Bernie Zubrowski has spent much of his professional life devising ways to educate young people when they are out in the world, away from the classroom. In more than 23 years with Boston’s Children’s Museum and other museums in the U.S., Great Britain, India, Sweden and Bahrainand in several EDC projectsZubrowski’s quest has led him to design activities that illuminate scientific principles with very simple materials. Under his guidance, children have made houses out of drinking straws, tops out of paper plates, and cars powered by balloons; they have concocted cakes and ice creams, invented sodas, and played with mirrors, shadows, and waves.
Zubrowski’s 16 bookswith titles like Siphons and Water Pumps and Blinkers and Buzzershave influenced museum designers, educators, and parents throughout the world. “In museum circles, Bernie is regarded as a national treasurefor the ingenuity and highly engaging qualities of his work and for the history of his contributions to the field. Bernie laid the foundation for the hands-on approach you see in so many children’s museums around the country,” says EDC Vice President Eric Jolly, an OSHA Fellow at San Francisco’s Exploratorium and a faculty member in the Museum Management graduate program at BankStreet College.
To move such activities out of museums and into after-school settings seemed natural to Zubrowski.”The need for safe and active after-school programs is growing,” he explains, “but until recently, after-school programs had a culture of babysittingkids played board games or did arts and crafts.” Further, he says, “because of high staff turnover, many after-school program leaders have no educational background. Whatever teaching they’re doing they’re doing intuitively.”
By working with science and children’s museum to create an educational infrastructure, Zubrowski saw an opportunity to “get people to think about after-school as a chance to do other kinds of educational activities.” Zubrowski and his EDC colleagues are are developing a collection of "design technology" activities for after-school students, inviting them to create and test the kinds of structures and simple machines that have engaged children in museum settings.
In collaboration with the National Institute of Out of School Time (NIOST), they are also training science center and museum personnel to coach after-school program leaders in delivering these design technology programs. Each science center or museum will work with five or six local after-school programs, offering bi-weekly meetings, on-site visits, and some assistance with physical materials. Researchers will also develop a guide for future collaborations between other science centers and after-school programs.
Tim Porter, a science developer at Boston’s Children’s Museum, says "there’s considerable buy-in,” among the after-school program leaders. "There’s a lot of good discussion about asking questions of kids rather than just giving answerskids remember those answers they generate.”
There’s a lot of buy-in on the part of kids, too, Porter says, and offers the unit on spinning tops as an example. “When we ask kids to build paper plate tops,” he says, “Bang! They’re going. They get it spinning and they freak out. The gratification is immediate. And then they see their neighbor’s top spinning longer, and they think about changing theirs.”
Students in programs associated with the Children’s Museum have also composed balls and track courses and built drinking straw structures. “It’s not a science program,” emphasizes Zubrowski, “it’s design engineering, but a number of science questions do come up, just as some formal science curricula use design concepts. Ours is similar to an inquiry approach: the kids design their own projects and think about them, ask questions about them. We want to give students the chance to experiment in the context of a real life project.”
Zubrowski stresses that after-school programs afford a kind of freedom for exploration that is often not available in schoolsin part because of time constraints. He points out that many children need time to just to become familiar with tools and how different materials behave. Having spent his own childhood “building all kinds of things,” Zubrowski observes that “a lot of kids today have done very little tinkering with materials. Sometimes they have so little experience with materials they can’t get very far with a design or even imagine what a good solution would look like. After-school programs are a great place for this kind of learning to happen.”
Originally published on September 30, 2000