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Reflections of a Volunteer Science Educator

The multiple roles of a science museum make it a treasured resource. As a college professor who has been volunteering at the Museum of Science in Boston in a variety of capacities, I have seen the vital impact of a science museum in the promotion and education of science. As a scientist, I view the museum as more than a tourist attraction and science as more than a compendium of facts. As the Museum of Science logo states, “It’s Alive!”; it is an interactive, fun learning environment staffed with knowledgeable professional and volunteer docents.

As a scientist, I feel it is critical to keep alive the natural spark and excitement that children have for science when they are young. Too often, children, especially girls, are not actively encouraged to pursue science once they enter middle or high school. As a woman scientist, I feel it is important to share my enthusiasm for science with the public, especially children. Through the museum not only do I enjoy sharing my expertise, but encouraging people to see the pleasure of science and to promote it as a career path for young people. These reflections on my volunteer work at the science museum are just one person’s view of the critical position of the museum in the realm of science education.

My first experience with the Museum of Science in Boston was as a scientist pen pal in the Science-By- Mail program. Begun in 1988, this program pairs children in grades four to eight with scientist mentors who correspond with them. In Science-By- Mail, small groups or a class of students choose activity packets, which involve simple but not simplistic, hands-on, enjoyable experiments from areas such as science magic, simple machines, flight, weather, the science of sports, communications, and planets. The experiments demonstrate the principles of the scientific method as well as specific scientific principles. The students actively participate in developing hypotheses, designing experiments, and in collecting and analyzing data. The excitement of doing experiments as an adjunct to their regular school work makes students feel special and delighted with their accomplishments. Communication between the scientist and students can be by mail, e-mail, fax, or telephone. The scientist listens to students and gives them positive feedback on their ideas. Children share the wonders of discovery with the scientist, as well as their teachers, home-school mentors, and parents.

Science-By-Mail Opportunities

Students who corresponded with me were in grades four to six and were from Vermont, Montana, and Alabama. The children were very enthusiastic about learning about me as a scientist and about science as well. It was significant to me that my students were from rural areas and from schools with little scientific equipment at their disposal. The museum provided a unique experience for them through the Science-By-Mail program. One of the most meaningful roles for me was answering their wide range of questions, from why the wind blows to why crickets make noise. The thank-you’s and positive feedback from the students were heartening. This program provided positive reinforcement for ideas and students’ dynamic engagement in scientific thinking. It was also clear that the students enjoyed having a real scientist talk with them and value their ideas.

Another way that I have volunteered at the museum has been as a life science interpreter in the Human Body Discovery Space, now the Human Body Connection. This room specializes in activities related to human anatomy and physiology and medical issues. The roles of the volunteer include doing demonstrations, answering questions, facilitating understanding and use of the exhibits, and encouraging exploration. The space is designed for asking several types of questions about many aspects of human biology: what, how, why, and should we? Whether exploring skeletal movement, AIDS, birth, or nutrition, the area invites critical thinking rather than giving “right” answers. It helps to discern real from “fake” science in the news. In addition, the museum shows naturally the importance of mathematics in life. Through surveys and physiological measurement gathering, visitors participate as subjects of experiments, generate their own data, and graph it.

Visitors to the Human Body space, whether home-schooled children, families, adults, or school groups, feel free to explore and learn in ways not usually available or readily accessible to them. The following examples illustrate the diverse experiences that enrich and educate people in a non-threatening way. One day a very young mother and daughter were enjoying the reproductive biology part of the room. The mother asked me to explain to her daughter “where babies come from.” Clearly she wanted her daughter to know the facts of life and felt comfortable with my explaining them. When the girl moved on to play with the anatomically-correct baby dolls, the mother asked me questions about birth control for herself I sensed her sincerity and her appreciation of this discussion.

On another day, I witnessed the sheer delight of two young girls playing doctor with stethoscopes and other real medical equipment. In one corner of the room was a computer with the ADAM program of anatomy and physiology. Out of the comer of my eye I saw two middle school-aged boys learning about the female reproductive system in an age-appropriate manner. Later a family where the parents were home-schooling their children were working with models and other materials not available to them at home.

Medical Information

In the area of health, this part of the museum has been instrumental in helping people understand medical concerns. For instance, one family asked me to help them comprehend what happened in the grandfather’s heart attack and bypass surgery. Using the models and exhibits, I was successful in helping them comprehend some aspects of these conditions not explained by physicians in terms that they could grasp. On the same day, a young girl who needed a cornea transplant worked with me using eye models and a sheep eye to clarify what her surgery would entail. These examples highlight the real connection the museum makes with the public. Whether people visit for a few minutes or for an extended time, they clearly learn in ways not usually accessible to them.

It has been a true joy to be part of another experience at the Museum of Science, the Eye Opener Program. This partnership between the Museum of Science and the Boston Public Schools second grades began in 1968 and has evolved over the years. Adult volunteers are joined by junior volunteers, Boston high school sophomores participating in the Urban High School Collaborative. In addition to working with second graders in the Eye Opener Program part-time, high school students explore science in science laboratory and other classes. The purpose of the Eye Opener Program is to provide an engaging and fun learning environment for second graders to experience science while at the museum. Second grade teachers apply to bring students once in the school year. Adult and junior volunteers guide students in the museum while teachers attend their own workshop. Part of the teachers’ experience is to evaluate developing exhibits using their expertise and perspective as educators. About 3,000 students and teachers participate each year, about 100 per week. The second graders show excitement and wonder at learning about science; they ask questions and explore.

A significant aspect of the Eye Opener Program is its reinforcement of the curriculum in science for second graders of the Boston Public Schools. The curriculum emphasizes four themes: interaction of living things; the sun, moon, and earth; light and color; and balancing and weighing. The format of the experience includes a pre-visit where the Museum of Science staff visits the second grade classrooms about one week before the children come to the museum. They see a video of the museum, and staff members wear their red lab coats, identifying themselves as safe museum friends. The staff talk with children about their experiences, what to expect, and answer questions. Afterward, the children write questions they would like to discover at the museum. When the students arrive they are divided among the volunteers, usually four children per volunteer. The volunteers determine what the students want to see and learn about in the exhibits. In addition, there are special activities available to the second graders, such as receiving a magnifying glass that they keep, a special visit to the animal room, and particular materials and experiments available related to the curriculum.

To enhance the Eye Opener experience, museum staff members hold weekly in-service workshops for volunteers, and optional museum-wide workshops are held periodically. These workshops are tremendously beneficial for the volunteers’ ability to communicate with visitors appropriately and effectively. Workshops include speakers, hands-on activities, and supplemental literature. Examples of workshop topics include: Boston Second Grade Science Curriculum; Learning Styles; Developmental Ages and Learning Science; Bilingual Education; Attention Deficit Disorder; Museum Exhibits; and Decent Education. These workshops help to enhance active learning and creative thinking within the museum setting and with the diversity of students from Boston.

Eye Opener Benefits

Benefits of the Eye Opener Program are widespread. Second grade teachers are able to complement the science curriculum in an exciting environment. In addition, teachers have the positive experience of using their professional expertise to continue to improve the museum’s exhibits. Second graders see the fun of science and the wide range of fields that comprise science, work on developing critical thinking skills, begin to learn how to do science, and find that science involves asking questions and discovery. Children also see role models, adult and student volunteers and staff, with whom they develop a special rapport. In turn the teenagers learn science in and out of the classroom, beyond the typical curriculum and using the facilities of the Museum of Science. They also develop communication skills through their interaction with the adult volunteers and youngsters. Finally, they develop a feeling of accomplishment as role models, mentoring the second graders.

Adult volunteers gain a tremendous amount from the Eye Opener Program as well — the personal thank you’s and joy of the children, and the agreeable experience of learning from workshops and especially from people associated with the program. Mentoring and assisting the teenagers and second graders are clearly worthwhile and highly enjoyable. Personally, I have gained significant insight into ways to make connections between young people and science that I feel help me be a better educator.

My latest experience at the museum has been as an interpreter in a traveling exhibit, Masters of the Ocean Realm: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises. Since the ocean is so much a part of Boston’s heritage and a critical part of its environment, this special exhibit has extra significance. Recently, a father and his young son from Boston visited the exhibit at the son’s urging. The boy was precocious and had a voracious appetite for learning about animals of the sea. His father told me that he, himself, did not know anything about science and did not have an advanced education. He was stunned to see that his son truly had garnered a rather comprehensive knowledge of whales and other marine animals through books. The boy and I discussed what a career in marine biology would be like. His father then spoke at length with me about training for such a career and what type of college would be needed. I was touched by the warmth of the father and son’s relationship, and I was happy to hopefully have helped both learn how the boy could pursue his dream of studying the ocean as his life’s work.

The world is becoming increasingly more scientific and technologically focused. Our society needs more scientists and needs to motivate young people to see science as an exciting career choice. I have devoted my professional life to educating young people about science and realize that exposure to science outside of the classroom can be a dramatic, driving force in propelling young people to dream and reach for a life in science. My volunteer work at the museum has solidified my appreciation of the Museum of Science in its role as an urban institution dedicated to discovery and the wonder of science.

Bette Weiss received a B. S. in Biology from Simmons College and a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry and Metabolism from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Weiss’s research interests have focused on nutrition, drugs, and brain physiology, and her publications include articles in journals such as Science and The Journal of Neurochemistry. Dr. Weiss is an Associate Professor in the Biology Department of Emmanuel College in Boston, where she specializes in Human Biology.

Weiss, Bette. “Reflections of a Volunteer Science Educator,” The Docent Educator 9.3 (Spring 2000): 14-16.


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