Monday, October 25, 2010

Have you learned How to SMILE?

There's a great new way to find fun science and math activities--and to share your own! has just launched as a place where educators in non-school settings--like zoos, museums, and afterschool programs--can communicate and share their STEM activities. As of this writing, there's already over 1000 different science and math activities posted! 

Here's how it works. Once users create an account, they can post guides to their favorite projects. This includes a description, time, materials cost, and subjects addressed, among other things. Other users can post comments on their experience with the activity and even try to tweak it. Activities can be added to user-generated lists to create collections of similar activities, and users can earn badges and points based on their participation.

"SMILE" stands for Science and Math Informal Learning Educators, but can be used as a resource in lots of settings by non-educators too. Many of the activities are simple enough to be done by parents and kids at home, or by non-scientists in community groups, like Girl Scout troop leaders. The interface is simple enough to use that kids could search for interesting activities on their own. It's free to join, and if you get started soon, you'll have a chance to win an iPad!

Howtosmile is a joint project of science educators and researchers from across the country, including the Lawrence Hall of Science, The Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), the Children's Museum of Houston, the Exploratorium, the New York Hall of Science, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the National Science Digital Library (NSDL). 

The Coalition for Science After School is proud to be a national partner!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Science Fairs: From the School Gym to the White House

When I think of traditional science fairs, the image that comes to mind is of rows of colorful trifold posters with maybe a baking soda and vinegar volcano or two. But science fairs in the 21st century are a lot more sophisticated than what took place in my elementary school gymnasium! With projects ranging from solar cars to cancer cures, student scientists from across the country are doing interesting projects of great value to the larger scientific community. And the students are benefiting too. As Elizabeth Marincola, the President of the Society for Science & the Public, put it last week, "Research has shown that science competitions benefit students by helping them gain self confidence; explore career opportunities; learn to take risks, and be rewarded for their ingenuity."

That idea got a boost today when President Obama hosted the White House Science Fair, which honored winning science fair entries from across the country. President Obama stressed the importance of science education in his administrative agenda: "If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you're a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too."

The projects that were honored truly are achievements that deserve national attention. Teams of high school students built a carbon-fiber solar car from scratch, developed a therapy using light energy to beat cancer, and invented a water purifier to ensure water quality in remote rural areas. Middle schoolers were represented too, including a team that designed a model city for earthquake refugees, eighth-graders who used nanotechnology to create a recyclable printer ink, and seventh graders that experimented with different materials to create a safer helmet for kids. You can see the full list of projects at the White House blog

As an afterschool science institution, science fairs encourage kids to work in teams to create their own ideas and projects. The social aspect of science fairs gives kids an important support group that can help social and emotional development too. The nature of science fairs also links kids up with mentors in their communities, which is important for encouraging a long-lasting interest in science. And giving recognition to science projects, as President Obama did, goes a long way in encouraging other kids to participate in science too. Let's hope that the White House Science Fair becomes a tradition!

Monday, October 11, 2010

What do we mean when we say "STEM"?

A recent article in the New York Times Science section has been bouncing around the science education blogosphere, and the topic just so happens to be something very close to our hearts. In "STEM Education Has Little to Do With Flowers", Natalie Angier touches on something that science education advocates struggle with constantly: the "branding" of STEM to students, parents, educators, legislators, and funders. Angier argues that the term is "opaque and confusing" to the public, which makes it harder to emphasize its importance to people outside of the field

So what's the problem with "STEM"? On the one hand, it could be seen as overly inclusive--despite stereotypes, not every student interested in science is also fascinated by math, and vice versa. But the term might a little exclusive too--does it leave out specialized but important disciplines like computer science, medicine and health science, media studies, or archaeology? Some advocates argue for the inclusion of art--to make STEM into STEAM--because no science or technology innovation has ever been done without a little creativity. 

And while STEM might be a handy acronym for those of us who work in the field, it might mystify those who need access to science and technology education the most. If you're not involved in the science education field in some way, you might not know what STEM means, and it's rarely explained in the media. The Coalition advocates for afterschool science for all, and it's hard to convince someone that STEM is important when you're not even speaking the same language as them! 

We don't necessarily need to scrap the term altogether, though. As Dr. Elizabeth Stage--Coalition Steering Committee member and Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science--it's a "false distinction" to "silo out" the different disciplines, because they use the same type of analytical and critical thinking. But as the field of science education advocacy grows and changes, there's no doubt that criticisms such as Angier's will continue to be published.

What are your thoughts on the term "STEM"? Let us know in the discussion page at the Coalition for Science After School LinkedIn page.