Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Teaching Kids the Joy of Science

This post by RCA President Colin Mills was originally published on Reston Patch.

It’s funny sometimes, the connections you make in the community.  Back in May, I participated in the One Reston walk in support of affordable housing at the Crescent Apartments.  Most of the marchers were people I hadn’t met before, but some were familiar faces.  One of those faces was RCA’s 2011 Citizen of the Year, Nick Brown

We talked as we walked, and he filled me in on another project with which he is involved, the Children’s Science Center.  He invited me to a meeting to learn more about the project and its goals.  So that’s how I ended up learning about one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever seen.  Now I’m sharing my excitement with all of you, and tell you how to learn more.

In a nutshell, the goal of the Children’s Science Center is to build a hands-on science museum here in Northern Virginia within the next 5 years.  Why?  Well, because it’s a really cool idea!  But also because it will spur our children’s interest in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).  This will better prepare them for the workforce of the future, and will also help ensure that Northern Virginia remains a thriving high-tech economic engine.

The folks behind the Children’s Science Center believe (as I do) that hands-on learning is the key to stoking kids’ interest in science and technology.  If the STEM fields are reduced to a series of facts and equations on a blackboard or in a textbook, students lose the wonder and joy of doing, of experimenting, of seeing those facts and equations brought to life. 

Unfortunately, with the heavy focus on standardized testing in our education system today, schools are under pressure to cut back on those hands-on learning experiences so that they can spend more time drilling kids in the facts needed to pass their SOL tests.

The results are sad and sobering.  According to a study mentioned at the presentation, by the 8th grade 80% of kids lose interest in STEM fields.  And as many of half of the new jobs that will be created in the next 10 years will require some level of STEM expertise.  We’re really doing a disservice to our kids if we don’t give them a chance for the hands-on learning they love.

That’s where the Children’s Science Center comes in.  I know first-hand how much fun hands-on science museums can be.  Last year, I went on a field trip with my daughter’s class to the Science Museum in Richmond.  It was a delight: everywhere you turned, there was another chance to test out some scientific or engineering principle yourself.  The kids were encouraged at every turn to touch, experiment, and try things.  They had a ball, and so did I.  The only downside was that we didn’t have time to try everything! 

Much like the museum in Richmond, the Northern Virginia science center would be filled with interactive exhibits that will allow for active learning.  The idea they’ve come up with is to arrange the exhibits around various themes, like the human body, space and the universe, the Earth, cities and urban planning, transportation, technology, and laboratory science. 

Each theme area will include a variety of opportunities for hands-on exploration.  In the My Universe section, for instance, kids will be able to build model rockets and satellites, use telescopes, and experience space simulators.  There’s a breeding ground for future astronomers!

This would be a tremendous boon for our area. The visit to Richmond was great, but it could only be a one-time thing due to the distance.  If we built a museum in Northern Virginia, we might be able to have our students visit once a month instead of once a year, and then they’d really have a chance to discover how cool and fun the STEM fields can be.

The Children’s Science Center folks have a great idea, and they know it.  That’s why they’re getting out into the community, to spread the word and generate excitement for the project.  If you’re even remotely interested in STEM, and if you can remember even a little bit about what it’s like to be a kid, you know how exciting it would be to make this happen.

In addition to spreading the word, they’re currently looking for a home for the center, and raising money.  Things are going well on both fronts.  They’ve narrowed it down to a handful of locations, and they hope to secure the site by the end of the year.  On the fundraising side, they’ve raised over $800,000 so far.  It’s a fraction of what they’ll need, but it’s a good start.

And the Children’s Science Center isn’t waiting on a building to start educating kids about the joys of science.  They’ve started the “Museum without Walls,” at which they present exhibits and projects at local festivals and in schools. 

This summer, your kids might be involved in “Operation: Ladybug.”  This is a project that involves tracking ladybug populations and reporting the data back to university scientists who are studying where the ladybugs have gone.  Besides providing the chance to help out with a real scientific project, the kids are also learning about how species become endangered, and how environmental changes affect native animals.  The next Museum without Walls exhibit could be coming to your neighborhood, or your child’s school.  Stay tuned!

I can’t wait to be there when the Children’s Science Center opens its doors.  If you’re similarly excited after reading this, there are ways to learn more.  You can start by going to their website.  And they’ll be holding an informational meeting on July 30th, where you can meet some of the leaders of their Board, check out their plans in person, and volunteer to help.  If you’re interested, drop me a line and I’ll secure you an invitation.  I hope you’re as excited as I am about this opportunity to connect kids with the wonder of science.

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