Igniting Scientific Curiosity Beyond the Classroom

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Why is grass green? What caused the dinosaurs’ extinction? What happens to our garbage?

Children naturally come up with these kinds of questions as they investigate the world around them. Tapping into that ingrained ability is one of the missions of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Among the new standards’ goals is making sure students have opportunities to raise questions, investigate scientific topics, and apply concepts in meaningful ways.

These standards, which were developed by science teachers, scientists, education researchers, and policy experts, were completed in 2013. So far 17 states have adopted them, although some individual districts have opted in, even if their states haven’t yet embraced NGSS.

The standards start with the idea that, as early as kindergarten, students can learn science the way actual scientists and engineers practice their professions: posing open-ended questions, investigating those questions, learning facts as needed for explanations, using web resources, preparing posters and media presentations, and understanding how basic scientific concepts work.

Few spaces are better equipped to do just that than informal science institutions, or ISIs, like museums of natural history, science centers, botanical gardens, or nature centers. These spaces captivate children and their families in more engaging ways than traditional school classrooms.

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Museums can help interpret the standards for parents, said Linda Curtis-Bey , Executive Director of STEM for the New York City Department of Education. “They can rewrite them so the public can understand.”

Recognizing that the Standards need partners to take their message beyond schools, Carnegie Corporation underwrote a meeting December 16 to bring together a national group representing informal science institutions.

“Building a Constituency for Science: The Impact of the Next Generation Science Standards on the Work of Informal Science Institutions” addressed a variety of issues, including how to engage students in science and improve access to science experiences for all students. Training of science teachers and ISI staff as well as NGSS opportunities and challenges were on the agenda. The idea was not to place the ISIs in competition with schools, but to explore how they could extend what happens in the classroom. These centers and museums offer a unique opportunity to reposition what science learning can be.

“In the age of science, technology is paramount but science is not,” said Vartan Gregorian, President of Carnegie Corporation of New York. “No one takes out his iPhone and thinks that behind it there are centuries of scientific thought. You are all great educators. Your challenge is to join hands and become ‘the force.’ In unity, you can be ‘the force’ in education.”

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Vartan Gregorian, President of Carnegie Corporation, encouraging AMNH attendees to “work out the future course of science education.”

The day-long event, hosted by the American Museum of Natural History, included representatives from science centers, natural history museums, and nature centers, as well as academic researchers, and those who train teachers and funders.

“There’s a growing understanding of the importance of science literacy and the need to improve science education,” said Ellen Futter, President of the American Museum of Natural History. “We’re at an extremely important inflection point in education reform and policy. With the adoption of NGSS in so many states and districts, institutions like this one are taking stock of our resources.”

“These institutions are in an excellent position to advance diversity and equity in science education for all students, which is central to NGSS,” said LaVerne Evans Srinivasan, Vice President of Carnegie Corporation’s National Program and Program Director of Education. “The ISI model involves partnerships with schools, community-based organizations, and business, working together to engage with underserved communities. They have the potential to build public understanding and demand for high quality learning experiences for children, and to lay the groundwork for stronger school-to-home connections.”

Those involved with NGSS believe ISIs have a distinct role in promoting science.

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John Falk, Executive Director of the Institute for Learning Innovation, and Sea Grant Professor of Free-Choice Learning, at Oregon State University, highlighting the role of ISI teachers: “The teachers are there. They just don’t practice in a classroom.”

“If you want to see kids jazzed, see them coming out of a science center,” said Peter McLaren, former Science and Technology Specialist from the Rhode Island Department of Education, and member of the NGSS team from 26 states that wrote the Standards. NGSS wants “all kids being engaged in practices of science and engineering, and applying concepts. They want to use kids’ natural curiosity to wonder, dream, and innovate.”

McLaren added, “Engaging in phenomena is what you see in a science museum or informal science center. That’s what kids get attracted to.”

At the Museum of Natural History, students in the early grades can excavate dinosaur fossils and discover how they ended up being buried, as part of their study of paleontology. At the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, younger students can prep and clean a T-Rex bone, or grind corn as if they were in a pueblo. These collecting and observing activities are part of a 45-minute field trip program designed to support Illinois state standards.

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“Families love to come here,” said Jim Short, Director of the Gottesman Center for Science Teaching and Learning at the American Museum of Natural History. “We can use that as a platform to say ‘this is good.’”

Students can also head to ISIs for after school programs and summer camps. The Museum of Natural History offers a special three-week summer program, with Saturday classes during the school year, for sixth- through twelfth-graders, where students design their own research projects and delve deeply into the museum exhibits such as the planetarium, evolution, or the human micro-biome.

Unlike a formal school setting, with homework and tests, ISIs offer a friendlier kind of science to families. “We are the public face of science, with unique access to families and a unique connection to parents,” said Julie Yu, Director of the Teacher Institute at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. “It’s about broader science learning.”

The New York Hall of Science in Queens recently launched Queens 2020, for example, in part to work more closely with low-income and immigrant families in the community to provide STEM programs and opportunities for students.

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New York Hall of Science programs exemplify innovative ways ISIs can encourage science learning outside schools, through targeted outreach to local families and students.

ISIs, including the New York Hall of Science, are also a resource for teachers. The Science Museum of Minnesota offers training to teachers, targeting different grade levels. The web site also provides a standards database teachers can use to help them explore the galleries with their students.

“Museums are nimble, and can connect to educators,” said Paul Martin, Senior Vice President of Science Learning at the Science Museum of Minnesota. He added, “The ultimate authority in museums is the visitors. When kids are in there, they’re authorities, too. They own this on their own terms. They choose how to do it. It’s about getting people in the door where they feel safe and smart.”

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Participants discussing challenges and strategies for bringing NGSS to schools and the public, including ways of incorporating the standards into exhibits.

The meeting was one more step in exploring the possibilities of expanding the message of Next Generation Science Standards through Informal Science Institutions, and in helping to foster lifelong interest in science education.

Merri Rosenberg is a Visiting Media Fellow at Carnegie Corporation of New York. She is a former freelance education columnist and reporter for The New York Times who focuses on education-related issues in her work for national and regional publications. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and contributors, not necessarily of the Corporation.