Real + Virtual: New Horizons for Engagement with Nature

October 20th, 2014 - Posted in Annual Conference by Emily Schuster

At the Monday morning session “Real + Virtual: New Horizons for Engagement with Nature,” participants learned about ways to use both “real” hands-on natural history specimens and “virtual” digital collections with the public. Session leader Cindy Lincoln of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS), Raleigh, was joined by presenters Steve Turner, also of NCMNS; Bruce J. MacFadden of the Florida Museum of Natural History/University of Florida, Gainesville; Amy Bolton of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Richard A. Kissel of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven, Connecticut; and Cynthia Spratley and Steve Fields of the Museum of York County, Rock Hill, South Carolina.

MacFadden described iDigBio, a U.S.-wide initiative to digitize collections in nonfederal natural history museums. Specimens are available both to researchers and to “downstream users,” including fossil clubs and K–12 teachers and students.

Bolton discussed her work on NMNH’s new exhibition Q?rius, which has 32 cabinets with objects visitors can take out and explore. All objects are digitized, and audiences can access information about them by scanning QR codes on the objects, accessing touchscreens in the exhibition, or using the internet at home.

Kissel outlined the difference between object-based learning (where audiences can explore single specimens, as in discovery rooms) and collections-based learning (where they have access to a collection of thousands of examples of a single type of specimen). Collections-based learning allows learners to see patterns and draw larger conclusions, and Kissel believes museums need to provide more of these types of experiences. Digitization can be one way to do this.

Fields described the Museum of York County’s Naturalist Center, where visitors can interact with and handle specimens. He said that when visitors have access to specimens, they have more “aha! moments” and meaningful experiences because they are in charge of their own learning.

After the presentations, session attendees moved around the room to discuss the topic in more detail with the panelists at small tables.

Beyond Discovery Rooms: Bringing collections to life for young learners

October 19th, 2014 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

Discovery rooms, a popular museum feature, started as nothing more than a room full of boxes with items visitors could physically touch, as opposed to the strict “no touching” policy of most museum galleries at the time. These rooms have grown into the immersive, hands-on spaces for children that we all know and love. But what happens when visitors leave the discovery rooms? How can discovery room experiences be integrated with the rest of the museum? Conference attendees gathered on Sunday afternoon to hear Daniel Zeiger from the American Museum of Natural History, New York City; Rebecca Kipling from the Museum of Science, Boston; and Ashley Gamell from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York, discuss their ideas.

After experimenting with some discovery room activities from the presenters’ institutions, Zeiger described common key components of a discovery room including:

  • Safe, relaxed environment
  • Child centered
  • Free choice
  • Intricately linked to the rest of the museum content and mission

He then described challenges the discovery rooms at his institution have faced, such as how to connect visitors to the rest of the museum. Zeiger has addressed this challenge by introducing children to an object in the discovery room and then giving the families necessary guidance and materials to find related objects in the museum collection, with activities that do not require children or their caregivers to read a lot of text. Zeiger’s keys to discovery room success include:

  • Focusing on the objects. No one wants to just read a book.
  • Giving visitors a chance to explore the objects with the tools of a scientist.
  • Providing open-ended prompts that encourage creative thinking.
  • Using dedicated staff familiar with facilitation and listening techniques.
  • Not being afraid to try new things.

The discovery center at the Museum of Science, Boston, is wildly popular, but, due to fire safety concerns, had to drastically reduce the number of visitors permitted in the room at one time. Kipling discussed how she took the discovery room activities out into the rest of the museum, especially into some less popular spaces. Gamell described the transformation of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden discovery garden during a time when it had no set space due to the construction of a new discovery garden. Their decision to create portable activities in multiple places around the garden raised their visibility, both to the public and to staff, and doubled visitor participation in just two years. The session closed with attendees sharing their tips, stories, and questions about their own discovery rooms.

Live Demo Hour—Videos

October 19th, 2014 - Posted in Annual Conference by Christine Ruffo

The Live Demo Hour, an ASTC Conference perennial favorite, wowed and entertained the crowd again this year with demonstrations of a range of scientific principles (who knew topology could be so much fun?) and even a stand-up science comedian. Video clips from the show can be viewed below.

Thank you to all the presenters!

Eddie Goldstein, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Colorado
Trevor Taylor, Oklahoma Museum Network
Jeff Rosenblatt, Kansas City Science Center, Missouri
Brian Malow, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh
Robby Stanley, Discovery Place, Charlotte, North Carolina
Thomas Lipham, Museum of Discovery, Little Rock, Arkansas

A Scientist Walks into a Bar: Humor in STEM education

October 19th, 2014 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

With a title like “A Scientist Walks into a Bar: Humor in STEM education,” it’s no surprise that Sunday morning’s session was full of laughs. The naturally funny panel was made up of Jen Lokey, from the Powerhouse Science Center, Durango, Colorado; Paul Taylor from The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia; Jonah Cohen from The Children’s Museum, West Hartford, Connecticut; and Elizabeth Martineau and Gordon McDonough, both from the Bradbury Science Museum, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Lokey began the session with a look at humor from a neurological perspective, discussing how humor uses the same areas of the brain as higher order processing and problem solving. She also described how people with damage to their prefrontal cortex tend to lose their ability to interpret all kinds of humor, suggesting that that is where humor is processed. So why use humor in children’s educational programs? Kids are naturally funny and respond well to humor, plus they like being included by being “in on” the joke. Kids are also awkward, and humor is a great way to cut through a bit of the awkwardness. To incorporate humor in programs, Lokey suggests hiring a staff that works hard and takes the mission very seriously, but don’t take themselves very seriously, so they’re not afraid to be silly and fun.

Martineau and McDonough went into more detail on how to use humor in an educational setting. Their many tips included paying attention to the audience and playing off of the reaction, using multimedia, and remembering that the silliness needs to make sense and be on topic. Cohen described other benefits of using humor with kids, such as giving children a chance to take a break from the strict, formal education structure and allowing adults to recognize that fun and humor are necessary for their children and can add to interest in an academic topic.

Taylor rounded out the session with universal humor techniques for presenting programs to different cultures. Physical humor and playful competition transcend the language and culture barrier, plus joy and enthusiasm are infectious. In short demonstrations or during a science festival, it can be difficult to teach children a lot, but as Taylor said, “I can’t teach a kid everything about chemistry in 45 minutes, but I can make them say ‘wow, chemistry is really cool.’”

Science Centers Preparing the Workforce of Tomorrow: An international perspective

October 19th, 2014 - Posted in Annual Conference by Emily Schuster

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.

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