IF YOU BUILD IT, WILL THEY COME?
How one of the world’s largest museums became a public education partner—and took a giant leap toward fulfilling its mission. by Hilary Masell Oswald | photos by Tommy Giglio
Left: The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry opened in 1933. Right: Students learn about forensic science by analyzing fingerprints in their classroom.
It stands as a beacon to science-lovers across the world: Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. In its iconic Greek Revival building perched at the edge of Lake Michigan, the Museum houses 14 acres of hands-on exhibits, all world-class, all maintained in pursuit of the Museum’s mission: “to inspire the inventive genius in everyone.”
But until a couple of years ago, “everyone” meant “everyone who walked through the Museum’s doors,” and that excluded many of the city’s public school students. The Museum’s focus was primarily on encouraging teachers to organize field trips—a worthwhile, if short-sighted, goal. Local public schools with limited resources couldn’t afford the cost of transporting kids to the Museum, so its reach was small relative to the number of children growing up in the shadow of its magnificent building. “The fact that there are so many kids in Chicago neighborhoods who have never left their neighborhoods—we have to respond to that,” says Nicole Kowrach, assistant director of teaching and learning at the Museum. To that end, several years ago, the Museum’s board of directors took a hard look at its resources, its relationship with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and the sobering results of national standardized test scores.
By eighth grade, American students have fallen behind the 10 leading countries in science. By age 15, American students are behind 27 other nations in math skills. “The big issues in science education seemed to be getting worse: the demand for quality science education, the need for the next generation of scientists,” says Bryan Wunar, the Museum’s director of teaching and learning. “That global perspective applied to our local audience here in Chicago.” So the Museum’s educators took the first steps toward transforming the Museum into the educational resource their mission challenged them to be. They began with a series of focused meetings that included science-content experts, educators from schools and other museums, and civic leaders. “We wanted help understanding where we fit within the scope of the city and other efforts already underway,” Wunar explains. He and his colleagues also took a hard look at funding sources. “We didn’t want to let the funders tell us what to do, but we needed to be sure we were considering programs and exhibitions that were in line with available funding,” he explains. “There’s nothing like building a plan you can’t implement.” From there, Wunar and his colleagues identified the audiences they wanted the Museum to serve and brainstormed ways to meet their needs. Wunar says he’s learned that organizations trying to reach public schools must follow a simple rule: “Our responsibility is to learn from [our audiences] and be responsive, and at the same time, challenge some of [public school educators’] ideas,” he says. “We said, ‘We can fill these gaps
[in your resources], and at the same time, we can push you to go even further.’” As they were developing the programs, the Museum’s staff kept an eye on the feedback they got from public school teachers and administrators. “One of the things we see a lot with CPS is they are quite under-resourced,” Kowrach explains. “Some schools are struggling to teach the basics, and they’re teaching from textbooks that are 10 years old. The schools don’t have the resources for updated books, much less to come on a field trip.” The Museum strategically removed that obstacle by offering a bus scholarship to schools that demonstrate need.
Similarly, educators at the Museum heard a common complaint from teachers: they were unable to participate in professional development activities due to budget and time constraints. In response, the Museum pays for substitute teachers to fill in for the full-time faculty who attend Museum workshops and then sends teachers back to their classrooms with all of the materials they need to do the activities they’ve learned.
As Wunar and his team crafted and implemented their vision, the Museum’s programming got a formal name—the Center for the Advancement of Science Education (CASE)—and a lofty mission: “to inspire and motivate all children to achieve their full potential in the fields of science, technology, medicine and engineering.” Central to this mission is the task of helping children learn about science outside of the Museum walls. CASE comprises four main areas: instruction and resources for science teachers; community initiatives that deliver science education to established afterschool clubs across the city and then invite older students to attend special learning opportunities at the Museum; enhanced student experiences at the Museum, where labs and state-of-the-art technology help students enjoy hands-on learning; and beefed-up experiments for all Museum visitors. “It was important for us not to just add on to what the Museum already had,” Wunar explains. “We had to think about our resources differently, and we needed our exhibitions to play a different role than they had.”
The Museum created three new permanent exhibitions, and it’s no coincidence that the new exhibits’ broad scope of content—life, physical, earth and space science—dovetail nicely with the schools’ science curriculum. These programs didn’t spring up overnight, Wunar emphasizes. Like many forward-thinking education groups that use data to inform programming choices, the Museum’s educators committed to evaluating its newly implemented pilot programs in real time. “Evaluations are not just the thing you do at the end when you turn in a final report,” he says. “It’s ongoing, and a big part of that is understanding the needs of the audience we’re serving.” Chicago International teachers make up an important part of that audience. For example, for three years, Keith Palz and Ronald Hale, who teach seventh– and eighth–grade science at CICS Bucktown and Avalon, respectively, have participated in CASE’s Institute for Quality Science Teaching—the Museum’s professional workshop series for fourth–eighth–grade teachers. Not only do they learn teaching strategies, but the Museum also provides materials so teachers can take the lessons back to their classrooms.
“This program has energized me,” says Mr. Palz, who has been teaching science for eight years. “And the kids love it. The lessons are dynamic, which gets them excited. The classroom atmosphere is really positive.” It shows: 80.7 percent of Mr. Palz’s seventh-graders and 72.2 percent of Mr. Hale’s seventh-graders met or exceeded state standards on the ISAT in the ’08-’09 academic year. One reason why participating teachers love the program: CASE makes it easy to teach the lessons. “Last week, I did a lesson [from the Museum] on electricity,” Mr. Palz says. “I had everything I needed, from batteries and lights to tin foil and even paper clips. They think of everything.” Mr. Palz says he’s gotten everything from a blender (for a lesson on recycling paper) to those paper clips he uses in the electricity lesson. “Inquiry-based science is a lot of fun, and [the Museum program] helps us do the things in class that
If You Build It, Will They Come?
energize kids. That’s what’s going to inspire a new generation of scientists.” Before kids can be inspired, teachers need inspiration. Kowrach says that she and her colleagues sometimes have to overcome negative perceptions about science. “The reality is that teachers come to us because they’ve taught language arts for 10 years, and then they’re told they have to teach eighth-grade science. They think it’s hard or boring—or both,” she says. “We get them engaged in inquiry science, and they get excited. We just have to show them that there are good strategies and resources out there.” No doubt, CASE is impressive. The Museum’s educators found a way to deliver high-quality science content to students across the city through a series of well-developed and well-placed programs. But it took some trial-and-error to get it right, Wunar says. When Wunar and his team first planned out-of-school programming, they thought they needed to bring kids from all over the city “and be the largest afterschool provider in the city,” he says. But there were too many insurmountable obstacles. “Then we thought,
‘Let’s build an army of science educators from the Museum and send them out to program sites,’ but that wasn’t sustainable.” Ultimately, they chose a model that enables the Museum to play a supporting role to the staff members who are already working in afterschool programs. Once CASE launched, adds Kowrach, the Museum had to work hard to re-establish itself as a go-to source for science education resources. “At first, we had to do a lot of outreach,” she says. “Now, word-of-mouth is creating more buzz. For the afterschool science clubs, there’s a waiting list of organizations. And we have roughly double the number of teacher applicants than we have room for.”
“I think we’re changing lives, and we’re having an impact on teachers and families and children,” Wunar says. “If everyone moves this direction—not necessarily replicating what we’ve done, but finding ways to reach kids with science education— then the collective whole can inspire the next generation of scientists.” LEFT: Keith Palz, a CICS Bucktown science teacher, and his students work on science lessons using Museumprovided materials. RIGHT: Using ink pads and balloons, students learn about different types of fingerprints.
The program’s popularity is affirming, but it also illuminates the significant need in public-school classrooms across Chicago.