Shaping the Next Generation of Scientists and Innovators
For young people, school can loom large as an obligation of almost epic proportions. In truth, however, children spend just 25% of their time in classrooms. Over the course of a lifetime, the average college graduate spends just 5% of their life in school. Within those hours, an even smaller fraction of time is spent on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects. These facts are striking, especially given the increasing importance of STEM-related skills in the modern workforce.
The Connecticut Science Center is working to increase science learning throughout a child’s formative years: during the 75% of time that kids are not in school by providing an informal, experiential learning environment, and within the formal school setting, by helping teachers to become more successful through high impact professional development, one by one. These are breakthrough strategies at work right now, right here in Connecticut.
The Big Picture
Various world education reports rank U.S. students well below countries like Singapore, Finland, Hungary, South Korea, Poland, and Germany in science achievement. The fact is, our youngest students start by measuring up fairly well against their counterparts. Frustratingly, they tend to fall behind a little later - just when we invest the most in teaching them science. As teachers and parents alike contend with an ever increasing level of competition for the hearts and minds of students, it becomes all the more crucial that educators have the skills to engage them, and parents have vibrant learning attractions that command the interest of their kids outside of school.
The challenge, clearly, is to make time count, both in school and out of school.
Use Informal Learning Partners
In December, the National Governor’s Association made this simple suggestion for improving education: “Amplify the effectiveness of in-school programs by fully utilizing the vast network of informal learning opportunities that already exist.”
What informal learning destinations like the Connecticut Science Center have to offer is a safe place for self-guided exploration. Students take away specific information aligned with current science curriculum requirements, plus all-important learning process skills that will serve them well throughout life in the information age. “From top to bottom we are about hands-on experiences, ” says Hank Gruner, Vice President of Programs. “We know that people are naturally curious and creative, and we provide a space where that natural curiosity turns into learning and discovery.”
The exploratory style of informal learning, driven by individual observation and questions about the world, has a lot to offer formal education. In 2010, the Connecticut Science Center embarked on a ground-breaking, comprehensive partnership with the Annie Fisher STEM Magnet School in Hartford. Teachers at all levels of the school (from the science teacher to the gym teacher to the principal) were immersed in intensive, summer training programs where they learned innovative, inquiry-based pedagogical methods. Next, Science Center Staff Scientists visited the school, where they awed students with “mobile science” activities. Then, Annie Fisher students visited the Science Center for field trips and special overnight events, where they found their classroom activities reinforced by 150 hands-on exhibits, lab programs and movies.
The results of these focused efforts were astounding. After just six months, Connecticut Mastery Test scores on 5th and 8th grade science tests increased by 20%. And that wasn’t all. Math and reading scores also experienced a noticeable bump. The impact of the Science Center’s training and programming isn’t about memorizing science and theories; it is about teaching teachers to be more effective educators and helping students to be more engaged learners. It is about the kind of transformational change that carries beyond the science classroom, beyond the school walls, beyond the K-12 years.
Connecticut Science Center President & CEO Matt Fleury explains, “Our goal is to inspire young people. Preparing kids for statewide tests is important, but the impact of what we are doing extends well beyond improved test scores.” A national study showed that 13-year-olds who felt motivated to have a career in science — who were interested, excited, and saw the relevance of science at that young age – were three times as likely as their counterparts to graduate from college with a degree in science.
A Bright Future
The enthusiasm we see at Hartford’s Annie Fisher STEM Magnet School is a glimpse into a bright future. Today, the United States might lag behind other countries in production of STEM college graduates, and we may be challenged by increasing demands for a globally competitive, technologically sophisticated workforce. But, that can change.
To read more about the scientific research supporting informal learning, please see: Falk, John H. and Lynn D. Dierking. 2010. “The 95 Percent Solution”. American Scientist 98 (6):486.
May 2012 - inside this issue
- Shaping the Next Generation of Scientists and Innovators
- School Turnaround Success
- One Parent's Perspective
- Time for Education Reform
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UTC and Hartford Public Schools partner with CSC to meet the demand for STEM education programs.