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Plugged In to Learning : Museum's Education Director Expands Programs to Spark Youths' Interest in Science

June 11, 1995| As director of education at the California Museum of Science and Industry, Carol J. Valenta shares with children the excitement of learning about science. She tells writer Catherine Gewertz how she has expanded student programs and what is still to come at the museum in Exposition Park. and

I was brought on board here at the museum three years ago to help plan the new elementary school that is going to be opened on the site. It will take mostly neighborhood children and will have an emphasis on science. We are also doing a huge renovation and expansion of the museum itself, which will be done in 1997.

Our education programs and science workshops have been here more than 20 years. But when I came, I saw places where there were rich opportunities to be of greater service to the community. We have a whole host of neighborhood kids who come here on weekends and the minute school lets out during the week. It's free, and they see it as the most intelligent, best place to be when they're not in school. And we recognized that working parents need quality experiences for their kids that excite their minds.

Our summer science workshops, for kids ages 5 to 14, are offered every morning. You might sign up, for instance, to take a class on rocketry. You come two hours a day for a week. You learn about rockets, the forces that affect motion. You would build a rocket and launch it by the end of the week.

Another workshop might have to do with chemistry. You might do a series of experiments, learn the safety rules and the magic of creating your own solutions.

After lunch, you want something different. That's where Curator Kids Club comes in. We have open science exploration time with supervision by someone who understands scientific concepts. It lasts as late as 6 p.m., to accommodate working parents, though kids can go home earlier if they want. And our programs start as early as 7:30 a.m.

The morning science workshops and the afternoon Curator Kids Club go in one-week segments for eight weeks over the summer. Kids can sign up for part or all of it. The cost is comparable to YMCA day camps.

We also have a two-week program called Science Summer Stock. Kids study science content the first week and the second week they put on a play with a scientific theme.

Our YouthALIVE! program is a partnership with Avalon Gardens [public housing project]. Those youngsters, from fifth to 12th grades, are picked up by our bus and come here every day during the summer for a full-day program. They follow a series of science themes, using almost entirely hands-on investigations.

The theme one summer, for example, was observing the environment. The students explored solar energy: They took solar panels, connected them to make circuits, attached them to a pump, put them into a bucket of water and created fountains and waterfalls. This is free for these kids, since it is funded through a grant.

Many of the programs resulted from a very aggressive grant development department. I expanded our education department from five to 25 people and diversified it, so we can offer many programs in Spanish.

Our City Sleuths program is for kids in grades three through six. They put on white lab coats and are introduced to making responsible decisions to take care of the community and the environment. They look at how various waste products behave in a landfill. They do science experiments and then are assigned to do research in certain exhibit areas in the museum. When they come back, they must work in teams to solve problems based on the research they did.

Our exhibits are often hands-on. For instance, one of our new exhibits, Balancing Acts, involved 1,200 fifth- and sixth-graders who cut out little triangles from magazines and made a map, which was made into a huge 20-foot-diameter globe. Each child signed his name on the back of the triangles, and teachers are telling us that in building this world, these kids really began to feel a sense of responsibility for the piece of the world that they live in.

Many of our exhibits have high-tech experiences. But we don't compete with Disneyland here. We're about the magic and captivation of learning. You learn by doing with your hands.

We have a solar-powered car. You push buttons, and if you do it just right, you can get that car going around and around that track. You can make an air-powered windmill with a drinking straw and a balloon. You should just see these youngsters strategizing. We are offering an invitation to learn in a way that's not passive.

Once your mind buys into that magic, you can't put it down. You keep saying, "I wonder what would happen if . . ."

Here we have an element of the unknown. Disneyland or "Jurassic Park" are set scripts. A child's involvement doesn't change one thing. With many of our hands-on activities, you drive your own learning path. You're in charge of the outcome.

Once the human mind realizes it can make a choice, and that based on that choice the outcome will vary, it's very powerful.

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