In a typical year, the Saint Louis Science Center’s Education team can interact with thousands of people—through field trips, on- and off-site education programs, and even public gatherings like Fair Saint Louis and Redbird Rookies events, the team served more than 38,000 members of the community in 2019. But when the Covid-19 pandemic halted in-person programs, the team started to focus on educating online, and today they’ve steadily built a growing number of digital programs exploring a range of STEAM subjects.
We spoke with Science Center Education Program Coordinator Sarah Ballance and Marlynn Chambers, Manager of Teen Ambassadors for Community Science, about how the two departments are approaching developing new programs, keeping the hands-on elements of STEAM, and helping teachers, scout groups, and the St. Louis community keep igniting a curiosity for science.
Since the early days of the pandemic, the team has experimented with ways of delivering education virtually. Quienton Townsend, Manager of Student Camps, has been one of the people guiding the team’s transition. Quienton says it was a straightforward process in rebuilding the library of digital offerings. “We started,” he says, “by creating one-off programs for schools and organizations that can easily be modified to fit individual needs. Once programs have been created, they’re added to our digital library and we can make them a part of our official offerings.”
Toward the end of summer, the team’s approach to creating these new programs started incorporating requests from teachers on what types of STEAM content they needed. “[The new digital programs] really gave us the freedom and creativity to meet with schools, teachers, and other organizations to see what their needs are and how we can meet them,” Quienton says.
“[The new digital programs] really gave us the freedom and creativity to meet with schools, teachers, and other organizations to see what their needs are and how we can meet them.”
So far, the teams have created 15 digital programs with topics ranging from stargazing to shark dissections. One program focusing on food chains sees learners creating a food chain with animals like worms and crickets, then exploring concepts like food as energy and the roles of producers and decomposers.
Fundamentally, Sarah says, the team’s goal is to still ignite that interest in science.
According to Marlynn, principals and teachers have expressed a need for supplemental experiences for day-to-day curricula. “Virtual learning has not been the easiest for all educators,” she says. “So these programs help fill in for a field trip and give students that extra science content.”
Plus, Sarah says, “Teachers are telling us that they’ve done all the digital stuff. They’re not sure what to do next. So that’s where we come in.” She hopes they can offer some support for teachers, whether that’s a momentary break from facilitating a virtual classroom or just something they can use to build upon for their own lessons. “We’re all in this together,” she says.
For teachers, remote learning is just one of the challenges of schooling during a pandemic. Keeping students engaged with STEAM in a virtual classroom is another. STEAM subjects often benefit from hands-on, experiential learning, and the virtual classroom—sometimes even the physical one—can’t quite recreate the thrill of a roaring T-Rex welcoming you to learn about fossils or how (literally) cool it is to feel an endothermic chemical change at an Energy Stage show.
Recently, the team has starting to develop kits of materials to be included alongside certain programs. “A little box or bag of materials,” Marlynn explains, “to follow along and have that hands-on experience with the lesson.” A small fee covers the cost of materials, and then the team assembles them in advance for the group’s program. For some programs, the teacher or group leader can also request a list of materials to collect on their own.
One of the early kits involved Tinkercad, a free 3D design application, that participants used to trace their hand; after sending the digital files to the Science Center, educators were able to use them to create laser-cut keychains and ornaments.
In the future, Sarah says, she’d like to see digital programs covering each of the Science Center’s galleries. In the meantime, the goal is to keep developing programs and eventually assemble them in a catalog, similar to what the team had for in-person programs.
For Marlynn and the Community Science department, these new programs will also allow the Science Center to turn outward and keep engaging with more parts of the St. Louis community. “Connecting on a different platform with the community and being that hub for science learning. That’s our goal, too.”
“Connecting on a different platform with the community and being that hub for science learning. That’s our goal, too.”
That directive is the nucleus at the center of the Community Science department, where the Youth Exploring Science (YES) Program helps engage a range of audiences and members of the community. “We’re not just limited to schools,” Marlynn says. “Community Science works with the community using the Youth Exploring Science Program as a vehicle to serve and educate people from youth up to adults.”
Teens in the YES Program don’t just get to learn about science fields for their own academic or career-focused future. The program also gives them a platform to help teach others about STEAM.
Marlynn gives several examples of the places where Community Science and the YES Program are continuing to serve the public: libraries and community organizations, for instance, or after-school programs. Anywhere, really, that doesn’t have access to immersive and engaging science learning experiences. These virtual programs will allow YES to keep reaching out despite the lingering restrictions and shutdowns of the pandemic.
In fact, the Community Science team sees real possibilities with these new programs.
In addition to working with their existing audiences, Marlynn says they’re also searching for new community partners where the YES Teens can get involved. She even imagines these virtual programs as a way of connecting members of the community to educational experiences in the Science Center’s physical galleries once people start venturing out in public again. They could even help parents and siblings discover a curiosity for science as family members participate in these new digital programs.
“Depending on the age group, younger kids might have their parents involved [in an online program],” Marlynn says. “So there’s always an opportunity for an extra ear or set of eyes.”
Support from donors, Science Center members, and Supporting-level members is instrumental in helping the Science Center continue offering connections to science for everyone in our region. If you’d like to show additional support for our mission, please consider donating to the Science Center’s Annual Fund, becoming a member, or becoming a Supporting-level member.
Want to learn more about how the Science Center and its supporters are making a difference for STEAM learning in the St. Louis region?