How Museums and Theme Parks are Taking On STEM Education

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Friday, May 2nd, 2014

The Mind Museum

According to the National Science and Math Initiative, the US is currently facing a crisis in educating our next generation in science, technology, engineering, and math. As a result, we’re losing our competitive edge in the global economy as many technical jobs move overseas. Consider these fairly alarming statistics from 2013: 64% of high school graduates aren’t ready for college-level science courses and 56% aren’t ready for college-level math courses. While the majority of the focus on improving STEM education is occurring in school systems and within curricula, the entertainment design space has an interesting role to play.

From theme parks launching science-focused attractions to the explosion of science centers around the world, museums and theme parks are stepping up to find innovative ways to help address the gap. In the last year, we’ve seen more organizations launching STEM exhibits and finding unique ways to enter the conversation than ever before.

LEGOLAND FLorida

In 2012-2013, for example, LEGOLAND Florida rolled out eight pieces of curriculum focused on introducing STEM concepts to K – 6 graders. The programs were launched in conjunction with school fieldtrips, and focused on hands-on opportunities where students built their own machines equipped with gears, levers, pulleys and motors. Some of the themes included an Energy Lab where students built solar cars and collected solar energy that they transferred to their vehicles to put them into motion; Robotics for Beginners that taught introductory robotics concepts with motors and sensors; and Tall Towers which enabled students to learn about structural integrity and then test their creations on an earthquake table.

Another byproduct of the increasing focus and funding on STEM exhibits is the growth of science centers around the world. The THEA Award winning Mind Museum in the Philippines is a great example of the future of science museum design and teaching. With almost 5000 square feet and over 250 exhibits, the focus was on creating an environment that was highly themed. Using interactive design, technology, and creative storytelling, the museum reimagines the possibilities of science education.

There has also been impressive growth in the efforts to provide the necessary support to help educators and curators successfully teaching STEM. The Massachusetts-based Museum Institute for Teaching STEM is one such institution. They use collaborations with over 100 museums, aquaria, nature centers, and other non-profit science education organizations to create educator workshops and programs that improve the quality of teaching inquiry-based, minds-on, hands-on STEM education.

The Association of Science and Technology Centers represents a range of institutions that focus on increasing public engagement with science worldwide. Today, the organization has almost 600 members in 40 countries. At their annual conference this year, they’ll be tackling themes as diverse as making and tinkering in the museum setting, bridging children’s museums and science museums in STEM learning, and how to engage visitors with interactive collection-based exhibits.

STEM Classroom

While it’s undeniable that the biggest transformation needs to occur in the classroom, the evolution of science education and experiential learning in museums and theme parks offers important insights into how to transform the learning experience. The interested observer will quickly note the direction of STEM education in these settings. Effective exhibits are crafted with questions in mind such as: How can we promote engagement? How can we strategically use interactive technology to hold learners’ attention? What hands-on experiments can we do, at an age-appropriate level, to help kids understand and internalize these concepts? What environments and approaches ignite learners’ natural curiosity? What can we do to make learning fun and create environments where educational experimentation feels like play?

Not every classroom can be a theme park or have access to the resources and collections of a museum. But entertainment design has taken STEM learning in a bold and interesting direction. Whether it’s increasing learner access to these environments or adapting the learning techniques pioneered and perfected in museums and theme parks for the classroom, we hope that these trends are integrated in a meaningful way within the education system to help tackle this important challenge in the years ahead.

Image sources: Bugbog, EdWeek, Mind Museum, Blogspot

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