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Where The Wild Things Are

Zoos, aquariums, and science centers have become major resources for science teachers over the years. Educators see those facilities as places where students can study the behavior of living things, or learn about them through visually appealing exhibits, rather than simply reading about them in a textbook or hearing about them in a lecture.

In reporting a story earlier this year, I learned that 90 percent of the nation’s zoos, aquariums, and museums said that they had at least one educational outreach program. That story was about Urban Advantage, a New York City program that offered middle school students access to the city’s big network of zoos and aquariums, and provided teachers with extensive professional development on how to shape lessons for their science classes around those exhibits.

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I spent time with Mitch Goodkin, a science teacher at Russell Sage Middle School in Queens, who had all sorts of in-class activities for students that were connected to zoo and aquarium exhibits. Goodkin also trained other NYC teachers come up with their own zoo-to-classroom connections.

I’m sure that many teachers would like to make use of local museums and science centers in their classes, but aren’t sure how to do it, or whether their administrators will support it. I recently came across a resource that could help them. It’s a Web site run by the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education, which is supported by the National Science Foundation.

One of the resources on the site is a recent study that examined how the opinions of visitors to zoos and aquariums were influenced by those trips. The study, which was published in 2007 and supported by the NSF, found that visitors, perhaps not surprisingly, bring higher-than-expected knowledge about basic ecological concepts, and that more than half of them (54 percent) reconsidered their attitudes toward environmental problems and conservation action. The study focused on adults, not children, but teachers might still find it useful.

But the web site also includes a report on how to evaluate the effectiveness of informal education projects overall. That report examines issues such as how to design studies that tell whether these efforts are having the desired effect—and what that desired effect should be. Is an informal education project having a measurable impact on students knowledge of science? Or on their attitudes toward science, technology, engineering, and math topics (“STEM”) overall? The report is edited by Alan J. Freidman, former director of a major science center, the New York Hall of Science.

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