Science times two

Chico State’s new museum gives future science teachers face-to-face training in communicating with kids

The Gateway Science Museum

The Gateway Science Museum

Photo By Tina Flynn

Although it has yet to celebrate its first birthday, the Gateway Science Museum, Chico State’s Northern California natural-history museum, is already teaching science majors something unexpected: How to communicate with kids.

“I’ve learned that children are naturally inquisitive, but that you have to be very specific in your answer and get to the point when you’re answering a question, or else they lose interest,” said Jolyon Johnson, a geology student who’s a docent at the museum. “They have short attention spans, and it’s helped me articulate what I want to say a lot faster.”

Johnson is one of hundreds of Chico State students who have contributed to the museum’s operations since its opening in February 2010. For all students involved, the museum is a way to reinforce what they learn in the classroom in a real-life setting, and it’s required them to use creative teaching methods, said Rachel Teasdale, the museum’s director.

Teasdale has watched the museum’s method of college students teaching younger students unfold, and so far she’s been impressed by the ability of docents to communicate science in a way that makes sense to kids, she said.

“I really love seeing how creative the students are. I have in my mind one way of doing things, and I envision how some interaction might go,” Teasdale said, referring to Chico State students’ exchanges with school-age kids. “And then I see one of the students have an interaction with a visitor, and they explain something in a totally different way that’s completely accurate, just different. It just reminds me that you can be really creative in science and still be accurate and on point.”

A group of fifth graders examine a tree during the museum’s first Friday field trip in fall 2009.

Photo By Stacey Kennelly

Many students jumped on board with the museum during its Friday fieldtrips for fifth- and sixth-graders in fall 2009, during the months leading up the museum’s completion. Students led kids through the hands-on Discovery Room, a microscope lab and on tree walks, teaching them about what they can find in their own back yards.

Since then, college students have implemented new exhibits and planned summer camps and Saturday family-oriented events. Contributors hail from a variety of majors, including the obvious ones, such as biology, geology and anthropology, as well as the less obvious, such as graphic design, marketing, geography and recreation.

The museum’s informal learning environment is a nice contrast to the formal learning environments offered to science students before the museum opened, Teasdale said. While students have always had ample education-outreach opportunities, including the hands-on lab—a formal learning environment in which science-education majors teach kids in a classroom setting—the museum is an informal place where anyone who is mildly interested in science or teaching can get involved.

Of course, more-serious students, like Tiffany Fisher, a docent and volunteer on the museum’s Exhibits Committee, have no shortage of opportunities to get involved. Recently, Fisher received an award that will allow her to create the first comprehensive docent-training program at the museum.

“I get to have a job that doubles as a learning experience,” said the anthropology major.

The experiential learning the museum offers is one of its most important aspects, Teasdale said. She used an example of an entomology student who recently did a presentation in the museum’s Demonstration Lab, a windowed room in which visiting scientists share their latest research with visitors.

Photo By Matt Siracusa

“That was a cool opportunity for [that student] to chat with folks who are interested, and it’s cool for visitors to talk to students who are right in the middle of learning about their scientific discipline,” she said.

That kind of experience lets students who may not have an interest in public speaking or teaching get comfortable sharing their research, Teasdale said.

Johnson didn’t envision himself working with kids when he came to Chico State in the fall of 2009. He heard about the museum’s impending opening and saw it as a “wonderful coincidence,” he said.

Since then, he’s had the opportunity to design and implement new activities in the Discovery Room, as well as work as a camp counselor during the first installation of the museum’s summer camps. Currently, he’s developing a research program for high-school students in which he will teach a group of students how to do a research project, and will then guide them through the process.

“It’s been a great opportunity to design that little program. I’ve done similar things in the past, but this time it’s entirely up to me,” Johnson said.

The museum is still in its early stages, but Teasdale has high hopes for future Chico State students who will have the opportunity to work with the museum for the duration of their college experience.

Grooming science teachers who focus on getting younger generations excited about science will help answer questions about environmental issues, as well as help to accomplish the museum’s mission of promoting lifelong learning for those who enter its doors, Teasdale said.

She noted a heap of unanswered questions posed in today’s world, including how best to handle sustainability, climate change, and issues related to alternative energy.

“Those answers are going to come from future scientists. They are questions that my generation, your generation and the next generation are all going to tackle and wrestle with,” she said. “If we don’t have enough people thinking about it, learning about it and talking about it, then we aren’t going to be able to answer those questions.”