Why Local STEM Exhibits May be the Future of Science Attractions

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Monday, February 15th, 2016

FabLab Kids

Two exciting new projects are offering a hint at what the future of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (or STEM) exhibits could look like in the US. The Bay Area Discovery Museum recently announced two grants that are funding innovative, hands-on exhibits to help with STEM education. STEM is a critical concern for educators and museum staff that are working hard to find ways to stimulate interest in these disciplines and keep students competitive. According to one estimate, just 46% of students are ready for college-level math courses and just 36% are ready for college-level science. The US ranks 27th in math and 20th in science worldwide.

The Bay Area Discovery Museum received a grant for $380,000 from the organization 100kin10. 100kin10 is a philanthropy committed to recruiting, training and retaining 100,000 excellent science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers by 2021. The grant was part of their inaugural STEM Fellowship Program, which awards support for initiatives that address major challenges in education. This year’s theme is focused on the underrepresentation of engineering in K-12 classrooms.

Bay Area Discovery Museum

The Bay Area Discovery Museum will be using their grant funds to build a new mobile engineering lab. The goal of the lab is to deliver engaging and developmentally appropriate engineering curriculum to all Bay Area K-5 classrooms. Through the mobile engineering lab the Museum will bring its engineering programming directly to children, with a focus on targeting students in underserved communities. Research and development is currently underway for what format the engineering lab will take, with plans to begin piloting the program in 2017. Students and teachers will get extra support in the form of engineering activities, without having to leave the classroom.

Another project that’s being spearheaded by the Bay Area Discovery Museum is their Fab Lab. The Fab Lab is intended as an early childhood hands-on “maker space,” providing access to computers, 3D printers, and laser cutters. Visitors will learn about the design process from concept to production, with opportunities to bring their creations to life. While there has been growing interest in these technologies in numerous settings, the Bay Area Discovery Museum is the first to put them to use for children ages 3 and up.

The educational goals are clear: “Through innovative educational programs, children will develop core STEMskills, including proficiency in emergent technology, electrical engineering and computer science. The early childhood Fab Lab will serve as a foundation for an international, scalable model that will be replicated through the Fab Foundation’s global learning networks, and will also be a central resource for Bay Area children from low-income neighborhoods to spark interest in and build critical STEM skills.”

Playground - Discovery Museum

STEM attractions have been receiving increased attention and investment in the last few years, as various institutions work to connect their missions to the greater need for STEM information and learning. However, many of these new STEM attractions have failed to achieve their goals. Large and overly general programming is giving way to very focused STEM topics. The modern, streamlined and hands-on approach to the Fab Lab and mobile engineering lab from the Discovery Museum could provide an important clue on the direction projects will take in the future. Approaching STEM at the local level may be the strategy needed to make these attractions sustainable, relevant and flexible enough to adapt to the ongoing realities of a rapidly changing field.

One of the key challenges with STEM content exhibits is that they don’t just require breaking down information at an appropriate age-level. Museums also need to find a way to make abstract concepts relatable and engaging to younger visitors. Hands-on applications, integrating technology and creating a narrative around the experience – for example, the Fab Lab “maker space” concept– helps younger audiences connect to the subject matter.

A recent study showed that students enrolled in project-based learning models outperformed students in traditional science curriculums. The Bay Area Discovery Museum is a powerful example of how a museum can take this approach and adapt it to their unique audience needs. For entertainment designers and museum staff, the trend toward applied and hands-on exhibits is opening up a range of potential design opportunities. With all the incredible leaps being made in the world of STEM, exhibits can build on many different themes and go in exciting new directions in the year ahead.

Images sourced courtesy of Bay Area Discovery Museum, FabLab, Flickr

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