Museums Key to STEM Success

Museums can play a key role in engaging students in STEM.


Ioannis (Yannis) N. Miaoulis is president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston and former dean of Tufts University School of Engineering.

When our political leaders (and candidates) express concern about the ability of the United States to innovate, I tell them that we must educate more engineers. Unfortunately, only 5 percent of college graduates in the United States major in engineering, compared with 12 percent of European students and 20 percent of those in Asia. The 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators report also notes that U.S elementary and secondary school students lag behind many nations on international math and science assessments.

I am convinced, however, that science centers and museums can play a key role in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. According to the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), representing 353 U.S. science centers and museums, nearly 63 million visits are made to these science centers and museums a year. With resources that many schools do not have, museums offer interactive, standards-based activities complementing the school curriculum that can excite students and equip them with the skills to make informed decisions and pursue STEM fields. And 82 percent of these institutions also offer teacher professional development, aligned with best practices.

Since K-12 STEM education has focused more on math and science than technology and engineering, the Museum of Science launched the National Center for Technological Literacy® (NCTL®) in 2004 specifically to advance understanding of the "T" and the "E" of STEM. Engineering is the great connector that uses math and science to solve real problems and often create new technologies that fuel innovation. School curricula traditionally focus more on the natural world, not the technological one. But it is the human-made world that facilitates 95 percent of daily experience.

The NCTL strategy involves advocacy, creation of standards- and research- based engineering curricula, and teacher professional development, while also advancing understanding of engineering and technology through museum exhibits.

The NCTL's hands-on K-12 engineering curricula have reached close to 35,500 teachers and 3 million students nationwide. Its Engineering is Elementary® (EiE®) curriculum for 1st – 5th graders integrates engineering and technology with science, language arts, social studies, and math via illustrated storybooks, featuring children from different countries who use the engineering design process to solve problems.

The Museum of Science is also developing museum exhibits and programs to help the public understand the innovation process -- the skills of designing, building, and using technology -- and the impact of science and technology. The Museum has promoted STEM to over 2.3 million people in museums nationally and in Australia via its Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit, created with Lucasfilm Ltd. The Museum has also engaged over 209,000 visitors in Design Challenges involving the engineering design cycle, where children and families build and test their own floating satellites, wind-powered sailboats, animal houses, and mini-bobsleds.

When museums collaborate on STEM topics, they can increase their reach dramatically. In 2010, ASTC extended a Youth Inspired Challenge to more than 300 science centers in 50 states and across the world. Its aim: to engage thousands of youth, ages 10-19, in 2 million hours of science enrichment.

With the Science Museum of Minnesota and San Francisco's Exploratorium, the Museum of Science leads a 10-year, $41 million National Science Foundation-funded Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE® Net). Over 225 science museums, universities, and other organizations participate in yearly NanoDays events across the country and in Puerto Rico. The goal is raise public understanding of nanoscale science, engineering, and technology.

Science centers can be a powerful resource for teachers in STEM fields. The Oregon Museum of Science & Industry offers many professional development tools for educators, from workshops and school partnerships to classroom activities and resources. The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry has become integral to school- and district-wide educational improvement plans in STEM. The Museum of Science offers educator workshops and online classroom materials and is building a network of teacher-educators. Raytheon has committed $1 million to the Museum to create 300 professional development providers certified to educate teachers in EiE nationwide and has also donated $1 million to fund EiE teacher scholarships.

We must continue to invest in both K-12 and life-long STEM learning. As our political leaders pursue education and innovation policies and legislation, I urge them to remember that science centers and museums are a tremendous, yet often, untapped resource.