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New Jersey museum brings science to life

Three or four times a day, a banana shows up at the Liberty Science Center and complains about a pain in its side. And that means it's time for some visiting kids to dress up like surgeons and scrub nurses, take a scalpel and go to work. That's the cover story, anyway.
Image: the Infection Connection exhibit at Liberty Science Center in New Jersey
Young visitors touch a large plastic nose which is part of the Infection Connection exhibit at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J.Mike Derer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Three or four times a day, a banana shows up at the Liberty Science Center and complains about a pain in its side. And that means it's time for some visiting kids to dress up like surgeons and scrub nurses, take a scalpel and go to work.

That's the cover story, anyway.

What's really happening is that kids are learning about science and enjoying it.

Whether there is a long-lasting payoff in future scientists won’t be known for a long time. But science educator Lisa Silverman is doing her best with her underage surgical team and the wide-eyed young audience watching them.

"Can everybody say the word 'autoclave?"' Silverman asked the other day while holding up some surgical instruments. "That's a fancy word for an oven-dishwasher that goes at a very high temperature and actually kills the germs."

As she guided the children through the operation, she wove in lessons about infections, surgery, the roles of operating room staff and the kinds of schooling her young audience would need to get those jobs.

To education experts, this is "informal" or "free-choice" science learning, which means it's happening outside of school.

This summer the National Academies, a congressionally chartered nonprofit group that advises the federal government, will release a report on what's known about the learning of science in such informal settings. That includes not only museums but also such places as zoos and aquariums.

The report comes as experts bemoan a lack of scientific education and literacy among Americans. They warn of a shortfall in homegrown engineers and scientists to keep the nation competitive, a general work force ill-equipped to function in an increasingly high-tech workplace, and a citizenry struggling to grasp complex public issues like stem cell research.

While that has led to calls for changes in schools, science museums — broadly defined to include a range of science-oriented places to visit — can also play a big role in teaching and promoting science to both children and adults, expert say.

Studies are showing that such institutions stimulate interest, awareness, knowledge and understanding, said David Ucko, an expert on informal learning at the National Science Foundation, which requested this summer's study.

"They're very useful," said Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "They're a valuable resource for making nature real to the young, hungry mind."

The Association of Science-Technology Centers, which represents such institutions, counts 353 members in the United States. Apart from welcoming visitors, such centers often offer programs to schools, field trips, teacher workshops and after-school programs.

At the Liberty Science Center, which expects about 850,000 guests this year, visitors can walk a high steel beam in the skyscraper exhibit or practice laboratory procedures. "With us, they’re right up touching the science," says Jeff Osowski, the center’s vice president of learning and teaching.

Seventy times a year, school groups and others gather in an auditorium to talk with surgeons as they perform operations on the other end of a live video link.

Bobbi Bremen, who teaches high school science in Livingston, N.J., has taken her anatomy and physiology classes to these programs since 2003. The students have done many animal dissections and computer-generated virtual dissections. But it's still startling to see a power saw cut open a human rib cage, smoke rising from a cauterizing scalpel blade or urine coming from a newly transplanted kidney, she said.

"The students ask a lot of questions and get very frank answers from the doctors and the nurses," she said. "For many of the students this experience can be life-altering, especially those who are considering a career in medicine and science."

Discussion of why the patients needed surgery, with reasons including kidney disease or a bad diet or lack of exercise, is also eye-opening, Bremen said. For many students, "that is as important as any technical or book lesson, because the information is applicable to their families, friends and most of all, themselves," she said.

Museums "have an enormous role to play" in teaching children because they can offer experiences that are tough for schools to present, says George Hein, a professor emeritus at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., and author of the book "Learning in the Museum."

"You can actually do science. You can take prisms and mirrors and see what happens when you move light around," he said. Like music or sports, science has to be experienced firsthand to truly be understood, Hein said.

People don't necessarily gain a new insight every time they visit a museum, but the same can be said about time in most schools, Hein said. Comparing the two settings on learning-per-minute, he said, "I think museums might be quite efficient."

Another advantage of museums is that visitors can choose what to focus on, and that helps them learn more and retain it longer, says Oregon State University researcher John Falk. He added that museums benefit from a self-fulfilling prophecy: People expect to learn about science there, and so they do.

Research shows visitors do learn. One study, for example, focused on the effect of an exhibit about the human skeleton. When visitors pedaled a stationary bicycle, a pane of glass showed an image of a skeleton within the visitor's reflection.

After that experience, 6- and 7-year-olds were handed an outline of the body and asked to draw a skeleton. Nearly all drew bones terminating at the joints — a sharp contrast to the performance of other kids who didn't go through the exhibit. Remarkably, even eight months later, nearly all the museum visitors in the study still knew the relationship between bones and joints.

Falk found about a decade ago that the percentage of Los Angeles residents who could define homeostasis — an organism's retaining of a stable internal environment — rose to 12 percent from 5 percent after a local museum opened an exhibit that included that concept.

Almost everybody who responded correctly said they learned the definition in school, Falk said. But it evidently took a museum visit to bring that lesson back, which illustrates how museums can help people make better use of what they'd already learned, he said.

Or they can teach lessons with a delayed effect.

Falk said a woman told him about an exhibit she loved but didn’t really understand when she was around age 5. To her, it was all about pushing a button to make a bunch of balls tumble through an array of pegs, ending up in a heap. Two decades later, when she was taking a statistics course, that childhood experience suddenly gave her an intuitive understanding of what the exhibit was really about: the statistical phenomenon of bell-shaped curves.

Still, much of the value of museums is about sparking interest and motivation toward science, rather than teaching specific facts, the science foundation's Ucko said. So kids may get hooked on dinosaurs or outer space at a museum, and then go study up on their own.

"People learn, but that's not the main point," says MartinStorksdieck of the Institute for Learning Innovation, which studies informal learning.

"The value of a science museum is that you expose yourself to science, that you pursue science and learn a little bit ... and you stay connected to science and you see value in science." And that helps society support the scientific enterprise, he said.

What's more, science museums entice families to learn together, and even about each other, he said. Parents may discover that a daughter is interested in engineering, he said.

And in a fast-changing world where people need to keep learning all their lives, science museums provide a model for going beyond classroom education, says Sue Allen, who studies museum learning at San Francisco's Exploratorium.

"We are one of the few places where people can get energized, get inspired, get excited ... and practice their own natural scientific inquiry skills. What a fantastic model for what lifelong learning could be."