in other cities. The foundation requires that each teacher leadership center site include dedicated physical space for the center in the science center or museum, adequate space for a state-of-the-art learning environment, partnerships with local colleges and universities, and funding from the local school district or districts for the teachers-in-residence component. Teacher leadership centers now exist at the Science Place (Dallas, Texas); the Children's Museum (Boston, Massachusetts); the Franklin Institute (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania); the New York Hall of Science; and the Chicago Academy of Sciences. A site in California will be chosen to complete the foundation's support of this initiative.

Programs for Teachers and Students

In addition to the teacher learning centers, many science centers and museums offer programs that link school programs to the out-of-school activities and foster teacher and student interest in science. Each of the sites that receive teacher leadership center funding provide some examples.

The New York Hall of Science

The New York Hall of Science (www.nyhallsci.org) After-School Science Clubs serve about 250 students each year in grades 2–8 who live within walking distance of the Hall of Science in Corona Park, Flushing Meadows, New York. The school district serves a student body that speaks 104 different languages. Many of these students are latchkey children who are unsupervised after school hours.
The after-school clubs strive to increase science literacy and to improve female and minority students' self-confidence in math and science. Club staff members recruit students by distributing multilingual flyers to local schools, libraries, religious organizations, and businesses. They send letters to club members, make presentations to community-based organizations, and contact teachers.
At each club session, students from many different ethnic groups meet for three hours of homework help and science-based inquiry experiences. One full-time instructor manages each club. Each club hires explainers—teenagers from cultural backgrounds similar to those of the students—to oversee five to eight students. Explainers are paid and are trained to ask good questions, to guide students in investigating a science concept without giving away the answer, and to pick up on teachable moments that arise during an activity. The explainers become role models for the younger students and often find direction for their own futures. Many explainers eventually become teachers.
Each club session begins with students working on their homework with encouragement and support from their explainer and their friends. During the last two hours, students participate in inquiry-based science activities in workshops, small groups, and teams. Students study a topic—astronomy, microbiology, or sports science—for two to four weeks. Students in the program rarely miss a session. Every session is always filled and has a long waiting list.

The Orlando Science Center

The Orlando Science Center (www.osc.org) recruits teachers to become science ambassadors. Principals appoint teachers to participate. The teachers, who represent all grade levels K–12, receive a one-year science center membership which allows them unlimited visits to the exhibit halls and use of the resource center. They also participate for free in professional development activities related to exhibits and programs.
The 350 ambassadors connect the school community to the activities and programs of the science center. They provide information to their fellow teachers about professional development and field trip opportunities. They distribute information through the schools to families about the programs, camps, and special activities at the center. Many ambassadors serve as teachers and leaders in the center's camp program—week-long, inquiry-based, hands-on, thematic programs for students ages 5–14 that focus on science ideas.

The Science Place

The Outreach School Programs at the Science Place (www.scienceplace.org) help teachers develop students' interest in science through out-of-school programs. These programs take place at the school site, eliminating the need for costly bus transportation and lost time in transit. Teachers can request either assembly programs or class presentations. Examples of assembly programs are TXU Electric Theater, a presentation of great discoveries in electricity for grades K–8; and Fire and Ice: States of Matter, a liquid nitrogen demonstration for grades K–8. The Science Place staff will also make presentations to smaller groups on such topics as Look Out: The Eye, which gives students in grades 2–12 a hands-on dissection lab experience; and Starlab, in which a portable sky dome allows grade 1–7 students to study the Texas night sky. Teachers can enroll in professional development programs to develop their science content knowledge about the program topics, to enhance their abilities to do inquiry-based science in their classrooms, and to inspire students to look to the Science Place for after-school activities.

The Children's Museum

The Children's Museum's Culture, Art, Technology, and Science (C.A.T.S.) project (www.bostonkids.org) promotes an interest in science among students in after-school programs by using multidisciplinary activity kits. Teachers can rent these kits, which contain activities, supplies, videos, photos, models, and artifacts from the museum's teaching collection. The kits are teaching units that offer one- to three-week lesson plans for social studies, art, math, language arts, health, and science classes. Teachers, program directors for after-school programs, and children worked with the museum staff to create innovative activities for the kits. Topics include Construction and Creations (exploring structures and shelters); Rainbows (investigating color, light, and spectra); Views and Clues (backyard nature exploration); Light Celebrations (using batteries and bulbs); and Wind Ways. Projects such as C.A.T.S. involve teachers as partners in developing high-quality instructional materials that can increase students' learning in after-school programs.

The Chicago Academy of Sciences

For 10 years, the Chicago Academy of Sciences (www.chias.org) has run an outreach program to share its resources with teachers and students. One of the most important outreach programs is Science on the Go! Ten educators on staff at the academy teach in classrooms in the Chicago public schools. The outreach team works in more than 20 schools, bringing enhanced hands-on, minds-on science, math, and technology learning opportunities to teachers and students from prekindergarten to high school. The program begins with a month of intensive teacher workshops, in which the outreach educators familiarize classroom teachers with the academy's educational philosophy and curriculum structure before they begin teaching in classrooms. Curriculum themes correspond to Illinois's science standards and Chicago's academic standards. The workshops help the classroom teachers feel more comfortable implementing hands-on instruction and presenting scientific ideas to their students, while at the same time helping students value the rich resources of the academy that are available to them after school.

The Franklin Institute

The Franklin Institute (http://sln.fi.edu) has offered a weekend and summer program for African American students in grades 7–11 since 1993. Partnerships for Careers in Technology and Science (PACTS) serves an average of 80 young people each year with science enrichment activities, mentorships, career development programs, and leadership opportunities. PACTS students conduct environmental research on Centennial Lake in Fairmount Park, document that research on the institute's Web site, and create a public exhibit in the institute's Changing Earth gallery. In addition, older PACTS students work on the weekends as explainers, conducting special shows for visitors and hosting the annual Meet the Scientists forum for area high school students.

Shaping the Future

Many cities boast a science center or a children's museum. Whether these facilities are widely used by children, youth, and their parents depends on the influence of the school through its teachers and staff. When teachers seek out such centers for their own professional development, when school districts provide the financial support for field trips, and when the centers and the school districts work together to develop inquiry-based learning opportunities linked to the school curriculum, the window of opportunity for making students' learning more meaningful, more connected, and, therefore, more permanent, opens wider. Students who participate in high-quality after-school programs have an increased probability of a better future, and teachers who influence that participation are truly shaping the future for all of us.

Baker, D., & Witt, P. A. (1996). Evaluation of the impact of two after-school recreation programs. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 14(3), 23–44.

Beane, D. B. (2000, November/December). After school hours: A time for children and science centers. Dimensions: Bimonthly News Journal of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, 3–4.

Kahne, J., Nagaoka, J., Brown, A., O'Brien, J., Quinn, T., & Thandiede, K. (1999).School and after-school programs as contexts for youth development. Unpublished manuscript.

Pierce, K. M., Hamm, J. V., & Vandell, D. L. (1999). Experiences in after-school programs and children's adjustment in first-grade classrooms. Child Development, 70, 756–767.

Posner, J. K., & Vandell, D. L. (1994). Low-income children's after-school care: Are there beneficial effects of after-school programs? Child Development, 65, 440–456.

Posner, J. K., & Vandell, D. L. (1999). After-school activities and the development of low-income urban children: A longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 35, 868–879.

Riley, D., Steinberg, J., Todd, C., Junge, S., & McClain, I. (1994). Preventing problem behaviors and raising academic performance in the nation's youth: The impacts of 64 school-age child care programs in 15 states supported by the Cooperative Extension Service Youth-at-Risk Initiative. Washington, DC: Cooperative Extension Service.

Roper Starch Worldwide. (1998). The Bayer facts of science education IV: Scientists on science for the 21st century. Pittsburgh, PA: Bayer Corporation.

Schinke, S., Cole, K. C., & Poulin, S. R. (1998). Evaluation of educational enhancement program of Boys and Girls Clubs of America. New York: Columbia University School of Social Work.

Vandell, D. L., & Shumow, L. (1999). After-school child care programs. The Future of Children, 9(2), 64–80.

Joyce McLeod speaks nationally and internationally as a consultant on issues in mathematics and science education as well as in writing and delivering professional development in mathematics. She is an author of Harcourt Science (2002), Math Advantage (1999), and Harcourt Math (2002), published by Harcourt School Publishers. Prior to her retirement from Harcourt School Publishers, she worked as senior vice president and editor-in-chief of the mathematics, science, and health division at Harcourt and as senior consultant in mathematics, science, and health. Since 1984, she has held a Visiting Professorship in the School of Education and Human Development at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She teaches courses in the Masters of Arts in Teaching program. She has taught courses in classroom management, cognitive development, and mathematics content for elementary and middle-school teachers. McLeod is the 1991 and 2001 recipient of the Natalie Delcamp Award for Excellence in Teaching at Rollins. She also received the 1995 University of Central Florida Alumni Association Professional Achievement Award, presented by the College of Education.

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