“When I hear older children talking about science as something that’s boring I think, ‘Oh, we’ve done a terrible job explaining what science is,’” says Cristine Legare.
The “we” Legare is referring to is the traditional teaching and learning environment, which all too often presents science education as a series of facts to memorize and repeat on tests rather than a process of active investigation and creativity. Legare, a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, is a scientist of child development and learning whose research aims to improve children’s enjoyment of science while also maximizing how much they learn.
Since 2009, Legare has partnered with Austin’s children’s museum, Thinkery, to help make science learning more engaging and accessible to as many people as possible. That partnership — called Thinkery Connect — began when a colleague put Legare in touch with Becky Jones, then the Director of Education at Thinkery. The two met to discuss ways of bringing together Legare’s academic research and the museum’s informal learning practices. “And we’ve been going full speed ever since,” says Legare.
“Informal learning” is an educational method that emphasizes learning by doing, with minimal instruction and little or no structured curriculum. Its proponents, including leadership and exhibit developers at children’s science museums, see it as an antidote to dry classroom lectures. But while traditional learning can quash children’s natural interest in subjects, informal learning runs the risk of providing too little guidance and emphasizing bells and whistles over activities that encourage deep learning. For a long time, developmental scientists and practitioners of informal education didn’t necessarily talk to one another, despite each possessing knowledge that could illuminate the others’ work. Collaborations like Thinkery Connect are aimed at changing that.
“Content knowledge is important,” says Legare, “but a big part of science in practice is critically evaluating information, troubleshooting, problem solving, persistence in the face of difficulty. A lot of these process skills are really the work of science, and children’s museums are uniquely situated to promote these kinds of process-based skills and to introduce the concept that people who engage in the process of science are doing science.”
At the beginning of the partnership, Legare focused on conducting and publishing research on how interacting with the museum’s exhibits impacted children’s learning. Over time, the goal became to translate those research findings into designing exhibits that are more accessible and encourage deeper engagement. That translation now includes a grant-funded addition to Thinkery called The Research Hub — a kind of laboratory within the museum where Legare and her colleagues from the Center for Applied Cognitive Science test-drive future exhibits with the help of museum visitors. The laboratory space allows for the use of more sophisticated tools than can be employed in the main exhibits, such as video recording of the interactions for later behavior analysis and even tracking of eye moment to quantify which parts of exhibits draw the most sustained attention. By running these prototype exhibits with small variations, the team has managed to optimize what visitors get out of them. Legare cites a particular exhibit as an example — a collection of pulleys and levers that can be assembled into systems of varying complexity. After noting that visitors often lacked a language to describe the exhibit’s components and instead used words like “thingamabob” to specify a part, the exhibit development team added a legend with part names and some additional signage to help people who lack familiarity with mechanical devices get started. Those small design changes resulted in visitors spending more time in the exhibit and building more complex systems.
Legare also sees Thinkery as a place where parents and caregivers can learn about education. “A big part of what we’re attempting to do is to make the science of child learning available to parents. Our goal is absolutely not to suggest that there is only one good way to parent. But there are ways in which you can engage with your child that will increase the probability that children learn a lot.”
Young children learn scientific concepts differently than adults and older children. Because they have less existing knowledge about the world to draw upon, they tend to be unrestricted in forming hypotheses. This is great for finding unexpected solutions that those with more formal education might miss, but it also can lead to children expending a lot of energy on ideas that won’t yield results. Legare notes that asking children questions while they engage with an exhibit is a good technique to facilitate learning, especially when the timing of those questions aligns with what a child is focused on and can help them make a breakthrough. Thinkery Connect has a space called the Community Resource Nook that provides information on using such techniques to get the most out of the museum experience or any learning environment.
Thinkery and Legare are both enthusiastic promoters of STEAM education. And, yes, that’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) with an added “A” for “arts.” Legare sees science as fundamentally a creative process that requires critical thinking and problem solving and other “soft skills,” a term she feels woefully undersells their importance. And these skills come from disciplines outside of science, like liberal arts and fine arts.
“As someone who is a professional scientist, I think there is a huge element of creativity and artistry in science,” says Legare. “Thinking outside the box in creative and open and imaginative ways is enormously helpful for science. Creation in the world doesn’t follow these narrow disciplinary buckets that we’ve created to try to make the world imaginable to us. Real creativity in the world transcends all these arbitrary boundaries.”
Exhibits at Thinkery cover a broad range of content and skills. In addition to the more mechanical exhibits, which hone skills like persistence and hypothesis testing, there is also the wildly popular Farmer’s Market exhibit, a space where families can gather play produce and play eggs from a chicken coop and make recipes. It teaches everything from counting and sorting to the biology of chicken eggs. There’s even a life-sized Lite-Brite wall where visitors can create images from light, showcasing the beauty and artistry of science. The goal in all these exhibits, explains Legare, is finding the balance between “wow-factor” spectacle that grabs attention and design that encourages engagement with the process of science.
“The Thinkery Connect partnership provides a valuable lens through which to observe, assess and iterate the play-based STEAM experiences we offer at Thinkery, Little Thinkers Preschool and throughout our work in the community,” say Rachel Hamilton, Vice President of Experience at Thinkery. “The partnership allows us to contribute to the field of research and best practices for child-caregiver interactions in both informal and formal settings, making the scope of impact to our local and broader community more expansive and impactful. We are so grateful to be leaders in this space thanks to this partnership.”
Thinkery does an enormous amount of community outreach, working with groups like AVANCE, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and many others, and a major goal for the future of the Thinkery Connect partnership is to bring research-based design improvements to informal learning projects in the broader community.
“I take it very seriously,” says Legare, “that I work at an institution that has a public outreach mission and that is supported by taxpayers and is supposed to be serving absolutely everybody in our community, and educating everybody, and accessible to everybody. Community partnerships are essential for that to truly be an accurate, lived reality and not just something that’s aspirational.”