Texas Science Museums create COVID-safe STEM experiences


AAfter a grueling 18 months of shutdowns and pandemic protocols, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas had begun to see signs of visitors returning, bringing their children for hands-on science experiments and schools hosting field trips.

“We are definitely seeing pent-up demand,” said Perot Museum CEO Dr. Linda Silver.

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Schools are feeling the pressure, she said. Fifth-grade science scores fell last year. Not only was science on the back burner as schools doubled down to save reading and math, but what was happening in science education lacked consistency.

“Science is best taught in hands-on, experiential, and participatory ways,” Silver said. That just couldn’t happen with half the class on distance learning, as it was in many schools.

Teachers will be under immense pressure to help children gain momentum and quickly. With that in mind, Texas museums are marketing themselves as assets to teachers by offering lesson plans and guides to help visiting classes get the most out of the exhibits. But with the pandemic and the more contagious Delta variant more unpredictable than ever, museums are also providing videos and other tools when field trips aren’t possible.

Regardless, museum officials plan to continue promoting curiosity, an attribute they believe will help children get the most out of STEM education in the classroom.

At the DoSeum, a children’s art and science museum in San Antonio, Vice President of Education Dr. Richard Kissel and his team are preparing a series of lesson plans based on Texas curriculum standards.

Online lesson plans help teachers prepare for upcoming field trips, so the various exhibits can be used, essentially, as laboratory equipment designed to teach concepts effectively, but also to reinforce curiosity and wonder that will propel further learning.

Even when news of the Delta variant broke, Silver and his colleagues remained committed to getting their hands on STEM experiments this year. Unlike the chaotic cancellations and unknowns of spring 2020, Silver said, the museum has contingency plans ready to go, and they’re good.

In fact, some of the tools they’ve developed specifically for the pandemic will continue no matter what Delta has in store. “We anticipate several scenarios,” she said.

If schools do not organize field trips this year, the Perot Museum will still reach around 300,000 students through its outreach programs. Hands-on STEM projects often require more materials and staff than low-cost after-school programs can afford, so the museum sends TECH trucks (Tinker, Engineer, Create, and Hack) to vendors in the Dallas area. During the pandemic, TECH Trucks also gave out Wonderkits, take-out boxes with projects and experiments kids could do at home.

The Perot Museum TECH Truck takes the science museum experience into the community, a way for kids to get their hands on the STEM experience, even when school field trips aren't happening.  (Courtesy of Perot Museum of Nature and Science)

The Perot Museum TECH Truck takes the science museum experience into the community, a way for kids to get their hands on the STEM experience, even when school field trips aren’t happening. (Courtesy of Perot Museum of Nature and Science)

It’s okay if a science education takes place outside of the classroom, Silver said. This was the case long before the pandemic. She cited several studies on the role of informal education in giving children the kind of positive science experience that leads to a lifelong love, and even a career, in STEM fields. Elementary school seems to be the prime time for these experiments, found Harvard researcher Philip Sadler.

Of course, this raises the question of equity, and who has access and who does not have access to these informal positive experiences, especially if field trips disappear again.

With reduced capacity and safety protocols, the Perot Museum plans to remain open for the time being, and while field trips cannot proceed safely, family visits have been operating safely since last summer. .

The Perot Museum wants more families to enjoy the experience, especially those who may not see themselves as the museum’s target audience.

Working with 16 community partners like the North Texas Food Bank and neighborhood groups, the museum provided free memberships to 5,000 Dallas-area families. Partners usually organize the first group trip to the Perot Museum, and Silver said many come back and bring their children.

This first trip is essential, she explained, because it breaks down non-financial barriers related to culture and level of education that could keep families apart.

Currently, Community Partnership Program participants make up approximately 10% of the museum’s daily attendance, as well as those who are eligible for $1 admission, with anyone who can prove they are enrolled in a community partnership program. public aid.

Whether or not informal tours and field trips can take place during the surge in Delta Variant cases, Texas students are learning in person and museums are ready to help teachers cultivate curiosity and wonder in the classroom. .

The Perot Museum produced a bilingual science show, the Whynauts. Each episode covers topics required by Texas curriculum standards for a given grade range and is available free on the museum’s website. So far, the program has around 60,000 subscribers.

Images from the Perot Museum's online web series, The Whynauts, (Courtesy of Groove Jones)

Images from the Perot Museum’s online web series, The Whynauts, (Courtesy of Groove Jones)

Silver said, and the museum offers it to schools across the state. Even if a show is not necessarily practical, the whynauts the episodes create whimsical narratives with real-life uses for things kids will learn in the classroom.

Since opening in 2015, The DoSeum has provided teachers with professional learning opportunities to cultivate curiosity and enthusiasm in their classrooms. In addition to numerous day programs, the DoSeum has partnered with several other local museums this year to form the Museo Institute, where 40 teachers a year will learn the various tools and techniques used in informal learning environments.

Teachers not only learn how to get the most out of a field trip, but also how to transfer the methods to the classroom.

With a “slight shift” in the way it’s taught, Kissel said, so much is possible in STEM education.

“If you don’t have (curiosity and wonder), you won’t get as far as you would like,” Kissel said. It can be difficult, he knows, because the content and history of science — definitions, names of scientists, etc. — are just the beginning.

The ongoing understanding process is even more critical, he said. The more interested students are, the more they will enjoy and absorb this content.

While these open, inquiry-based experiences are important, Kissel said, teachers don’t need to feel the same pressure they feel when it comes to getting grade-level content in front of kids. Children do not “fall behind” in wonder and curiosity. In his experience as a researcher and educator, he said, “Scientists are just those kids who never stopped asking, ‘why?'”

The scientific process can come alive for any child at any time, he said, and museums will be there to light the fire.

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