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STEM Educators Make Science Fun

When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture holds science-themed programming for visitors, STEM education specialist Christopher Williams makes sure there are opportunities for all types of learners.

“We want everybody to feel included, to find something that they find interesting,” said Williams, a biologist-turned-educator and alumnus of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.

During STEM Days – science-themed, museum-wide programs on subjects such as African Americans at NASA or African American engineers, Williams ensures that visitors can learn by reading, listening or doing.

At the NASA-themed STEM Day, for instance, visitors could look at pictures and read brief biographies of current and former NASA employees. Or, they could try hands-on activities like coloring a poster, stringing a beaded bracelet that changes color when exposed to ultraviolet light, or launching a marshmallow catapult at a precise angle – an activity that sought to make relatable the type of re-entry angle calculations produced by NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson of “Hidden Figures” fame, said Williams. This hands-on activity drew cheers from the participants, Williams added, an indication that learners didn’t just connect with the material – they had fun.

Making science fun is a goal that drives science communicators and educators as they take part in a range of AAAS programs. When learning about science, other positive outcomes follow, said several AAAS program participants.

Marine scientist Amber Sparks shared her experiences with making science fun in a post on the Public Engagement Reflections blog on AAAS.org.

Sparks, who serves as a AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador to inspire girls and women to take part in STEM, recounted participating in a STEM fair for middle- and high-school students. She wanted students to understand her work as co-founder of Blue Latitudes, which seeks to re-purpose offshore oil and gas platforms into artificial reefs, so she created an interactive game where participants could stick images of marine life on a large poster of an oil structure.

The simple game was a great success. It helped students learn about what marine biologists do in a way that sticks, she reported. Students had fun, too.

Wrote Sparks, “At the end of the day, if the students are having fun and understanding, then with that knowing comes caring and with care there is hope for the future of our oceans!”

Jessica Baker, a high school teacher who also serves as an instructor for GSK Science in the Summer, also sees the benefits of making science fun for her students.

In her own forensics classroom, students are engaged when their classwork is a puzzle. They have fun, but they also gain practical skills for a potential future career, Baker said.

When she teaches younger students during Science in the Summer, a longstanding program administered by AAAS in the Washington, D.C., area that brings trained science teachers to lead elementary-school-aged students in hands-on activities, she notices that having fun awakens career possibilities in them.

“I think it really gets them excited about the possibility of science as a career,” said Baker.

Being a role model for making science fun while conveying how science relates to our lives is important for encouraging and supporting those students interested in pursuing science careers, Baker said.

After all, her own career path as a science educator launched in a similar way.

Said Baker, “One of the reasons I became a science teacher is because my science teacher made it fun.”

Williams echoed the importance of young audiences seeing educators having fun.

“I try to make sure that, no matter the topic that I’m choosing, the focal point of it is something that excites me,” he said. “If I’m excited, I think I can get others excited as well.”

[Associated image: Leah Jones/NMAAHC]

Authors

Neil Orman

Andrea Korte

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