Friday, February 19, 2010

Museums Ought to be at the (Science) Fair

By Justine Roberts

Almost 3 months ago President Obama announced that there would be a national science fair next year.  I, for one, am really excited about this.  I think inventing is exciting, solving problems is creative, developing insights and knowledge is deeply engaging, and competence with making things is powerful.  Science IS cool.  Smart IS sexy. 

And the prize, by the way, includes shaking hands with the president at the White House. 

While I was working on the Exploration Station project, planned for Dublin, I became familiar with Ireland’s Discover Science and Engineering program (run through its Department of Enterprise Trade & Employment).  It too is designed to increase interest in science. But it is much, much more than an annual science fair.  In fact, science fair is Science Week during which time there are lectures, events, competitions and more.  In a country of 4 million over 100,000 people participate. 

One of DSE’s goals is workforce development – educating the next generation of innovators to drive Ireland’s economy.   So they have The Science Ambassadors program, which highlights Irish scientists working today and important historic figures.  Another goal is to increase the number of students in the pipeline.  Discover Primary Science provides teacher training, activity ideas, curriculum connections, equipment lists, and has an annual Award of Science Excellence program that schools can compete for. 

They also run 28 Discovery Centers where students can work on science activities outside of school.  This is like the field trip model we use in the States, but it is organized through the lens of promoting science and it coordinates science learning resources.  They have amazing partners including the Irish Seed Savers Association, and Dublin Zoo, just to pick 2 examples. 

But that is not all.  

They also produced 5 years of a TV series called Scope TV and they host a teen social networking site around science on bebo.  One of the coolest efforts has been Greenwave – a citizen science project to document the first buds on trees as spring sweeps across the island.   

Part of what is great about Discover Science and Engineering is that it has not been limited to one strategy or one audience.  Science, in this model, is for everyone, is accessible and serious, fun and deep, cool and media savvy.

Obama’s plan includes a set of programs not dissimilar to the types of things DSE has been doing.  He announced a series of public-private partnerships to develop science learning resources, such as interactive games.  And there is another piece of the Educate to Innovate program focusing on raising the profile of STEM by working with science rock-stars (like Sally Ride, the first female astronaut).  So I think it represents a good starting point. 

But there is one thing really missing from this picture: museums! We are an existing network of independent organizations working toward similar goals.  We should carve out a vital role. 

I see an opportunity to position ourselves as an on-the-ground network that supports science fair participants.  We could offer science fair workshops and summer camps, host open houses at which young scientists can present prototypes and get feedback, and act as hubs for information and resources to support local youth.  We can leverage existing programs – like the Rube Goldberg competition at the MIT Museum - and relationships to raise the profile of young innovators and scientists in our communities.  

Let’s get involved! 

Image source Creative Commons: quinn.anya / Quinn Dombrowski


Justine said...

ASTC Informs just came into my mail box with this exciting note:
The Inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival is looking for participants in its October 23rd & 24th Washington, DC Expo and for additions to its list of satellite festivals being held across the country. The event is the country’s first national science festival, and the Expo on the National Mall will feature more than 500 U.S. science and engineering organizations, each with a different hands-on science activity. To register for the Expo, or to learn how you can organize a satellite festival at your own organization, visit

Off to a great start! Now if only the president would mention it. . .

Maria Mortati said...

Well it sounds like we have some letters to write!