Beyond the Classroom

At the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, students “do science” rather than merely appreciate it on paper.

By John Theibault | September 12, 2008

Science education need not be limited to the physical confines of the classroom. As director of teacher development at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, Edward Barry is in charge of the center’s wide variety of innovative teacher training workshops, institutes, certification programs, and consulting services. In summer 2007 the center reopened its doors after a major overhaul; today it houses four floors of interactive, hands-on exhibits geared toward enriching the educational experience of science students of every age. “When students come to the center we want them to feel the experience rather than simply look and wonder,” says Barry. This philosophy of exhibition can then translate into the classroom. Using the center’s exhibits and educational laboratories, Barry and his colleagues offer unique programs that help teachers guide their students to “do science” rather than merely appreciate it on paper. In a recent interview with John Theibault, education manager of CHF’s Roy Eddleman Institute for Interpretation and Education, Barry described the unique ways that centers and departments like this can help teachers plant seeds of passion and creativity in the minds of tomorrow’s scientists.

JT: What is the philosophy of the Teacher Programs department at the Liberty Science Center?

EB: Our goal is to provide science educators with the broadest possible array of teaching tools and to develop the diagnostic skills that will enable them to adapt their teaching to the needs of the specific groups with whom they work. We liken their repertoire of skills to a doctor’s bag. The more instruments and remedies in that bag, the broader the range of patients and ailments the doctor can address. Although teaching remains largely an art form, within the past quarter-century much evidence-based theory has emerged on how students learn and which teaching methods are effective in bringing about that learning. Our job in Teacher Programs is to present this information in an objective manner so that teachers are the decision makers about what best suits the needs of their students at a given time. All members of the department are themselves experienced, certified teachers, and this experience allows us to establish immediate credibility with participants in our programs.

Beyond the Classroom

Liberty Science Center, Jersey City, NJ

Children explore an exhibit at Liberty Science Center.

JT: What role should science centers play in teachers’ professional development?

EB: Science centers have the opportunity to bring teachers closer to “doing science” than is typically possible in a school setting where, by necessity, the work is “about science.” The best example of this approach is illustrated by our summer institutes for science teachers, which bring participants in direct contact with scientists working in universities or other research facilities.

The majority of our programs during the school year are attended by elementary school teachers, many of whom have limited backgrounds in science or are often apprehensive about approaching the subject. Our “Teacher Impact” workshops have been designed around inexpensive, readily available materials that do not lock teachers into purchasing and using the often expensive packaged kit programs that are on the market.

JT: Is there something distinctive about science centers in comparison with other professional development opportunities?

EB: There are many workshops available that provide training in contemporary pedagogical techniques, including learning styles, multiple intelligences, cooperative learning, inquiry-based learning, formative assessment, and others. However, these techniques are almost always presented in a generic fashion with the expectation that the participating teacher will find ways to apply the training to a specific discipline. Our professional development programs are designed specifically to help participants teach science. For instance, our program in “Multiple Intelligences for Science Educators” illustrates the intelligences with examples from science and includes demonstration lessons that incorporate all eight of the currently recognized intelligences in a single lesson.

JT: What role should science centers play in teaching students?

EB: Science centers are different from museums in that they provide a more tactile, kinesthetic experience. Museums have artifacts and archives that, because of their historical value, must be isolated from the wear and tear of constant handling. Science centers are designed to be more hands-on and interactive. When students come to the Center, we want them to feel the experience rather than simply look and wonder. After a nearly two-year shutdown, a renewed and expanded Liberty Science Center reopened last July, with 80% of its exhibits being completely new. These include a skyscraper exhibit in which students can get the experience of an iron worker by walking (with all appropriate safety equipment) on construction beams 35 feet above the floor. A giant head sneezes on them when they walk into the “Infection Connection” exhibit, and they can actually handle live sea creatures in “Our Hudson Home.”

We pioneered a program entitled “Live From,” in which student classes observe live surgeries via an interactive link between a moderator from our staff and the surgeon and his or her team. Many students have indicated that this program stimulated them to go on to careers in medicine or health. We also provide supplemental education for those groups with limited science facilities, such as charter schools, home-school programs, and special-needs schools. Our “Enhanced Experiences” enable students to take an in-depth look at specific exhibits or the unique habitat of the Hudson River estuary, which surrounds the Center. There are several other on-site programs for students at Liberty Science Center, and we offer continuing off-site programs at schools as well.

In New Jersey, one of the most densely populated states in the country, we currently have less than a dozen college students majoring in physics education! The country is in a crisis in science, technology, engineering, and math. If all the foreign-trained scientists, technicians, and engineers were recalled to their native countries, the United States would be in a very serious predicament. We need to stimulate our young people to take an interest in these areas. Science centers can play a key role in bringing this interest about by both educating the general public and providing support to schools through teacher training and stimulating programs for youth.