2061 Connections
An electronic newsletter for the science education community

November 2004

Science Centers Seek Innovative Ways to Engage Parents in Education

Science museums and other informal science education providers have long served their communities as resources for both entertainment and education. But they face an ongoing challenge in finding ways to engage their increasingly diverse communities in science and to provide a wider range of innovative and more effective services. In seeking to involve parents in their children’s learning, for example, science centers have identified a growing need to determine the appropriate science content for their parent outreach programs and to find more productive ways to work with parents with diverse backgrounds and interests.

At the recent Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) annual meeting in September at San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation, the Partnership for Science Literacy (PSL) brought together science center leaders, educators, and other staff from across the country to explore innovative approaches for community-based science programs for parents and children. The PSL, a public awareness initiative created by AAAS with start-up funds from the National Science Foundation, aims to empower parents to take an active role in promoting K–12 science literacy.

During its initial research, the PSL found that while a significant number of parents believe that their child's favorite subject is science, parents aren't confident in their ability to help their kids in this subject area, many claim to be only “somewhat” knowledgeable about their state's standards, and only half have ever talked about their children’s science curriculum with their teachers. Yet formal and informal science educators know that involved parents can make a big difference in their children’s education.

To help science centers move forward in their work with parents and to help bridge the gap between formal and informal science learning, panelists at the ASTC session—drawing on their own work with families and communities—focused on challenges related to engaging the public in science and in the promotion of science literacy. Panelists included Minda Borun, Franklin Institute; Diane Miller, St. Louis Science Center; Dennis Schatz, Pacific Science Center; Maddie Zeigler, New Mexico Natural History Museum; and Mary Koppal, AAAS Project 2061. Judy Kass of AAAS opened the session and David Heil of David Heil & Associates, Inc., moderated.

After each panelist identified key challenges in the field, participants shared experiences, discussed common roadblocks, and sought new insights. They met in small groups led by Wendy Womack, Austin Children’s Museum; Doug Widener, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (Chicago); Rob Fox, Discovery Center of Science & Technology (Lehigh Valley, PA); Megan Walsh, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; and Vicki Ahrens, Museum of Science & Technology (Tampa), to address these questions:

  • How do we get parents not typically inclined to attend science-based activities involved in our programs/events?
  • What is the appropriate content for our parent workshops and events?
  • What do partners need to know to become committed investors in our parent program?
  • How do we build trust as a parent program provider?
  • How can national initiatives best serve local needs?
  • What do parents need to know about their child’s science education?
  • What other resources and data would help us best serve parents?

A Meaningful Role for Parents
To involve parents in science center programs, especially parents who do not typically visit science-related events, participants agreed that increasing access is essential. One participant noted that for low-income parents, a visit to the local science museum can be cost-prohibitive due to entrance fees or transportation expenses. To help alleviate this, one Minnesota museum trades complimentary admission tickets for city bus rides from the transit system. Other solutions involve taking programs out of museums and into the community through partnerships with churches, schools, and local businesses. Another participant noted that cultural institutions are often seen as “white places”; museums are not always culturally sensitive because they do not change or adapt to reflect the visiting children.

Thus, to build more trust as a parent program provider, science centers must be careful to avoid a “one size fits all” approach. They must also looks for ways that parents can play a meaningful role in programs, whether through input into the content, the sharing of special talents, or participation in structured activities that foster family interaction.

The Value of Science
Regarding what parents need to know about their child’s science education, participants said it’s important to stress that the skills gained from science learning are helpful in all subjects. While good paying future jobs will be in science, parents should know that the concepts and processes gained from a quality science education will help kids learn in other areas as well. Parents should be advocates for science education, but of the “right” kind—not just something that’s fun, but inquiry-based science focused on fundamental ideas and skills.

The Partnership for Science Literacy has stressed the value of science literacy and offered concrete ways that parents can help children explore local resources and the world around them. The five PSL partner sites developed a local science resource guide and hosted a variety of parent outreach events. The sites are now developing materials to show parents how these local resources can connect well with relevant science standards their children are expected to achieve.

The Long View

Other challenges that science centers face in reaching out to families relate to a shortage of time and lack of collaboration among providers. “We have a short-term (three-year) impact of programs,” one participant said, “but we don’t have longitudinal studies to show longer-term impact.” Another person suggested the need for a 10-year funding cycle, noting that time may be even more important than money. Museum leaders also noted that partnerships are critical, because “no one institution can do this, we need to pull multiple cultures together” and look beyond individual science centers to see what programs the whole community is offering. Such collaborations will help ensure that informal science educators get parents involved in their children’s science learning and that parents have the resources and knowledge they need to stay involved.

For more information about the Partnership for Science Literacy and its collaborations with informal science education institutions, please contact:

Communications Director, AAAS Project 2061: Mary Koppal, (202) 326-6643
Senior Project Director, AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs: Judy Kass, (202) 326-6667
Principal Investigator: Dr. Jo Ellen Roseman, (202) 326-6666

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