A trip to a science center can ignite a passion for science in children, but how can you keep that interest going?
For one local boy who loved learning about rocks, all it took was an email to the Cranbrook Institute of Science to get hooked up with the institute’s geologist. His parents were able to set up a time for their son to meet with the geologist for a closer look at the boy’s favorite subject.
The experts aren’t always available for one-on-one meetings with kids, but leaders at science centers say it’s part of their job to help kids engage with science in ways that will extend beyond a single visit to the museum.
“We’re a learning institute. If we don’t get kids geeked and excited about stars then who’s the next astronomer? Who’s the nest physicist?” says Nancy Swords, deputy director of the Cranbrook Institute of Science. “Something has to inspire them. Let it be us.”
Swords pointed out the current push for children to be more exposed to STEM curriculum – science, technology, engineering and math – and says science centers want to be involved.
“We have to engage kids in meaningful experiences,” she says.
The biggest thing parents can do to build on a visit to a science center is simply talk with their children about what they liked most and what they’d like to learn more about.
“Even if they’re just a minute or two, try to engage your child in conversation to critically think about something they experienced,” Swords says. “Help them to develop additional questions. Questioning gets to the root of what it is that they want to learn.”
Take advantage of children’s natural curiosity, she says.
“Kids are smart. Sometimes we have to help them figure out how to use their smartness. They’re curious, help them with their curiosity,” she says.
Let your visit to the science center lead to ideas about other places your family might visit.
“If you love the natural world and the child was intrigued by the mounted birds or the butterfly cases, that’s a natural connection to go visit the zoo, Belle Isle, the nature center,” Swords says. “That helps them connect to their real world as they know it.”
Also consider a visit to the library so children can check out a book about a topic they found interesting.
Connect with the science center
Like the boy who got to meet with the geologist, children with a special interest can ask questions of the science center with the help of their parents. Utilize the “contact us” page on a museum’s web site to get in touch, Swords encourages.
“I strongly suggest parents write on behalf of children,” she says. “Our geologist gets inquiries every week, our astronomy staff, our director.”
Look for special events
Science centers often offer special programming during holiday breaks and the summer when children are not in school.
Meredith Gregory, public programs coordinator at the Michigan Science Center, suggests parents subscribe to the museum’s social media feeds.
“We post a lot of information there about upcoming special activities, links for projects, and exciting news happening in the science world outside of here,” she says. “Many of these things will spark exploration and conversations at home.”
Use what you have
Lorrie Beaumont, the director of education at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, suggests parents look no further than their kitchen and bathroom for ways to keep an interest in science going.
“Water play, measuring, cooking, putting things away, estimating. There are all kinds of math that they can do in the kitchen,” Beaumont says. “The kitchen and the bathroom seem to be the two places with younger kids that you can do the most experimenting like you would at the museum.”
Some museums provide suggestions for at-home science experiments and activities – and many intentionally use items within their exhibits that look like items you could find at your own home.
“I’ve had parents come up to me and say, ‘I’m going to try to build this at home.'” Beaumont says, pointing out experiments with balls and ramps that are especially easy to replicate.
At the Michigan Science Center website under educator offerings, parents can find great options for projects and activities.
“There are scavenger hunts, activity guides, and sensory resources that are fabulous for those who want to dive deeper,” Gregory says.