A ‘What is science?’ debate at Science City

Located in the attic at Scofield Hall on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus, up narrow stairs and past tiny windows in what used to be the chancellor’s office, is the High School Science, Mathematics, and Technology Institute (HSSMTI). Appropriately, a student, working her afternoon job, acts as receptionist.

Jan Alderson, director of the institute and high school science teacher, ducks out from behind one of the many walled-off areas in the crowded attic. She projects energy and poise, cultivated from teaching science to secondary school kids for 30 years. Alderson has been inundated in science teaching for so long, her first date with her husband was to the Kansas City stockyards to fetch cow eyes for her biology class.

Science education is a major focus of HSSMTI, and Alderson helps make it so. Demonstrating her dedication, Alderson says she and other science teachers find that Science City lacks general educational content in its exhibits, has minimal signage explaining exhibits, and has a carnival or theme-park atmosphere that is not conducive to making the institution a good science teaching tool. She also says the special event prices at Science City keep area teachers from using the space for teacher enrichment or for summer science camps.

HSSMTI, Alderson explains, is a state-funded organization (through the university) that annually gives about 150 area students interested in science and science education the chance to learn from others and to help other children. Students in the educational enhancement program work with scores of teachers to teach and tutor elementary-, middle-, and high-school children and young adults in basic science. HSSMTI students take field trips to science museums and sojourns to distant lands to visit working scientists. HSSMTI participants also give public science demonstrations in an effort to promote understanding of science. The gap between what HSSMTI does and Science City offers is what causes Alderson’s frustration.

“We did public demonstrations for two years at the Kansas City Museum of History and Science at the Long Mansion (on Gladstone Boulevard, for decades the museum’s home),” she says. “We had seen that happen in other cities, where students had done work at the science museums to help inform the public about basic scientific principles. It was a great help to the students, putting their knowledge to practical use.

“For two years, HSSMTI and other groups worked on weekends and at big events leading (up) to the ballot measure to pass the bistate sales tax for Union Station restoration and the development of Science City. As soon as the voters approved, they told us essentially they had a staff and didn’t need us anymore — they had other priorities. We had given those presentations on our own, with our own funding. Those kids worked hard. And then they were shut out of Science City. Essentially, they were used to help sell the bistate initiative, and when their usefulness was over, they were tossed aside.”

Meanwhile, HSSMTI participants began performing public science demonstrations at area libraries and schools. Alderson says that HSSMTI continues to ask Science City to let the students bring their demonstrations to Festival Plaza in Union Station outside of Science City and that she and other teachers have written Kansas City Museum/Science City President David Ucko about getting shut out by the museum staff. Science City operates under the museum board. Alderson says the group did not receive a reply from Ucko. “It’s indicative of other problems we had with Science City,” she says.

“Starting in late 1996, large groups of science teachers were brought in (by HSSMTI) to brainstorm, to involve the kids, and to hear about all the things we thought were going to be effective to make Science City a truly educational experience. Then, when they (Science City officials) began the project, we were shoved aside.

“When Science City opened and we toured the place, we found very few of our ideas utilized in the facility. The stuff (we) thought important was not there. Many of our ideas were inexpensive and were very interactive, highly educational exhibits. What we found were expensive, elaborate exhibits that were not adequately explained and were prone to break down. They just did not listen to the kids and the teachers, who were completely marginalized. We were used as a superficial front for their own agenda. They made it look like they involved teachers, but what we saw in Science City were ideas that the Kansas City Museum had from day one. They wound up limiting exhibits to fragile and expensive things that weren’t helpful to people interested in learning about science.”

Kids will have a good time at Science City, says Alderson, “but as an educational tool for teachers and a learning experience for children, I don’t think there is much there.”

Cheryl Turlin, a science teacher at Paseo Academy, says she is concerned with the way science teachers were seemingly ignored. “We were invited when the whole idea came about,” she says. “We were supposed to participate in the educational aspect and in making Science City beneficial for the community. Science City was supposed to be a highly interactive educational opportunity, with educational materials and explanations, or interpreters to explain the biology or physics behind an activity. Then, after they got the bond money, they told us they would hire national museum organizations to take our ideas and turn them over to national designers. They basically said, ‘Thank you for being here,’ and that was that.”

Science City, says Turlin, doesn’t reflect science teachers’ input, and a visit by her high school science students supports that opinion. “They (the students) are very highly motivated and involved in science education all over the area. I wanted a genuine evaluation on their part. What they said was they were disappointed they could not do demonstrations and get involved and that a miniature golf course should be about more than playing miniature golf. And I have to ask myself: What valuable experience are the elementary kids walking away with? They have fun, but what did they learn? They might as well play on a swing set in the park to learn the science of motion and force.”

Steve Snyder, director of attraction development, doesn’t agree with such an assessment. He says, “When the kids are playing miniature golf, they are not just playing golf. They are solving problems having to do with physics and motion. They have to turn the crank to get the ball to the next level, and they have to figure out how to do that. That is the kind of science they have to use every day, but here they get to see it in a well-defined manner that they have to manipulate. It is the kind of learning you don’t get from science fact.”

Science City spokesman Bill Musgrave says, “HSSMTI and other groups were used in public demonstrations as part of a hands-on public relations effort. We had things going at shopping centers, schools, and the Kansas City Museum. We had a large cast of volunteers. Then after the bistate vote, we scaled back. We had to roll up our sleeves and build what the voters voted for.

“With Science City open, we will be looking to activate the space during slow times and weekends. Already we have begun to hold more public demonstrations and have music groups in. We are bringing in scientists from Bayer and other companies to hold more public demonstrations. Now we are in summer, and the attendance from school groups during the day will go down, but we will be having more things in the fall.”

Alderson says teachers who work with HSSMTI and other science programs are concerned nonetheless. “We also find it odd that liability and insurance became issues in Science City. They weren’t issues before, when they were trying to sell the idea to the public.” Science City officials cite such issues, Alderson says, as reasons to not hold public science demonstrations.

Snyder says there may be a line between what teachers and parents see and what kids learn. This stems from a perception that a science museum must have detailed explanations and large lists of science facts. At Science City, some posters state science facts, but most of the museum’s content is interactive and hands-on.

“We did not want to have Science City reflect other spaces in Kansas City,” he says. “We also did not want to re-create what other science centers have done. In terms of the space, we wanted to have a fair atmosphere. As we activate the Festival Plaza space, that (atmosphere) will be there.”

Science City is different from other science museums because it focuses on the learning process, Snyder says. “Not science fact, but science process; not how someone else solves the crime, but that participants do. They have to use their observational skills, their ability to reason, and some hands-on work. We could put signs up, but those things are better in books than in a noisy science center. We could list 300 facts for something, but that is something you would never do in the classroom. We are trying to get people to connect the pieces.

“After they are done with Science City, you can ask people what they learned and not get a good answer. But when you ask them what they did, you will find they experimented, discussed things with others, used their skills to get through an exhibit. Schools teach facts; here you experiment, debate. It can be a good support for teachers.”

Teachers were involved throughout the planning and design process, says Snyder. Focus groups were held at significant milestones in the development process. Groups saw prototypes and mockups of exhibits and had the chance to provide input to change or modify those proposals. Out-of-town design experts put into reality teachers’ and consultants’ ideas. When construction began, he says, the public and teachers received layout and design drawings and were kept informed of Science City’s progress.

Turlin, however, believes Science City should be more accessible to teachers and parents. She says that although she can use the facility as a teaching tool and can interpret its exhibits, parents and non-science teachers who attend the museum with children and students may not find it so easy. “A parent who is not a teacher cannot always know to what to do with what Science City is trying to get at with their exhibits,” she says. “No one is giving them that, either. They have few interpretive instructors there to explain what is going on. For example, the musical keyboard has nothing about the science of sound. When there is no explanation, it is just noise.”

During a recent walk-through, Snyder pointed to new signs that explain in simple terms what exhibits demonstrate. He says criticisms from parents and teachers, such as Alderson and Turlin, prompted the changes. Science City made some mistakes, he says. “When something is designed on paper, no matter how good it looks or what you want to happen with it, the reality of 3,000 uses a day makes the reality much different.” To that end, he says, Science City is developing “theme guides,” a kind of teacher’s handbook parents can use when visiting the facility.

Another criticism leveled at Science City is the cost of renting the facility and its availability for summer science camps. In one instance, the Hickman Mills and Blue Springs school districts had to pass on using Science City for “Outrageous October,” an annual science teacher in-service program. “I like the idea of Science City,” says Sally Bell, a science teacher at Blue Springs Middle School. “But it is not accessible to us. When we asked for information on holding our in-service ‘Outrageous October’ this fall, they would only let us have the space (Festival Plaza and a meeting room) from 3 to 5 p.m. We wanted it later, as we only get out of school at 4:30. We were kept on hold for three or four months on the request. They came back to us and said we could only have it for those two hours.

“Then it would have cost us $5,000. They also said they didn’t want more than 200 people. We have about 300 teachers each year. It’s like it was great to hear from us at the beginning but now that it’s open, it’s turned into a corporation and is for corporate use now.”

Turlin and Alderson also say teachers wanted to hold an annual science camp for Kansas City, Mo., students at Science City, but they could not get a discounted price for tickets in order to hold the camp. The cost of the camp, Alderson says, is about $65. The $9 daily ticket price would have nearly doubled the camp’s cost for each child. With that price, the teachers could not have fed and transported the children and kept the camp price to a level inner-city kids could afford.

Musgrave and Snyder say these incidents probably reflect miscommunication. “Our sales staff may be thinking on one track,” Musgrave says. “Then the teachers call and want something much different, then turn away before everything is understood.

“As for prices for teachers, we believe the ticket prices are fair and equitable compared to other science facilities. We are also dealing with a space that has to be paid for to the tune of $24 million a year. We have people call and say they are teachers, and they want the space for free.”

Currently, says Musgrave, the price for day field trips for schools is about $5 a ticket. The museum is also developing scholarship funds for students and schools unable to afford to come to Science City. In addition, he says, “We need to have the teachers communicate with us. If there is a program, such as some of the things HSSMTI wants to do, we have grant opportunities there.”

Snyder says Science City will develop programs for local schools and groups in the future. Surveys indicate a need to be more accessible to teachers and to fund and support teaching programs. Musgrave says that summer science camps during the day and even overnight opportunities might be options for the future. But right now, Science City needs to “survive the first year” of operation.

Contact Patrick Dobson at 816-218-6777 or patrick.dobson@pitch.com.

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