Out-of-school STEM learning is much more powerful when it’s inclusive

Museums are powerful places because they bridge the gap between formal and informal learning

For many months, all of my children’s learning took place outside of the school building. For the most part that was Zoom classes, but sometimes there were serendipitous learning moments, like watching hawks and kestrels from our apartment windows, or getting outside and observing a robin in a nest feeding its young. Watching my children watching the world, I saw how these unscripted moments of curiosity and fascination could keep the light of learning lit during a time when schooling had been interrupted.

Reflecting recently on that period, I began to wonder more broadly about the topic of STEM learning outside of school. Linda Curtis-Bey is a legendary educator, having served for many years as the New York City Department of Education’s Director of STEM. I first met Linda 20 years ago, when I was still a physics graduate student. Linda generously agreed to sit down with me to discuss STEM education, and what follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Jason Zimba: Those of us lucky enough to have visited the American Museum of Natural History can very often remember the first time we came face to face with the dinosaurs and the famous blue whale. What is your first memory of the museum?

Linda Curtis-Bey: I’m one of those kids that came to the museum on the yellow bus. I was coming from South Ozone Park, where we lived in Queens at that time. And once a year, we’d get on the yellow bus and come to the Museum of Natural History. Black and brown students like myself didn’t have many opportunities to visit grand places like the Museum of Natural History. If we did, it was only once every few years.

Linda Curtis-Bey
Linda Curtis-Bey

I consider myself to be a science person, but I was not initially comfortable in this science institution, because it seemed so alien to me as a Black child. That’s what I’ve tried to change here. I want Black and Hispanic students to feel comfortable at institutions of science and see themselves as scientists.

It’s also an important awareness that all museums and informal educators need to bring to their work–we have to use language and build experiences that are inclusive and allow all our visitors to feel that they belong.

Jason Zimba
Jason Zimba

Jason: How do museums and other science institutions help all students–especially students of color–see themselves as scientists?

Linda: Museums, in particular, have to start with intentionality around their teams given the historic exclusion of people of color in so many communities. We have to have diverse teams from the start.

I remember one of our scientists, Adrianna Aquino-Gerard, was walking through a hall where I was with my grandson. Adriana is Hispanic, female and an ichthyologist. And she just bends down on one knee and starts talking to this group of children who are in the Hall of Ocean Life and starts talking to them about fish. It was a powerful moment for them to see a person who looks like them in complete command of the knowledge and awe-inspiring exhibits that surrounded us. If you see it, you can be it-as the saying goes.

Science institutions also have to think about what is being shown and in what context. We have a project that we are involved in with Marissa Manitowabi, from the Haudenosaunee tribal community near Buffalo. Marissa gives presentations to us about the Haudenosaunee and Lenape cultures, really leaning into the anthropology side of our work.

We also ask experts like Marissa to provide counsel on our exhibits. How do we use the halls that are in the museum to talk about culture? And from that standpoint, with a real focus on inclusion, what’s good about the cultural halls? What’s not working? How do we improve the experience for our visitors?

Jason: What can a student learn about STEM in a museum or a science center that can’t be learned in the same way in school? How do the two work together?

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Linda: Museums bring different experts together and remind us of the integrated nature of learning. It is amazing to watch the transformation that follows multiple visits and exposures to the museum. If we come to a museum or science center multiple times we develop a sense of belonging, it becomes a place that belongs to us. Students begin to feel that the museum is a place for them to learn and a place that’s different from their school.

There are teachers there, too, but teachers who are different from the teachers in their classrooms. And of course, they have these wonderful scientists who are experts on everything on display-and they’re accessible, too. Everything is set up for the student to interact with and learn from.

I can know intellectually that a blue whale is really big. How would you even talk to kids about scale in a classroom besides in the abstract? But in the museum, we have artifacts of life, both animal life and plant life that you can actually see for yourself. You can stand next to an elephant or a tiger or something like that and get a true sense of the physical experience: “Wow, what if I were in an environment where these animals were?” There’s a real sense of connection and awe.

Jason: And what can we expect to see in museums in the future particularly as technology continues to evolve and change our expectations for truly immersive experiences?

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Linda: Science institutions are moving into the so-called metaverse–like the T-Rex exhibit we designed where you could put on a VR headset to assemble dinosaur bones. In practice, we have already seen this growing in our exhibits like our weather and climate wall in the Hall of Planet Earth, where you can change inputs and see the impact it would have on weather conditions across the globe. Museums are powerful places because they bridge the gap between formal and informal learning and offer more accessible experiences.

Jason: Lastly, if I don’t ask you this my kids will kill me: Do the dinosaurs actually come alive at night as we’ve seen in the movies?

Linda: To students, they come alive. To them, dinosaurs are very much real.

Jason Zimba is the chief academic officer of STEM at Amplify. Linda Curtis-Bey is the senior director of education at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the former director of STEM at the New York City Department of Education.

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