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Patrons of the Art

The scientific process is at the center of the latest U.S. effort to reform the teaching of science from kindergarten through grade 12. A pivotal 1989 report published by the Educational Testing Service revealed that U.S. students lagged behind other students not in their knowledge of scientific facts but in applying thinking skills to solving problems. A month later, Science for All Americans, a report based on a three-year study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, called for massive changes in the way science is taught to emphasize “exploration of questions” and critical thinking over “learning of answers.” Clearly, science museums have a critical role to play in complementing what students learn at school.

Thus the National Science Foundation, which has funded activities throughout the United States aimed at improving science education, has supported the growth of innovative museum exhibits: NSF’s Informal Science Education (ISE) grant program has become an important source of funding for such exhibits. The program not only enables specific institutions to create new offerings but also encourages developers to communicate with other educators. To ensure that others will learn about what succeeds and fails, NSF requires evaluations and dissemination of information about museums’ programs.

Recently cuts have been proposed for ISE, including a 30 percent cut for the federal fiscal year of 1997. Fortunately, recognition among members of Congress of the value of informal education prompted the Senate Appropriations Committee to restore funding during the 1997 budget review process.

In such a climate, however, science centers clearly cannot depend on just this source of funding to advance their new educational goals. The private sector also needs to broadly support innovative exhibit development. Sadly, economic reality has caused corporate philanthropic contributions from U.S. businesses to decline in recent years. Interested in attaching corporate names and sometimes logos to projects, companies’ marketing departments are partly replacing the older form of support. But these branches are less likely to invest in experimental and therefore risky projects.

With just a few museums having created activities that emphasize the process of science, developers have only begun scratching the surface on this powerful and potentially influential concept for effective and enjoyable “informal education.” To help develop such approaches, all those with a stake in science education need to step up and do their part.

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