Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation.
Anna Maria Jack says she isn’t flustered when students bring up fringe science denial theories during her 10th grade Earth science class in the Bronx. Students can access all sorts of misinformation on Twitter and TikTok, she reasons; plus, they’re just kids.
“They don’t have the knowledge right now to assess what’s a credible source and what is not,” she said. “When they come into the classroom with things that maybe their family was talking about that may not be true, I have to navigate that.”
The second-year teacher has made it her mission to help students sift through the barrage of complex and often incorrect information on the internet today. She credits a training program through the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan for preparing her to do so.
As the United States faces both growing science-related challenges (climate change and a pandemic, for example) and an increase in science denial, programs like the one at AMNH are training teachers to help students navigate complicated scientific topics in their classrooms.
Museums have largely escaped the culture wars roiling many school districts and are still seen as trusted institutions. Across party lines, the public supports museums, rating them as one of the most trustworthy institutional sources of information in the nation — more credible than local newspapers, nonprofit organizations and the U.S. government, according to data from the American Alliance of Museums.
Given this public trust, science museums across the nation are taking on a bigger role in supporting teachers in the classroom and helping learners think critically about science. From providing free field trips to creating new, education-focused spaces and expanding teacher professional development opportunities, they are on the front lines of promoting scientific literacy and filling gaps in science education. Their mission is even more important now, in an era where science denial is more virulent, more widespread, and its proponents more dogged, said Lee McIntyre, a Boston University researcher who’s written several books about science denial and the spread of misinformation.
Science centers are uniquely positioned to bring timely lessons on topics like climate change to students, according to Adam Fagen, spokesman for the Association of Science and Technology Centers, which represents about 400 science centers across the nation.
“In public schools, there are state standards … and to some extent that probably constrains the creativity of educators,” said Fagen. “Our members are embedded in their communities; they understand what state standards are. They have programs and exhibits and things to address them, but they’re able to do it in a way that is much more student-directed.”
That’s the case at AMNH, which recently opened a new science-focused wing that includes 18 new or renovated classrooms ready to welcome students for hands-on science exploration. The classrooms and collections are dedicated to evidence-based learning as a way to help young people understand how science actually works.
Each year, the Manhattan-based museum trains roughly 4,000 teachers on subjects like the human body, evolution and climate change in a variety of professional development programs. The museum also offers a master of arts in Teaching Earth Sciences Residency, the program Jack participated in, which certifies Earth science teachers of grades 7-12. The 15-month tuition-free program focuses on enrolling educators in “high-needs” middle and high schools. More than 150 teachers have graduated from the program since it started in 2012.
“I don’t think that there’s ever been a time where playing this role has been more important,” said Ellen V. Futter, president emerita of AMNH. “We live in a post-truth world that is unfortunately also replete with science deniers. And it’s critically important that people understand, first of all, how science is done.”
“We live in a post-truth world that is unfortunately also replete with science deniers. And it’s critically important that people understand, first of all, how science is done.”Ellen V. Futter, president emerita of American Museum for Natural History
In her classroom at Bronx River High School, Jack tries to ensure kids understand the scientific method (a process of making observations, then testing theories) day after day. She strives to make sure kids can pass the state tests — and be prepared learners beyond a multiple-choice quiz.
During the AMNH certification program, she conducted field work with the Billion Oyster Project, a group that’s trying to restore oyster reefs to the New York Harbor. Now, she’s working with other teachers to create a field trip for students to visit City Island, an area in the Bronx surrounded by oyster reefs, to see oysters in real life. She said she envisions the field trip as a way to teach scientific concepts while also providing a chance for kids to get out of the classroom and do science, an experience that kids in the South Bronx don’t normally get.
The AMNH training has also helped prepare Jack to handle science denialism when it comes up in the classroom — Jack has had students voice theories about the government controlling the weather and skepticism about the Big Bang Theory.
“The museum did role-play scenarios so it prepared me to deal with these things,” she said. “If you think that, try to find resources about it. … That’s the whole point of being in a science classroom is to have different avenues to learn different things and try things out and test the hypotheses and see if you’re correct or not.”
Down in Florida, in a very different political climate, the Orlando Science Center trains around 3,000 teachers every year in STEM programming on topics such as computer science and design thinking. The professional development workshops are aimed at helping teachers help their students become critical thinkers and problem solvers, said Jeff Stanford, vice president of marketing. They’ve become “a real hallmark of what we do at the science center,” he said.
Emily Duguid leads Orlando Science Center’s teacher professional development programming as Vice President of Education. With a background as a classroom instructor, she understands exactly the challenges teachers face.
“I found that I spent a lot more time teaching to the test than I’d like,” she said. “I was teaching science, but the time I had to be able to actually do that hands-on, engaging lab work was minimal.”
Now, she helps teachers of all grade levels weave hands-on science activities into their curriculum. She starts by asking teachers where they’re struggling in the classroom, then develops plans from there. Frequently, she said, teachers struggle to explain the scientific method, which is both fundamental to understanding science and to performing well on state tests — but it can’t really be taught through a textbook. Instead, Duguid said she asks teachers to role-play as students, so they can experience how a student might have trouble with the concept.
One experiment that always seems to make the idea of the scientific method click for students involves mealworms in a choice chamber with different foods like carrots and apples, Duguid said. Students make predictions about what foods the worms will like and why, then study the worms over time, taking notes, testing and evaluating to come up with a conclusion.
Understanding how the scientific process works extends beyond what Duguid calls “Superworm Science,” of course. As the vaccine rollout began during the pandemic, one school district asked Orlando Science Center to film a video series explaining how vaccines work and why they are important.
Across the country, schools leaned on science centers to help make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The museum did role-play scenarios, so it prepared me to deal with these things. That’s the whole point of being in a science classroom is to have different avenues to learn different things and try things out and test the hypotheses and see if you’re correct or not.”Anna Maria Jack, who teaches Earth science in the Bronx
Educators at The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia’s science center, worked directly with schools and school nurses, developing the School Vaccine Education Program with a focus on boosting vaccine confidence among elementary-aged kids and their parents. Franklin Institute staff sent letters home on the basics of vaccines and helped nurses make videos about vaccines for kids and their parents. They even hosted kid-friendly assemblies that explained concepts like herd immunity using items such as multicolored shoelaces and colorful fidget toys.
“Kids would go home and say, ‘Hey, why aren’t I vaccinated?’” said Jayatri Das, chief bio scientist and director of science content at The Franklin Institute. “Nurses were surprised by how much kids were ready to advocate for themselves.”
Back in New York, AMNH developed curriculum resources for science teachers, such as “Putting Covid-19 Vaccines to the Test,” and an analysis module with vaccine trial data.
“Some of the most important issues of our time are science-based, and museums like ours are places — and there aren’t that many left in this world — that people trust,” said Futter, the New York museum’s president emerita. “Trust is a key ingredient when presenting science, particularly.”
This story about science museums was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.