Beyond the Classroom

Liberty Science Center, Jersey City, NJ

Children explore an exhibit at Liberty Science Center.

Science education need not be limited to the physical confines of the classroom. As director of teacher development at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, Edward Barry is in charge of the center’s wide variety of innovative teacher training workshops, institutes, certification programs, and consulting services. In summer 2007 the center reopened its doors after a major overhaul; today it houses four floors of interactive, hands-on exhibits geared toward enriching the educational experience of science students of every age. “When students come to the center we want them to feel the experience rather than simply look and wonder,” says Barry. This philosophy of exhibition can then translate into the classroom. Using the center’s exhibits and educational laboratories, Barry and his colleagues offer unique programs that help teachers guide their students to “do science” rather than merely appreciate it on paper. In a recent interview with John Theibault, education manager of CHF’s Roy Eddleman Institute for Interpretation and Education, Barry described the unique ways that centers and departments like this can help teachers plant seeds of passion and creativity in the minds of tomorrow’s scientists.

JT: What is the philosophy of the Teacher Programs department at the Liberty Science Center?

EB: Our goal is to provide science educators with the broadest possible array of teaching tools and to develop the diagnostic skills that will enable them to adapt their teaching to the needs of the specific groups with whom they work. We liken their repertoire of skills to a doctor’s bag. The more instruments and remedies in that bag, the broader the range of patients and ailments the doctor can address. Although teaching remains largely an art form, within the past quarter-century much evidence-based theory has emerged on how students learn and which teaching methods are effective in bringing about that learning. Our job in Teacher Programs is to present this information in an objective manner so that teachers are the decision makers about what best suits the needs of their students at a given time. All members of the department are themselves experienced, certified teachers, and this experience allows us to establish immediate credibility with participants in our programs.

JT: What role should science centers play in teachers’ professional development?

EB: Science centers have the opportunity to bring teachers closer to “doing science” than is typically possible in a school setting where, by necessity, the work is “about science.” The best example of this approach is illustrated by our summer institutes for science teachers, which bring participants in direct contact with scientists working in universities or other research facilities.

The majority of our programs during the school year are attended by elementary school teachers, many of whom have limited backgrounds in science or are often apprehensive about approaching the subject. Our “Teacher Impact” workshops have been designed around inexpensive, readily available materials that do not lock teachers into purchasing and using the often expensive packaged kit programs that are on the market.