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Education graduate students help develop Science Center exhibits

by Beth Krane - May 15, 2006

The Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration, set to open in 2008, is working with two high-profile, big-city design firms to develop innovative exhibits for the modern space soon to rise along the banks of the Connecticut River.

The Center also has tapped into a wealth of local expertise in science education through a three-year partnership with UConn’s Neag School of Education.

The partnership provides funding for two UConn doctoral students in science education, each of whom has spent years teaching middle and high school science courses in Connecticut classrooms, to devote 20 hours a week to asking the critical, behind-the-scenes questions as the exhibits are being developed: Sure, the exhibits will be eye-catching and entertaining, but how will the center ensure they have the desired educational impact?

Will the exhibits support the state’s new K-12 science curriculum and standards set to go into effect the same year the Center opens?

And will the content of the exhibit be presented in a way that invites participation from visitors from all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds?

Neag School of Education doctoral student Kurt Haste, who taught middle school science for five years in the Hartford, West Hartford, and Cheshire school districts, works closely with the Center’s full-time, in-house exhibits expert, who has a museum rather than a teaching background.

“We complement each other very well, and together think about the aspects the design firms don’t cover,” Haste said.

Haste grew up in poverty in a single-parent household and also has observed socio-economic and cultural differences at play as a teacher.

He says he champions common sense and less formal approaches to science that are inclusive and allow many voices to become part of the learning process, rather than traditional science teaching methods, which historically have sometimes alienated women and minorities from the field.

He also recently brainstormed ideas for redesigning the Center’s physical sciences gallery around a common theme of transportation and the challenge of how to design faster vehicles.

His suggestion: Use a series of related displays culminating at one station, where visitors will build their own efficient vehicles.

Neag School of Education doctoral student Heather Harkins brings science education experience from the formal classroom setting and beyond to the Center.

Harkins taught high school science in Connecticut for several years, led environmental education efforts for a local watershed, and worked with the state’s mobile biotechnology lab.

An avid museum and science center patron long before she began her graduate assistantship at the Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration, Harkins has shot video footage of exhibits that, in her opinion, hit their mark in every city and country she’s visited from Mystic, Conn., and Portland, Ore., to Israel, Japan, and the Philippines.

Harkins is part of the Center’s professional development outreach to K-12 science teachers across the state.

In summer 2005, the Center launched weeklong “Institutes for Inquiry” to show teachers hands-on, inquiry-driven methods for tapping into their students’ natural scientific curiosity.

Since she arrived at the center, Harkins’ role has been to provide year-round support and encouragement to the teachers who have participated in the training.

“So often, ongoing support is the piece that’s missing from professional development programs for teachers, but the center doesn’t want its efforts to be just another flash in the pan,” Harkins said.

“I’m in constant contact with the more than 120 teachers who have already attended the ‘Institute for Inquiry,’ and am always thinking about how to better support them in their schools as this program develops.”

In addition to the two doctoral students’ direct participation, the partnership also provides the Center ongoing access to the expertise of the Neag School’s science education faculty.

“I’ve held the Neag School of Education in high regard for a long time, because of the dean’s leadership and emphasis on teacher preparedness and the school’s talented faculty,” said Center President Theodore Sergi, former commissioner of the state’s Department of Education and an alumnus of the Neag School himself.

“We’ve been very happy with the partnership with the Neag School and, if anything, hope it can grow,” Sergi said. The benefits to the Neag School doctoral students include a chance to influence science education in the state beyond a single classroom or school.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to be part of a living, breathing institution as it is being built from the ground up,” says Haste, “and to have a wide impact on how we help children and adults alike develop a personal connection to the sciences.”

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