When Schools Meet Museums: Finding a Third Way

By Bronwyn Bevan

Let’s assume that you, the reader, already believe that informal science institutions (ISIs) can be powerful centers of science learning expertise, resources, and experience in their communities. You know that visitors to science museums, zoos, aquariums, and the like can see, touch, explore, and imagine aspects of the natural world that often remain invisible, unnoticed, or inaccessible in people’s everyday lives. You know that ISIs draw on their spatial, temporal, textural, and material qualities to build a visitor’s sense of the connectedness, historicity, relevance, and salience of science, in ways that many other learning settings cannot.

Visitors often say to ISI staff: Why wasn’t science taught like this in school? That makes us nod and smile, or maybe shrug and smile. We informal educators have often been drawn to work in informal settings precisely because of these unique qualities—because of distinctions between the way science is taught and experienced in schools and the way we believe it is experienced in the real world.

That’s fine. But there is something else we know: ISIs, as places, as pedagogies, and as resources, are not accessed equitably. For the most part, our audiences are white, middle class, and college educated—populations that already actively seek and secure the resources they need to further their own learning and to create more seamless developmental environments for their children.

Many ISIs undertake special efforts and programs to expand their reach to new audiences, especially to community groups that have been historically underrepresented in the sciences. But by almost any measure, these efforts seem to have little overall impact on the demographics of our institutions’ regular visiting audiences, much less on expanding participation in science fields and studies.

Natural and best partners

At the Center for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS), we believe that ISIs can contribute significantly to strengthening and diversifying participation in science. And we believe that schools are the natural, and perhaps the best, partners for any serious ISI efforts in this regard.

Schools are the key democratic institution in every community, working across all socioeconomic lines. While ISIs bring to the table ways of making science accessible, collaborative, tangible, and joyful, schools bring to the table ways of conceptualizing science as a coherent and systematic set of practices and ideas. Museums and schools need each other—and our colleagues in afterschool programs—to create the coherent learning environment essential for initiating and sustaining engagement with science.(1)

CILS sees the key constituency of classroom teachers as the linchpin for such collaborations. Teachers have much to teach us about our communities, about our children, and about being accountable for teaching practices. At the same time, ISIs have much to offer teachers, notably (a) strategies and resources for engaging and sustaining student interest in science and (b) science-rich professional communities that can nourish and sustain teachers themselves. Working together, informal and formal educators can expand their repertoires of practice so that science learning, across multiple settings, becomes more engaging and coherent for more children.

It is past time to move beyond the either/or proposition that seems to dog the ISI discourse about working with schools, or about ISIs’ role in expanding participation in science. There is a “third way” to be found in thoughtful collaborations between informal science institutions and schools. So what do such collaborations look like?