Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh





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Museum on a Mission 

By Kimberly M. Riel


Carnegie Science Center Launches Mission Discovery To Help Middle School Students Connect Science to Everyday Life


Carnegie Science Center is on a mission—to go where few museums have gone before, and to make an impact on families that will last a lifetime. In March 2002, a team of four staff members from Carnegie Science Center moved into a 3,600-square-foot space at one of the Hill House buildings on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District. In a matter of months, the team had transformed the space into a colorful science studio and launched Mission Discovery, a program designed to interest middle school students in science, math, and technology and involve families in their children’s education.



“We created Mission Discovery for several reasons,” says Ron Baillie, interim director of Carnegie Science Center. “When we realized the Hill District was an underrepresented community among Science Center visitors, we also noticed that middle school students throughout the Pittsburgh City Schools tested lowest in math and science on annual standardized tests. We decided that both of these issues gave us an opportunity to make a significant impact on one of our local communities and that the best way to do that was to bring the Science Center to the Hill District.”


After 18 months of planning, curriculum development, and grant writing, Mission Discovery received the resources it needed to take off from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF gave Carnegie Science Center and its partner, Hill House, a three-year grant to develop and conduct an inner city, after-school program that the Science Center staff hopes will become a model for others throughout Pennsylvania and across the country.


“We want to prove that you can have a really positive impact on ‘at-risk’ children by providing a fun, safe, stimulating environment for them on an ongoing, year-round basis, and by involving their families in their education and development,” says Baillie. “That’s why we’ve made a long-term commitment to the Hill District community. We’re not going to be here today and gone tomorrow; we’re here to stay.”


Something for Everyone

Thirty children can be enrolled in Mission Discovery at one time. To be eligible, children must either attend school or live in the Hill District. Tuition is $15 per child per month, and parents or caregivers must commit at least four hours every month to volunteer at the center. “We ask parents and caregivers to volunteer because it gives them an opportunity to become more involved in their children’s lives, and helps them take ownership of the program,” says Aleina Smith, director of Community Affairs at Carnegie Science Center.


Parents and children alike enjoy Mission Discovery. “I come to Mission Discovery because my mom likes it and thinks it’s good for me,” says Mareena, 13. “Even though it’s a lot like school, we have more fun because we get to take care of animals and plants, go on field trips, cook, and do different science projects every week.”


Amon , 11, didn’t want to join Mission Discovery, but now he’s glad he did. “I come every day after school with a friend, and we get to build some cool things and use the computers,” he says.



From caring for live plants and animals, to learning about chemistry through cooking, and exploring technology by using computers, microscopes, and telescopes, all Mission Discovery activities focus on making learning fun. “If we make science, math, and technology fun and show kids how they use these often-intimidating subjects in their daily lives, they’re much more likely to develop an interest in them and retain what we’re trying to teach,” says Jamie Saulsbery, on-site coordinator for Mission Discovery. “And, by encouraging parents to join us on our field trips and help with our weekly activities, we hope they’ll extend the learning process by picking up our take-home activities and sharing them with the rest of the family.”


Extending the learning process is a big part of Mission Discovery’s goals. The program targets middle school students not only because Science Center staff hope to help improve students’ test scores in math and science, but also because the Science Center wanted to expand its education program.


“Before Mission Discovery, we did a good job of making science and math fun for children in elementary school through our Science on the Road program. And our Science in Your Neighborhood program, which was designed specifically to interest high school students in math, science, and technology careers, also has been very successful, but we weren’t reaching kids in those middle school grades,” says Baillie. “Mission Discovery changed all that. Now we have something for everyone.”


Science With a Twist

To pique and then maintain children’s curiosity in science and math, Mission Discovery shows students and parent-volunteers alike how these sometimes-scary subjects are at work in their homes and neighborhoods. Mission Discovery educators use simple, inexpensive household items in all of their projects so they can be duplicated easily at home for siblings, relatives, and friends. One autumn afternoon, students were learning about simple machines like levers and pulleys. To help students understand exactly how levers and pulleys work, each child was encouraged to build a simple machine that included a lever or pulley using a diagram and Legos.


Educators also strive to make science relevant by focusing the subject matter on places and things within the Hill District community. For example, children may spend a week learning how plants grow and help the environment and then take a field trip to beautify a local vacant lot by planting flowers. Or, they may spend a week learning about how the public water supply works, and then bring in samples of their own tap water for testing. 


“Over time, we hope that by encouraging parents to become involved in their children’s education, and by helping families become involved in their community, we’ll have a significant impact not only on the middle schoolers in our program, but also on the entire Hill District,” says Smith.


Committed to the Community

To increase the Science Center’s involvement in the Hill District community even further, Mission Discovery staff participate on local committees and in neighborhood initiatives, visit local churches and schools, and take part in other Hill House-sponsored programs. “For Mission Discovery to succeed, we need to build trust and relationships by immersing ourselves in the community and all its activities and issues,” says Baillie. “We realize that’s a lot to ask of our staff, but they’re committed to building bridges not only between students and science, and parents and their children, but also between the Science Center and the Hill District.”


Managing Mission Discovery is often challenging but also rewarding. While the Science Center does not require educators to have teaching certificates, they must be highly trained educators with a working knowledge of math, science, and technology, and experience in curriculum development and conducting hands-on activities. They also must be familiar with child development as it relates to the middle school student, and willing to work in an urban environment.


“I worked for the Science Center’s Education department on the Science on the Road program, summer camps, workshops, and classes before joining Mission Discovery earlier this year. On my very first day, I knew this is where I wanted to be,” says Saulsbery. “The staff were enthusiastic, the kids were great, and I knew right away I was making a difference.


“There are lots of days that are tough because there are times when we have to get involved with issues the kids are facing at school or at home. And because they’re all young teenagers, attitudes and discipline problems pop up from time to time,” she says. “I go home exhausted every day, but it’s worth it for the fulfillment I have when I watch a parent and child working side-by-side or when one of the kids really gets into a project.  I can almost see the light bulb go on.” 


For more information about Mission Discovery, call 412.237.3332.  





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