April 28, 2008

Museums Play Important Role in Science Education for Kids

At the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey kids can learn about science in a fun and exciting atmosphere.

Science educator Lisa Silverman showed a group of students how surgery is performed "” on a person dressed in a banana suit, that is.

"Can everybody say the word 'autoclave?'" Silverman asked while holding up some surgical instruments. "That's a fancy word for an oven-dishwasher that goes at a very high temperature and actually kills the germs."

As she guided the children through the operation, she also taught lessons about infections, surgery, the roles of operating room staff and the kinds of schooling one needs to be a surgeon.

Education experts call this "informal" or "free-choice" science learning, since it takes place outside of the school setting.

A congressionally chartered nonprofit group that advises the federal government known as the National Academies will release a report this summer about the learning of science in such informal settings"”including such places as museums, zoos and aquariums.

The report is meant to address the lack of scientific education and literacy among Americans. Many are afraid there will be a shortfall of homegrown engineers and scientists to keep the nation competitive, a general work force ill-equipped to function in an increasingly high-tech workplace, and a citizenry struggling to grasp complex public issues like stem cell research.

Experts believe science museums can play a big role in teaching and promoting science to both children and adults.

David Ucko, an expert on informal learning at the National Science Foundation, requested the study to take place later this summer. "Studies are showing that such institutions stimulate interest, awareness, knowledge and understanding."

Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, believes summer projects, like this one, are very useful. "They're a valuable resource for making nature real to the young, hungry mind."

The Liberty Science Center expects about 850,000 guests this year. Visitors can walk a high steel beam in the skyscraper exhibit or practice laboratory procedures.

"With us, they're right up touching the science," says Jeff Osowski, the center's vice president of learning and teaching.

School groups can talk with surgeons on the end of a live video link while they perform operations.

"The students ask a lot of questions and get very frank answers from the doctors and the nurses," said Bobbi Bremmer, who teaches high school science in Livingston, N.J.

The kids are welcome to ask as many questions as they like. For many students, "that is as important as any technical or book lesson, because the information is applicable to their families, friends and most of all, themselves," she said.

George Hein, a professor emeritus at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., and author of the book "Learning in the Museum", believes museums have an enormous role to play in teaching children because they can offer experiences that are tough for schools to present.

"You can actually do science. You can take prisms and mirrors and see what happens when you move light around," he said.

"Another advantage of museums is that visitors can choose what to focus on, and that helps them learn more and retain it longer," says Oregon State University researcher John Falk. He believes museums benefit from a self-fulfilling prophecy: People expect to learn about science there, and so they do.

One research study showed that visitors do learn from these presentations. A demonstration of the human skeleton allowed visitors to pedal a stationary bicycle while a pane of glass showed an image of a skeleton within the visitor's reflection.

After the experience, 6- and 7-year olds were asked to draw a skeleton. Nearly all drew bones terminating at the joints"”a sharp contrast to the performance of other kids who didn't go through the exhibit. Nearly all the museum visitors in the study still knew the relationship between bones and joints almost eight months later.

"The value of a science museum is that you expose yourself to science, that you pursue science and learn a little bit ... and you stay connected to science and you see value in science and that helps society support the scientific enterprise," said Falk.

"What's more, science museums entice families to learn together, and even about each other," he said. "Parents may discover that a daughter is interested in engineering."

Sue Allen, who studies museum learning at San Francisco's Exploratorium, said "in a fast-changing world where people need to keep learning all their lives, science museums provide a model for going beyond classroom education."

"We are one of the few places where people can get energized, get inspired, get excited ... and practice their own natural scientific inquiry skills. What a fantastic model for what lifelong learning could be."


On the Net:

Liberty Science Center


Association of Science-Technology Centers

National Academies

Associated Press