- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2008

JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) — Three or four times a day, a banana shows up at the Liberty Science Center and complains about a pain in its side. And that means it’s time for some visiting kids to dress up like surgeons and scrub nurses, take a scalpel and go to work.

That’s the cover story, anyway.

What’s really happening is that kids are learning about science and enjoying it.

Whether there is a long-lasting payoff in the form of future scientists won’t be known for a long time. But science educator Lisa Silverman is doing her best with her underage surgical team and the wide-eyed young audience watching them.

“Can everybody say the word ‘autoclave’?” Miss Silverman asked the other day while holding up some surgical instruments. “That’s a fancy word for an oven-dishwasher that goes at a very high temperature and actually kills the germs.”

As she guided the children through the operation, she wove in lessons about infections, surgery, the roles of operating-room staff and the kinds of schooling her young audience would need to get those jobs.

To education experts, this is “informal” or “free-choice” science learning, which means it’s happening outside of school.

This summer, the National Academies, a congressionally chartered nonprofit group that advises the federal government, will release a report on what’s known about science education in such informal settings. That includes not only museums but also such places as zoos and aquariums.

The report comes as experts bemoan a lack of scientific education and literacy among Americans. They warn of a shortfall in homegrown engineers and scientists to keep the nation competitive, a general work force ill-equipped to function in an increasingly high-tech workplace, and a citizenry struggling to grasp complex public issues such as stem cell research.

Although such concerns have led to calls for changes in schools, science museums — broadly defined to include a range of science-oriented places to visit — also can play a big role in teaching and promoting science to both children and adults, experts say.

Studies are showing that such institutions stimulate interest, awareness, knowledge and understanding, said David Ucko, an authority on informal learning at the National Science Foundation, which requested this summer’s study.

“They’re very useful,” said Gerald F. Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “They’re a valuable resource for making nature real to the young, hungry mind.”

The Association of Science-Technology Centers, which represents museums and other such institutions, counts 353 members in the United States. Apart from welcoming visitors, such centers often offer programs to schools, field trips, teacher workshops and after-school programs.

At the Liberty Science Center, which expects about 850,000 guests this year, visitors can walk a high steel beam in the skyscraper exhibit or practice laboratory procedures.

“With us, they’re right up touching the science,” said Jeff Osowski, the center’s vice president of learning and teaching.

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