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Science Centers Preparing the Workforce of Tomorrow: An international perspective

Are science centers more efficient than schools at helping students cultivate the “soft skills”—like problem solving, critical thinking, and team building—they will need for future careers? Focus groups from 11 countries are beginning to delve into this question in an ASTC-led study. The session “Science Centers Preparing the Workforce of Tomorrow: An international perspective,” held Sunday morning, shared some preliminary results.

Session leader Walter Staveloz of ASTC began with a discussion of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). PISA tests the reading, math, and science skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students around the world. Staveloz explained that there is no correlation between a country’s PISA science scores and the number of students who are passionate about science or interested in pursuing science careers—but that OECD has found that young people who do not score well on PISA but are enthusiastic about science careers sometimes have more experience in out-of-school time activities than other students. Staveloz also described his “eye-opening” visit to Yahoo headquarters in San Jose, California, where Yahoo representatives explained their view that soft skills are crucial for employees to succeed at their company.

The perspectives of OECD and Yahoo helped to inspire Staveloz to launch a series of international focus groups to look at how stakeholders including teachers, museum professionals, and industry professionals perceive the correlation between science center activities and soft skills. So far, the focus groups have taken place at science centers in Australia, Belgium, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Korea, Mexico, Portugal, South Africa, and Thailand. Ultimately, the information gained from the focus groups will help science centers recognize their strengths and create and refine programs that help students develop soft skills.

The focus groups had to react to 11 statements, including
• We should let kids enjoy science centers, not turn science centers into schools.
• Schools can learn more about teaching science from science centers than the other way around.
• Students acquire skills in science centers that are highly beneficial for their lives after school.
• Focusing on soft skills will lower results in test scores by taking time away from testing skills. That’s where science centers can play a role.
• Visiting science centers has little impact on whether students pursue careers in STEM.

The Department of Education and Training, Flemish Community Government, Belgium, conducted the first focus group and is helping to bring together all the results. Rita Dunon, who represented the department at the session, reported that so far, the focus groups as a whole have expressed the belief that science center activities can increase students’ motivation and can aid students in developing soft skills that can help them become innovators.

Dunon reported that the Belgian focus group felt that science centers should mainly trigger children’s motivation in regard to STEM, but that the impact of a science center visit can be enhanced by close collaboration with schools. For maximum impact, science centers should focus not only on students but also on teachers, teacher trainers, heads of schools, parents, grandparents, and other stakeholders.

Ganigar Chen of the National Science Museum, Pathum Thani, Thailand, said that the Thai focus group believed free-choice learning in science centers can help generate enthusiasm for science learning. They also felt that schools should learn from informal techniques but remain focused on following the curriculum and working toward high exam scores.

Sheena Laursen of Experimentarium, Hellerup, Denmark, reported that the Danish focus group participants felt that science centers and schools should complement one another. They believed that science centers are places that can create wonder and viewed them as “sanctuaries where you can’t be held responsible for the results.”

Although his institution has not participated in the focus groups, Khalid S. Al-Yahya of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Saudi Arabia, Dharan, shared his thoughts on the topic at the session’s conclusion. He said he is concerned that if science centers focus too much on cultivating a future STEM workforce, they may lose their role as a place of curiosity. “Every crisis in society is ultimately a crisis of imagination,” he said.

Anyone interested in launching a focus group as part of the project can contact Walter Staveloz.