It’s 4:00 on a Wednesday afternoon, and the technology center at West End House, a Boys and Girls Club in Allston (Mass.) is full. Twelve young people gather around 10 computers, doing homework, writing e-mail, playing video games. In one corner of the room, four boys sit together with the program director, Kristin Pineo. They are talking about dinosaurs. “In Jurassic Park, they made the dinosaurs much too big to be realistic,” says 10-year-old Jamil. “Yeah, and in the fight between the raptor and the spiked dinosaur, the raptor lost, but in real life it would have won,” adds 12-year-old Kevin.
These budding dinosaur experts are exploring their interests courtesy of ScienceQuest, an after-school science and technology program for young adolescents, ages 10–14. Funded by the National Science Foundation, ScienceQuest brings top-quality inquiry science projects to community technology centers, after-school programs, and other informal learning environments. “There are four kids in our after-school program who showed a special interest in science,” explains Pineo. “So I invited them to do ScienceQuest with me, and they’ve just taken off with it. I treat them like researchers, and they really respond to that. Among other things, they’re learning that it’s OK to ask questions—that’s a big deal at this age.”
Asking questions is the essence of ScienceQuest, which joins an inquiry method of science instruction to technology-based learning in small-group settings. The projects begin with a group of three to six young people and one adult volunteer “coach” who leads the team through a 12-week science investigation. The projects culminate with the team developing and designing its own Web site in order to share the results of its research with other ScienceQuest teams around the country. In the first year of the program, about 60 young people from 10 community organizations in the Boston area formulated their own queries, developed research plans, investigated science questions, and designed Web sites to share their findings. Now in its second year, ScienceQuest has expanded, reaching 450 students in 35 cities and towns around the country. The target population includes youth in underserved communities, as well as minorities, girls, and children with disabilities.
While the process and procedures of an inquiry project are provided by the ScienceQuest package, the projects always begin with the young people’s interests. “Most kids come into a program like this without being able to say what they are interested in,” says ScienceQuest director Jennifer Dorsen. “That’s always a tough question for young people—‘What are you interested in?’ We know what the response will be—‘I dunno.’ The leap of faith we take is that kids are always interested in something. They just aren’t in the habit of thinking through and communicating their interests to adults.”
In order to bring those interests forward, ScienceQuest uses a series of activities to generate ideas and questions suitable for further investigation. These initial activities include taking a walk around the neighborhood to observe scientific phenomena, taking a field trip to the zoo, or brainstorming a list of interests. The group then chooses one topic from its list to focus on in more depth. ScienceQuest topics so far have included the weather, space, chocolate, reptiles, and volcanoes. For the team at West End House, “dinosaurs” was an easy favorite. “We brainstormed a list of possible topics, but a cheer went up when we came to dinosaurs,” says Pineo. “They were really excited—and so was I.”
After settling on a topic to investigate, the West End House team members went on to develop a series of questions about dinosaurs to guide their research. “We wanted to know their habits, what colors they were, how they reproduced, how they hunted,” says 12-year-old Giovani. Group members began their investigation online with a Web search on “models of dinosaurs” because they planned to build their own model. But they quickly discovered that they would have to hone their topic further to get a manageable set of resources. “They know how to use the Internet and they’re comfortable with it, but I had to help them with research skills,” says Pineo. “I teach them ‘Web savvy’—not everything on the Web is believable, how to evaluate sources, that sort of thing. We ended up spending a lot of time doing basic research—probably more than I would have liked—but it has been worth it. They’ll be better researchers because of it in the fall.”
Pineo happens to know a great deal about dinosaurs, but the ScienceQuest staff doesn’t expect that program directors or volunteer coaches will come with scientific expertise. Instead, the project uses both high- and low-tech communication resources to put coaches in touch with excellent educational materials. A joint project of EDC’s Center for Education, Employment, and Community (CEEC) and EDC’s Center for Family, School, and Community (FSC), the program provides members with access to a Web site with an online resource center of science and teaching materials and an 800 number with a scientist on staff so program directors can call anytime with a science question. “Your kids want to do a project on ants, and you don’t know the first thing about ants—give us a call, and we can help you get started,” explains Dorsen. The project has also begun hosting monthly conference calls with ScienceQuest coaches around the country. At a certain time each month, coaches call in on the 800 number and talk with project staff and other ScienceQuest program leaders. “The conversations have been great,” says Dorsen. “This isn’t chit-chat—people are really talking about the teaching and learning.”
This year, the project also began offering a series of workshops for ScienceQuest leaders in several regional centers across the country. “There’s no such thing as a typical ScienceQuest coach,” explains Dorsen. “We see them from one end of the educational spectrum to the other—from a recent immigrant with little English to a Ph.D. So we give them the big picture on how to think about after-school learning—it’s not about babysitting.” For Dorsen, the “big picture” involves addressing the unique challenges of adolescent development, including students with learning disabilities, developing strategies for teaching in informal settings, and using hands-on learning techniques. Participants attend the workshops in teams that include the coordinator of the after-school program and the ScienceQuest coaches. “I like to see several people from an organization attend,” says Dorsen. “It’s especially important to involve senior staff because turnover in this field is so fast. We try to reach people across the spectrum so that the knowledge stays in the organization after the individual people move on.”
Among the resources they located through their initial research was the Web page for a local sculptor who built the model T-Rex for the Boston Museum of Science. They decided they’d like to meet him, so they composed an e-mail together and invited him to visit West End House. He accepted the invitation and brought with him a collection of model bones, teeth, claws, and casts, including the T-Rex head, which the boys were able to handle and discuss with him.
“The hands-on aspect of ScienceQuest is critical,” says Dorsen. “It’s just what good learning at this age requires. The computer is the tool for finding and organizing information and for communicating their learning to others, but the learning itself is still about interacting with the physical environment.” She continues, “Kids who do ScienceQuest begin to think of themselves as science-friendly people. They’ll carry that self-perception with them back to school and will not shy away from taking the science elective. They’ll carry that perception of themselves into their lives too, we hope.”
Originally published on September 1, 2003