Thursday, August 24, 2006

Bad for Pluto, Good for Educators

Mike Smith's article on really hits the nail on the head about the lesson of the Pluto controversy for educators. Science is all about asking questions and debating conclusions based on evidence. It should never have been enough to memorize the names of the nine planets, and now, hopefully, it will not be.

In an essay submitted to NASA as part of the 2005 report on NASA and Afterschool Programs, David Hammer and Janet Coffey offer the following as one recommendation of how NASA can contribute to after-school science learning:
"Highlight controversies and confusions ... for children to learn how science progresses through argumentation, they need to be able to see some. At one level, they need to see, simply, that disagreements are not only inevitable, but productive; scientists like to find things to argue about, because arguments are opportunities for learning.

... this can happen at different levels, depending on the students. Early, it may be enough for them to see that scientists argue in these ways; later, they can start to understand the specifics of a debate. Then the objective can be for them to see the logic and evidence on either side, even if—especially if!—the controversy is not yet resolved. If the main objective were students’ acquiring knowledge, this might be counter-productive, because they’d hear conflicting ideas. But we second the reports’ view that this shouldn’t be the main objective; that’s already the focus in schools. Instead, NASA can help afterschool provide something that doesn’t happen in class, opportunities for students to see and experience how the game is played.

For the same reasons, it is helpful to display mistakes and confusions that happen in authentic science. Students need to see that scientists shoot and miss, as they do in basketball. It’s not the same as having a teacher tell them it’s okay that scientists make lots of mistakes; they’d get much more out of having access to particular examples and the people involved."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Training Demands of Science Inquiry

The August 2006 Education Update from ASCD includes an article about training elementary teachers to use inquiry methods. It reminds us that inquiry instruction must be learned, and that kit-based, hands-on learning is insufficient if the teacher is not prepared to use inquiry-based approaches.

That raises the question for the after-school field (as well as for elementary educators) about how to deliver professional development. There are many successful programs out there that depend on good trainers. How do we offer the same quality professional development to the thousands of after-school leaders across the country?

One way is to use technology. the National Partnership's toolkits include videos that demonstrate teaching techniques. Over time, I would like the Coalition for Science After School to develop a video library with many examples of quality after-school science learning.

The other option is to develop an army of instructors, available to deliver quality professional development at every regional, state, and national conference. This will presumably cost more, take more time, and be more difficult to maintain than a video library, but the results could be spectacular!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Promoting STEM Learning through Mass Media

Among many adults, science is becoming "cool" again. TV shows such as Mythbusters or Brainiac are popular among geeks like me, while the CSI franchise has taken off among the mainstream.
Meanwhile, a similar effort is underway to engage young people in STEM learning through mass media.

Of course, this is nothing new. A steady stream of shows from Mr. Wizard to 3-2-1 Contact to Bill Nye the Science Guy, Jake's Attic, and ZOOM have entertained and educated kids for many years. Today's shows are working harder to connect their original product directly to youth through classrooms and after-school programs. The Discovery Channel was a major sponsor of the 2006 NSTA conference, and forensic science has also taken off among science educators thanks to CSI's popularity. I'd like to highlight some PBS shows in particular which are connecting to after-school around the country:

Cyberchase, produced by PBS-affiliate WNET in New York City, is an entertaining animated series that teaches standards-based math lessons. The program's website includes materials and other educational tools for parents and teachers. Furthermore, WNET supports professional development for educators from both formal and out-of-school time education.

Following the success of ZOOM, WGBH in Boston is offering two new science and technology shows. Fetch targets younger students. Design Squad, which targets middle grades with a reality show-like design competition, is due for release in February. Both programs have been designed with connections to educators in mind. The WGBH team offers materials and trainings in support of educators who are using the show. Note that the Design Squad educator trainings specifically target out-of-school time education through the Girl Scouts of America and the National Afterschool Association.

Finally, Dragonfly TV, produced by Twin Cities Public Television, offers a number of high quality materials in support of its science inquiry show. Dragonfly models the inquiry process and then encourages children to apply inquiry methods at home and in their communities.

These are just examples of the many high quality programs that are available. Surveys, research, and common sense tells us that students do not need more hours of traditional schooling, but they do need engaging activities that connect them to real-world science and scientists. Mass media has the potential to offer these programs, and, by connecting what they see on television to what they encounter in school and in their communities, educators can multiply the impact.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Importance of Role Models

The August 16 Seattle Post-Intelligencer featured a story about the Microsoft-sponsored "DigiGirlz" technology camp for girls. Not only does this camp offer learning opportunities in technology, it also connects girls to role models who are succeeding in the technology field. Exposure to role models from similar demographic groups is critically important for youth to develop and maintain an interest in science and technology careers. Seeing someone like themselves who is actually in a career sends a message that is difficult to convey just through words. Cheers to Microsoft and the many others who are helping match role models with young people! As this blog and the Science After School wiki expand, I hope we can feature more and more of these programs.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Overcoming poverty through education

Eduwonk's latest post has brought to my attention a recent column in the New York Times on poverty's role in student achievement. There has been a strong backlash about this piece, pointing out that, while poverty may make it harder for students to learn, this is not an excuse for failures in education or a reason to abandon schools. Eduwonk calls this a "phony war" because both education and poverty are policy concerns that should not be in conflict.

My attempt to add to this discussion may be pointing out the obvious: we cannot expect to succeed if we stop our interventions with youth at 3 PM every day. In the hours beyond the core school day, students should explore their interests and develop skills -- like communication, problem-solving, and teamwork -- that complement their academics. A good lesson plan starts by assesing students' prior knowledge, and after-school enrichment activities expose students to new ideas and experiences which build that knowledge.

Many schools have started building this enrichment time into their extended school days. For example, the KIPP model includes "More Time" as one of its five pillars. It is critical to recognize the after-school hours as time for youth development and enrichment, but it is also beneficial to help students draw connections between their "school world" and the "real world". By bridging this gap, we can help break the connection between poverty and achievement.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Science After School Wiki

I have posted a link to the right to the Science After School wiki. I have started this wiki to allow advocates of STEM learning in after-school to share programs, research, and other useful information. It would be impossible for me alone to post all of the good information that exists out there. If you are reading this, I hope you will also check out the wiki and consider sharing your own knowledge. Even if you just post a short sentence or paragraph and a link, you will be planting a seed that can grow.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Science in Afterschool

Since this is my first post, let me explain what I am doing here. This blog exists to share information relevant to the field of science, techology, engineering, and mathematics (or STEM) education within after-school activities. This is an emerging field at the intersection of several established sectors of education - STEM, after-school, and youth development. The purpose of this field is to provide young people from all backgrounds access to high quality STEM learning experiences during out of school hours. Through these experiences, these youth will learn to be curious and inquisitive, develop skills in teamwork and communication, and hopefully discover an interest for a future career. They will also build the prior knowledge and experiences that are necessary for academic success.

As director of the Coalition for Science After School, I am working to connect science-rich institutions (museums, universities, and others) with after-school educators. By sharing understanding based on research and experience, these groups can provide better opportunities for youth. Through this blog, I hope to share some of the empirical and anecdotal evidence that crosses my desk on a daily basis. I hope my visitors will find an occasional story, stastistic, or opportunity that will help them, and hopefully you will be inspired to share some interesting facts of your own.