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Science Centers: Partners in Science Education

By Robert J. Semper

The 1960s saw the development of a new type of public education institution which has become known as a science center. Based in part on established science and industry museums, these institutions were explicitly defined to be educational and were made up almost entirely of a collection of demonstrated ideas rather than of objects. This movement was stimulated and shaped by the confluence of three trends at the time.

The first was a revival of public fascination in science and technology following World War II. This interest powered a renewed development in the U.S. of both existing and new museums. Recognizing this trend as an opening for the development of public educational institutions, existing museums of historical artifacts, such as the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and the Museum of Science in Boston, began to add more interactive exhibits.

The second trend was the science education reform movement of the late 1950s to mid 1960s that happened in the U.S. as a result of the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union. The reform movement emphasized hands-on education in science and the importance of working with objects while learning. It drew scientists into the science education enterprise in a big way, and it was the start not only of many new curriculum efforts for the schools, but also a series of science centers in the U.S. and abroad.

The third trend was the general education reform movement of the late 1960s. The hallmark was a reaction against the authoritative structures of formal education. There was a developing sense that individuals should be much more in control of their own learning. This thinking resulted in the development of new forms of educational and social systems which focused on informal, community-based multi-generational learning.

Since the late 1960s, the science center community has experienced tremendous growth. From the handful of institutions in existence in 1969 - e.g., the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (1957), the Pacific Science Center (1963), the New York Hall of Science (1966), and the Exploratorium (1969) - the number has grown to include over 364 members of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC). By some estimates there are over 100 million visits per year to these institutions in the U.S. alone.

These centers have also grown in terms of their mission. While most often associated with the casual family visit on a weekend afternoon, or class field trips, science centers are increasingly playing a significant role in supporting education in a larger arena. A recent ASTC study, First Hand Learning, found that over 20 percent of the elementary school in-service teacher development occurs in science museums. Some of the major curriculums in use by schools today were developed by science centers. And science centers have been at the forefront of supporting the institutionalization of inquiry-based instruction in the schools, a key aspect of the recently promulgated National Academy of Sciences science education standards. This role has capitalized on the science center's unique position as an independent institution that is nevertheless still connected with the school, the home and the community.

The Exploratorium, like many other science centers today, sees its mission as being much broader than just providing an experience for a visiting public. From its inception, its founder, Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, envisioned creating a place which provided adjunctive educational experiences to formal schooling. Therefore, the museum has continually explored ways to reach additional audiences beyond the casual public visitors, through books, magazines, television and teacher workshops.

Our goal is to create and sustain a culture of learning which fosters the process of personal inquiry, experimentation, communication, understanding, and the sharing of values about our world. To meet this goal, the Exploratorium has reorganized itself into three interlocking centers of activity: the Center for Public Exhibition, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Center for Media and Communication.

The Center for Public Exhibition oversees the development and operation of more than 600 interactive exhibits on the museum floor, and provides programming to complement them. Exhibited subjects include light, color, vision, sound and hearing, waves and resonance, neurobiology, animal behavior, electricity and magnetism, language, mathematics and weather and the environment. The museum uses its exhibit services division's developmental capacity to provide exhibits and consulting support to science museums worldwide.

The Center for Teaching and Learning serves more than 550 Bay Area teachers in grades K-12 each year with intensive workshops and follow-up seminars based on the exhibit collection, designed to foster increased effectiveness in today's classrooms. It has developed a network of 2,500 teachers, many of whom return periodically to receive additional support. Its national professional development programs are designed to support teachers nationwide as they implement new national science education standards. The center is also responsible for outreach programs that reach more than 3,400 underserved children annually, as well as the high school field trip programs which reach 69,000 students and their teachers annually.

The Center for Media and Communication, the newest of the three centers, is dedicated to support the development of scientific literacy through communication and the use of media. This center uses publishing and venues such as the Internet to carry the Exploratorium's pedagogy beyond the walls of the museum, while developing interactive media tools for learning within the museum itself. Recent projects include the creation of the Explorabook, a science museum in a book; the Science Snackbook, a teacher development guide to the creation of classroom versions of Exploratorium exhibits; and the Family Science Snackbook, a book of science activities for parents and their children. The Center's World Wide Web site originates programming based on the museum's exhibits and teaching resources, and currently attracts over 600,000 remote users per year.

Science centers are situated at a special nexus between the community, the school, and the home. This position gives them a unique role in the educational infrastructure, one which can propel science education reform into the 21st century. During the last push to reform science education, the task was the job of schools and universities. This time around, there is a powerful new ally to help.

Robert Semper is Executive Associate Director of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, CA. He formerly served on the faculty at St. Olaf College and as a research associate at Johns Hopkins University. This article originally appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of the newsletter of the APS Forum on Education.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin