Taking Science Beyond School

[* Adapted from an article by Burt Granofsky published at www.edc.org June 2015]

Two girls playing with batteries and bulbs

Three D cell batteries, some alligator cables, a few large paper clips and four white holiday light bulbs, each with two wires protruding from the base, litter the table between the two girls. Their challenge is to light up all the bulbs at the same time – two bright and two dim. Their faces are pictures of concentration as they tinker with the materials. One of them connects two wires to a bulb and looks at her partner.

The other girl shares the bad news. “It didn’t light at all,” she says.

This is followed first by silence, then by inspiration. “Wait! Did you connect the end?”

That does the trick. The bulb lights, and the girls smile. The first girl looks around the room. “Where’s Charlie?” she asks.

“Charlie” is Charlie Hutchison, a teacher turned informal science specialist and director of the National Partnerships for Afterschool Science [NPASS] funded by the National Science Foundation. Today, he has turned a conference room at his office in Waltham Mass into an after school science club that is being filmed to illustrate his approach to teaching science in informal settings. A dozen or so 8 to 12-year olds are spread in pairs at tables around the room exploring the same challenge with the same materials as the girls. Hutchison makes his way around the room, visiting each team for a minute or two. He asks questions that begin with “What did you notice?” and “What happens when…?” or "Have you tried...?" before moving on to another table. He doesn’t always wait for answers. A professional video crew follows him or scans the room as unobtrusively as possible

Eventually Charlie makes his way to the two girls. “I see you’ve figured out the bright lights,” he says. “How are you going to get the other two to light up as well?” This time, he listens as they describe their discoveries. Then he poses a few more questions, stands up and walks over to another table. The girls return to their task.

An early love of science

Hutchison believes that afterschool programs offer students an ideal place to do science without the pressures that accompanies science in school. The videos they are making today will illustrate some best practices for leading informal, inquiry-based science with children, and will supplement the face-to-face professional development networks that NPASS has put in place across the U.S.

In fact, the batteries and bulbs exploration is only one of 27 Design It! and Explore It! projects that Hutchison and his former colleague and mentor Bernie Zubrowski developed at EDC Inc. in Waltham Mass. Other projects feature explorations with soap bubbles and self-propelling cars. Hutchison describes the projects as “simple but not easy;” They are quite structured and aim to teach students how to think and investigate like scientists even as they have fun building and exploring.

But leading afterschool science can be hard to do well – especially for staff who have little background in the subject. NPASS developed a training model and support network that brought science and engineering activities to over 1,000 afterschool programs in the United States. Its goal was to build the capacity of youth development staff outside formal classroom environments to instill an early love of science and engineer —especially among students who have yet to be turned on to them.

“There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a love of science is just as likely to develop outside of school than inside,” says Hutchison. “When young kids participate in interesting and challenging investigations, they begin to identify themselves as problem solvers and, perhaps, as future engineers and scientists. This is not happening nearly enough in U.S. schools”

To emphasize his point, Hutchison cites research that shows that a student's interest in a science career while in eighth grade is a better predictor of whether she will eventually enter into a science profession than her achievement on standardized exams at that same age, But that interest needs to be sparked somewhere--and children who do not have engaging science programs in school, or a family member or role model working in STEM fields, are less likely to be turned on to science and engineering at a young age. This is particularly true for African-American and Hispanic children -- groups that are chronically underrepresented in science degree programs and in the science professions.

“Kids in underrepresented communities are highly deprived of informal, fun, enjoyable, engaging, and perhaps life-changing science enrichment experiences,” he says. “By middle school they are also less likely to say they are interested in science or a science career.”

Making meaning from the exploration

Every 15 or 20 minutes, as the kids explore with the batteries and bulbs, and again as the session comes to a close, Hutchison gathers them in front of a sheet of chart paper on the wall -- away from the materials. He asks them “What works?" to get the bulbs to light up as specified (and what does not work)? He writes their responses unedited on the chart, occasionally digging for more detail or evidence. At no point does he ever indicate that an idea is "right" or "wrong."

It was clear that the point of this discussion is not to explain electricity -- in terms of electrons, current or voltage. Hutchison deflected all such contributions from the kids to a "Parking Lot" on another sheet of chart paper -- again without comment -- reminding the students that what he really wanted to hear about was how they problem the wiring problem. Later, he told me, he would give them new challenges that draw attention to the difference between series and parallel circuit arrangements, but he stresses that even though not all of the students might succeed in making all the circuits work as suggested, the main purpose was that they enjoy the process -- and that maybe, for some of them, a light, however small, might be lit in their minds and imaginations.

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