A long line of eager elementary school students file into their school auditorium to find themselves surrounded by whirling planets and stars, staring straight into the depths of outer space. Awestruck, they look around and are surprised to find that this is actually a science lesson. And the teachers? The McWane Science Center.
So goes a typical encounter for suburban elementary school students with one of the McWane Center’s outreach programs, the Star Dome. Schools can pay the center to come to them with a program of the school’s choosing, from the kindergartener’s Dinosaur Detectives to the all-grades Star Dome. The McWane Center has been providing these outreach programs for as long as it has existed and still longer, offering programs even before there was a McWane Center building. These outreach programs, much like the McWane Center itself, aim to increase interest and knowledge of science and math in young students. But not every school can afford them.
Enter the Science Education Partnership, a collaboration between the McWane Center and a few schools that is funded by third party donors and grants, making the program free to partnership schools. This allows schools that were previously unable to afford outreach programs to use the same McWane programs offered in the outreach, plus a certain number of field trips each year, for free.
“Science Education Partnership is a multi-year collaboration with the schools, so we start meeting with teachers in August and help them develop what McWane programs will fit in their curriculum,” said Kathy Fournier, vice president of education at the McWane Center. “Then, depending on the grant and the funding, they get a certain number of outreaches and field trips each year, and we try to match those to their science curriculum throughout the year.”
The Partnership started in 2009 with a pilot program for Restoration Academy, a private school in Fairfield. After the partnership proved its potency with Restoration students, McWane decided to expand the program. In 2011 it began a second partnership with WJ Christian, a K-8 public school in downtown Birmingham.
“We were working with Restoration Academy for two years, and we wanted to see if we could take that model and transition it into a public school. WJ Christian was a school that we’d been working with for a lot of things anyway, so it was logical for it to be our first public school partnership,” said Lawrence Cooper, director of community programs and partnerships at the McWane Center and the man in charge of the Science Education Partnership.
McWane started the Partnership program hoping that multiple interactions with students instead of one or two would give them the opportunity to prove that their teaching methods really do work. “We knew we were having an impact, but we couldn’t measure it before,” said Fournier.
“Having kids come one time a year and then maybe never seeing them again makes it very hard to measure the impact their visit had on them,” said Fournier. “We can’t know what they learned or what they didn’t learn. So by having these multiple sessions throughout the year, we actually can do pre- and post-testing and look at their test scores to see whether they’ve increased. They did increase, in both schools, and the principal [of WJ Christian] said that the only thing that had changed was the interaction with McWane. Now we can really point to this and say, this is the kind of impact we can have for your kids.”
The real proof, however, can be found in the reactions of the kids. “We walk into WJ Christian or Restoration and the kids are like, ‘Yay, McWane’s here, it’s a McWane day!’ These kids are just really excited about science,” said Fournier.
A consistent student favorite of the Partnership is the Really Cool Science program, where the McWane teachers use liquid nitrogen to teach students about states of matter. “No matter how many times you do [Really Cool Science] that program is just cool,” said Cooper, who has done every one of the programs offered in McWane’s outreaches.
“There’s always something steaming, balloons blowing up, and stuff rolling around, so that really is a fun one to watch and a fun one to present. It is a little more presenter-led because liquid nitrogen is extremely hazardous in the wrong hands, but it’s something that kids always get excited about. There are some kids that have seen us do liquid nitrogen two or three times and they like it every time,” said Cooper.
But this “presenter-led” program is only one of many different favorites. Other kids might prefer the more hands-on Rocks and Minerals program, where kids will actually do the activities themselves.
“I like [Rocks and Minerals] best because it’s one of the ones where they’re actually doing it,” said Cooper. “I’m guiding it, but they’re the ones doing any of the testing on the rocks, plus they’re having to work together in teams, so that’s another teamwork aspect. If it’s more teacher-led they miss out on that; the ones that get them to work together as a class or as a group are great.”
Much of what the Partnership enables McWane to do is to address many different learning styles rather than just one. One visit to the McWane Center or one interaction with their outreaches might only be one program. This program could be completely presenter-led, it could include some volunteers or it could be completely hands-on, but it’s rarely all three. Some kids might not respond to one teaching style, so with multiple visits, McWane can cater to many approaches.
“Some students are more, ‘I like watching you do this stuff,’ others are ‘I need to be doing this, I need to be touching it, not just seeing it’ or ‘I need to see you doing this, not just hear about it in class,’ so I think it allows us to hit on all these different learning styles because we’re seeing them so many times throughout the school year,” said Cooper. “It’s getting students interested, not just in what we’re doing but in science in general.”
WJ Christian demonstrates their students’ increased interest in science at their district science fair, where their students swept the prizes in nearly every grade level. “Since we’ve been working with them, they said they’ve had more and better projects for their science fair,” said Cooper.
And their principal agrees. In an email, principal Michael Davis congratulated his students and faculty on their performance in the science fair. Said Davis, “I guess the partnership with McWane, and excellent teaching, is paying off.”