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As a kid, Jason Brown never met a science project he didn’t like. “The rubber-band cannons in physics, the bridge-building contest, the egg-drop experiment. I loved that stuff,” he recalls. So much so that he and his best friend couldn’t resist concocting their own mini explosive by mixing Drano and ammonia in a mason jar—just one of their many after-school science hijinks. While nobody called it STEM learning then, Brown says that’s exactly what he fell in love with all those years ago. Today, as senior director of science and education at Carnegie Science Center (and soon its interim director, after the retirement of co-directors Ann Metzger and Ron Baillie), Brown considers it his mission to help people on the front lines of education—the teachers—understand and implement the STEM principles of learning. While the acronym formally stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, STEM has evolved into an overarching approach to learning that encourages kids to be curious and creative, to be problem solvers, and to know how to collaborate—skills best developed, he says, through hands-on learning. A former teacher himself, Brown knows that most schools are still stuck in the standardized-testing quagmire. But change is coming. “The American educational system is like a giant ship,” Brown says, “and to change the direction of it is a slow process. But I feel like there’s so much momentum now from the teachers and the administrators themselves who are saying, ‘This is something we need to do.’ They’re starting to get a little bit of traction. And they expect us to help lead the way.”
What’s the one thing that most people don’t understand about STEM learning?
They think it’s about science, or technology, or engineering, or math, and it’s not. They think it’s taught in a science class. But it’s really about all the skills that will make you successful in any one of those fields.
When did educators start understanding the concept of STEM?
The term has become ubiquitous over the last five to 10 years, but many—especially those who do not feel they’re included in STEM—are still just getting exposed to it.
How is the Science Center working with educators to champion STEM-based learning?
At the very beginning of our STEM Pathway program, schools started calling and asking, “Will you certify our STEM program?” and we said, “Well, what is your STEM program?” They gave us answers like, “We have a robotics class,” or “We have AP Calculus.” It was usually about a particular curriculum instead of a method of teaching that helps students achieve. So, we first help them to understand what STEM is and then how they can build a robust program.
If you look at the 20 areas of our STEM Pathway rubric, it’s got things like: How is teacher planning arranged so they can work in an interdisciplinary way to develop a thematic project? How is your schedule built so that you can have an 80-minute block for students to do a project-based learning experience?
Are schools surprised that the inspiration for STEM is coming from the Science Center?
This is sort of what they’ve come to expect from us. And people are starting to hear about Carnegie Science Center in a much bigger radius than they have before. We have someone coming tomorrow from Cambodia to be trained on becoming a Pathway Provider, so that she can take it back to Cambodia and train teachers there using that methodology.
What kinds of experiences does the Science Center offer teachers?
I have a favorite story about that. My wife’s cousin is a family and consumer sciences teacher in the North Hills, and she came for a Fab Lab teacher workshop. Throughout that day
I was getting texts from her with pictures of things that she had made, like a 3D-printed greeting card with a caption that read “Best PD [professional development] ever!” Everyone in her class felt the same way. So, it’s great that teachers can leave inspired and excited.
What’s the common denominator among the educators on your staff—the ones who help teach both the students and teachers?
They’re incredibly creative. They think of things that I would never even conceive of. I would say that they also are really educated; they’re learned. And each one of them knows their discipline very, very well. They’re incredibly entrepreneurial, too, and always looking for ways to maximize what we are doing in a way that is going to also bring us revenue. And they all want us to be leaders. They have a high standard of excellence, and nothing can be just good enough. So, for example, Liz Whitewolf in the Fab Lab—I have never met anyone who knows more about maker spaces than her. Everyone looks to her, and somehow we got her.
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