Batteries, wires, copper fasteners, and a short line of tiny white holiday light bulbs litter the table in front of Emily and Zahriana. The task facing these 12 year olds? Light up four bulbs: two bright and two dim. Emily’s face is a picture of concentration as she tinkers with the materials. She connects two wires and looks at her partner.
“Did that light up bright?” she asks.
Zahriana shares the bad news. “It didn’t light at all,” she says.
This is followed first by silence, then by inspiration. “Wait—did you connect the end?”
That does the trick. The bulb lights, and the girls smile. Emily looks around the room. “Where’s Charlie?” she asks.
“Charlie” is EDC’s Charlie Hutchison, a teacher turned informal science specialist and director of the NSF-funded National Partnership for After School Science (NPASS). Today, he has turned a conference room at EDC’s headquarters in Waltham, Massachusetts, into an afterschool science club that is being filmed for a video on teaching science in informal settings.
Hutchison makes his way around the conference room, visiting each team. He asks questions that begin with “What did you notice when . . . ” and “I wonder what would happen if . . .” before moving off to another table. Quite deliberately, he doesn’t always wait for the answers.
He eventually makes his way to Emily and Zahriana. “I see you’ve figured out the bright lights,” he says, resting his elbows on the table. “How are you going to get the other two to light as well?” This time, he listens as they describe their discoveries. Then he poses a few more questions for them to think about, stands up, and walks over to another table. The girls return to their task.
An early love of science
Hutchison believes that afterschool programs offer students an ideal place to learn about science without the pressures that accompanies studying science in school. Emily, Zahriana, and a dozen other 8 to 12 year olds are helping him show how. The videos they are making today will illustrate some best practices for leading informal, inquiry-based science with children, and will supplement the face-to-face professional development networks that NPASS has put in place across the United States over the past four years.
In fact, the batteries-and-bulbs exploration that is being filmed is only one of 27 Design It! and Explore It! projects that Hutchison and his former colleague Bernie Zubrowski developed at EDC. Other projects feature explorations with soap bubbles and self-propelling cars. Hutchison describes the projects as “simple but not easy;” they are quite structured and aim to teach students how to think and investigate like scientists, even as they have fun building and exploring.
But afterschool science is hard to do well, since most staff have little background in the subject. NPASS, a training and support network, has already brought science and engineering activities to over 1,000 afterschool programs in the United States. Now, it is building the capacity of staff outside formal classroom environments to instill an early love of these subjects—especially among students who have yet to be turned on to them.
“There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a love of science is just as likely to develop outside of school than inside,” says Hutchison. “When young kids participate in interesting and challenging investigations, they begin to identify themselves as problem solvers and, perhaps, as future engineers and scientists. This is not happening nearly enough in the U.S.”
To emphasize his point, Hutchison cites research that in eighth grade, interest in a science career is a better predictor of entry into a science profession than is achievement on standardized exams, But that interest needs to be sparked somewhere, and children who do not have engaging science programs in school, or role models working in STEM fields, are less likely to be turned onto science and engineering at a young age. This is particularly true for African American and Hispanic children, since these groups are underrepresented in science degree programs.
“Kids in underrepresented communities are highly deprived of informal, fun, enjoyable, engaging, and perhaps life-changing science enrichment experiences,” he says. “They are also less likely to say they are interested in science.”
Hutchison believes that afterschool programs can help reverse this trend.
As the session comes to a close, Hutchison gathers the students into a small group at the front of the room. He asks them to describe what worked, and what did not, as they tried to light the bulbs. The students answer, and Hutchison digs into their ideas, asking them for evidence that supports their claims.
The students talk about their discoveries—and, sometimes, their unresolved questions. And while not all of them were able to create all the circuits, it is clear that a light, however small, has been lit in their minds.
Originally published on July 31, 2013