Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What I Learned at the Association of Science-Technology Centers Conference

This is Kalie, Manager at the Coalition for Science After School, just back from four great days in Baltimore at the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) conference. I spent the first two days of the conference in the exhibit hall, where I was seated next to representatives from the Afterschool Alliance. The exhibit hall gave me a chance to meet representatives from many of our science center members, as well as introduce new people to the Coalition and the National After School Science Directory.

There is no doubt that science center leaders are interested in connecting with afterschool programs, or looking to include afterschool content in their educational programming. If you’re from a science center looking to partner with or include more afterschool programming, join the Coalition to receive our newsletter and engage with this dynamic community of out-of-school time STEM stakeholders.

Outside of the exhibit hall’s open hours, I was able to attend some interesting sessions focusing on education in science centers. I took some notes to share with our members. Descriptions of each session are below; some of them run a bit long, so skip ahead to the session titles that interest you the most:

1)   Integrating Scientists Into Educational Programming
2)   How to Demonstrate the Value of Science Centers
3)   The Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE): Year 4 Initiatives and the Future
4)   Innovative and Collaborative Sharing of Educational Resources Online
5)   Activating Young Science Learners

Thank you to the team at ASTC for putting on a great conference! I learned a lot and plan on attending again next year when the conference moves to Ohio. See you in Columbus!

Integrating Scientists Into Educational Programming
This session focused on showcasing the ways in which museums work with scientists to enhance their education programs and events. We heard from two representatives from the American Museum of Natural History, who offers a Science CafĂ© night for adults and a two-year mentoring program for high-school youth that matches them with a scientists mentor. We also heard from Elizabeth Babcock of the California Academy of Sciences, who talked about the museum’s Careers in Science program and efforts to make their scientist researchers accessible to museum visitors by opening up their glass-fronted research lab. Monique Scott of the Anchorage Museum talked about an exhibit on mammoths and mastodons and their programming that brought research scientists and community members together on the museum floor. Steve Tritz of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) told us about a great summer camp program that takes place all across the Pacific Northwest, in which students travel with scientists researchers and help them with their fieldwork.

Student connection to professional scientists is an important motivator for showing students that they can become scientists too. For example, Mr. Tritz of OMSI talked about how his program works with tribal scientists to connect American Indian students to the research that they do. Challenges in integrating scientists into education programs include finding scientists who are natural communicators to the public, as well as reaching out to scientists outside of personal networks. Several presenters mentioned that working with post-docs or graduate students has been a good strategy, as those students and recent PhDs often have an interest in outreach and a natural connection with students. For afterschool programs looking to partner with scientists, reaching out to a local college’s STEM departments could be a great way to find scientists interested in outreach.

For more information about this topic, stay tuned on our blog for a summary of the workshop we’ll be facilitating at the Up Your Game conference on October 31st in San Diego, where we will be focusing on connecting scientist volunteers and afterschool programs.

How to Demonstrate the Value of Science Centers
In this session, we heard from representatives from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) on their research and evaluation efforts to demonstrate how valuable museums and libraries—including those that focus on science content—are to their communities. IMLS recently put out a study on 21st century skills, which is available for download at their website and may be a useful tool for afterschool groups seeking to integrate skill-building STEM activities into their programs.

We also saw a video produced by the California Science Center highlighting some of their great exhibits, programs, and community recognition over the years. William Harris, Senior Vice President of Development and Marketing at the California Science Center Foundation, said that they have saved everything positive said about them over the years—ranging from local news coverage to a donation letter sent by a six-year-old visitor. These testaments to their educational impact, combined with videos of some of their most exciting exhibits and programs, was informative while also creating a deep emotional impact. He also said that they made their first video of this nature using a flip-phone camera—something relatively cheap that many people already have. Producing a video of this nature would be a great asset for an afterschool program to show potential funders and policymakers.

The Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE): Year 4 Initiatives and the Future
The Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) is a partnership between several projects, initiatives, and institutions that seeks to bring together and advance the field of informal science educators. Funded by the National Science Foundation, CAISE is continuously growing and expanding to bring together more partners and stakeholders across multiple STEM fields. Check out their website for more information about their projects, partnerships, and constituents.

Innovative Collaborative Development and Sharing of Educational Resources Online

This session introduced participants to a variety of educational resources and tools—all collaborative in nature and available online. Many of the resources found on these sites may be useful for afterschool programs looking to increase their STEM content—or for STEM providers seeking new venues for distributing their work.

  •     NSDL SMILE pathway: This great collection of informal math and science activities from science centers all across the country can be found at www.howtosmile.org. Users can search for activities by content, age, cost, and many other parameters. They can also submit reviews, ratings, and suggestions for modifications for each activity. We often recommend the SMILE pathway to afterschool programs looking for short science activities that use inexpensive materials and explain their science content in an easy-to-understand way.
  • NISE Network: The NISE Network is a collaborative partnership of science institutions offering resources for understanding and explaining nanotechnology in informal education environments. The presenter, Catherine McCarthy of the Science Museum of St. Paul, also gave an enlightening talk about copyright and the potential issues of sharing digital resources. The NISE Network uses a Creative Commons license, and encourages sharing with attribution. 
  • Open Exhibits: This community-based initiative provides free software that uses multi-touch and other human-computer interaction (HCI) technology to museums and other educational organizations. They also use a Creative Commons license. This new project capitalizes on the collaborative nature of science centers and the ease of open-source software development and sharing. Many of the exhibits that have been developed through Open Exhibits use cheap technology that visitors may be familiar with, like Microsoft Kinect and Google Maps. Check out their community site to see some of the projects that have been developed.

Activating Young Science Learners
The Science Learning Activation Lab research project based in the San Francisco Bay Area seeks to identify and explain the factors that “activate” science learning in children before they reach middle school. Their working definition of activation is a dynamic state composed of dispositions, skills, and knowledge that enable success in proximal learning experiences. It is definable, malleable, and predictive of future learning choice. Identifying factors of activation has the potential to present tangible evidence to policymakers and funding organizations that learning outcomes other than test scores can effectively measure science learning and increasing the number of students who go through the STEM pipeline (that is, students who go on to choose STEM majors and careers).

The research team, which includes the Lawrence Hall of Science and the University of Pittsburgh, is funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which has long supported Bay Area science research. The researchers are still formulating their tools for identifying and measuring activation. They hope to answer the question of how we, as informal science educators, can activate children’s interest and curious minds in ways that ignite persistent engagement in science learning and inquiry. Although this work is focused in the Bay Area, the research findings and any resulting models or tools for measurement can certainly be used by organizations in other areas.

At the session, we heard from leaders at major Bay Area informal science learning institutions (the Lawrence Hall of Science, the Children’s Discovery Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Exploratorium) about what they hope the research can accomplish as it moves forward. The hope is that by working together, the institutions can dramatically increase the amount of science being offered to Bay Area children.

The research being pursued in this project is highly relevant for afterschool providers who are seeking to offer science content in their programs. The researchers agree that any kind of learning experience has potential for activation, and afterschool learning is certainly a part of children’s learning experiences. Keep an eye on their website for preliminary results, and we certainly hope that they will present the next stage of their findings at next year’s ASTC conference in Columbus, Ohio.

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