Three Questions with Ann Caspari,‎ Early Childhood Education Specialist at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

July 12, 2016

What role do science-rich institutions play in engaging students - and STEM teachers themselves - in more active, authentic learning outside the classroom?

Our next virtual “Steal This Session” delves into ways that our nation’s schools and universities can better embrace active STEM learning and professional development by collaborating with science-rich institutions. Steal This Sessions feature three 100Kin10 partner organizations sharing diverse approaches to addressing a shared challenge, followed by a vigorous conversation among participants about the challenge, the solutions, and where we, collectively, go from here.

We’ve asked Ann Caspari–Early Childhood Education Specialist at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and current fellow in our Early Childhood STEM fellowship–to share a little bit about her work in advance of the “Steal This Session.”

1. Tell us about your work in this area. What makes it unique?

Our Science in Pre-K program began in 2008 and continues today to enrich student learning in the D.C. Public Schools by a multi-faceted approach that reaches students at their school and in their community. We have trained between 15 and 45 preschool teachers and assistant teachers per year since 2008 for a total of 190 early childhood educators who have received in-depth, multiple session professional development over 1000 additional early childhood teachers have engaged in ½ day workshops and field trips to the museum with their students.

These are teachers of 3 and 4 year old children in the District of Columbia Public and Public Charter schools.

  • The program makes the connection between active STEM learning and the Museum by bringing students to the National Air and Space Museum for 2 -3 visits a year (complete with paid lunch at the Museum and transportation to and from school. At the Museum, preschool and Kindergarten students see a planetarium show, hear stories, see real aircraft and spacecraft, design and build models and are inspired by simulated imaginative visits to Space. Children are inspired and engaged.

  • Preschool teachers and teachers’ aides both engage together in multiple in-person professional development sessions, sometime held at the Museum and sometimes at their schools where they learn science content (about water, air, structures and nature) along with science methods and practices. The sessions bring together 15-30 teachers at a time from different schools in a learning community where they can share their triumphs and challenges and problem-solve solutions to implementing inquiry science in their own environments. Teachers are inspired and engaged.

  • These in-person sessions are followed by online sessions and individual mentoring sessions in the classroom that help to deepen understanding and are facilitated by the District administration. The School District is inspired and engaged.

2. What advice do you have for partners looking to embrace active-STEM learning and PD in collaboration with science-rich institutions?

Sessions that marry science content and hands-on approaches for teachers help to build confidence. Science rich institutions are fun places to hold PD because they have inquiry science approaches and cool “stuff” built in.

What makes a difference for teachers is to learn about the science concepts, such as the forces of compression or tension in building and at the same time to play with blocks themselves to understand these forces. Or playing with opaque and transparent materials on an overhead projector while learning about light and shadows. Once they have the hands-on experience and the knowledge together, they are ready to better guide children and have the confidence in their own knowledge and understanding of the science.

We also know that multi-session PD is better than one-off sessions.


3. Great work stands on the shoulders of giants. What resources do you recommend when it comes to active STEM learning and professional development?

My journey to learn about good early childhood science began with the Educational Development Center and their Young Scientist Series. This work is being continued by the Foundations of Science Literacy, who continue to conduct research on teaching inquiry science to young children.

The research done at the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Early Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (CEESTEM) has also been a source of inspiration and research basis for the programs that we have developed. These both provided the foundation for the active STEM learning PD that teaches topics or content and pedagogy together.

Peggy Ashbrook, writes the Early Years blog for NSTA and has recently published Science Learning in the Early Years through NSTA press. She has been a great collaborator, inspiration, and source of encouragement and has co- taught sessions of PD with me and once again confirmed that this work is better done as a collaborative enterprise.

Looking for more? Check out our Three Questions posts with Dr. Andi Fourlis from the Arizona Science Center and Maggie Reinbold from the San Diego Zoo to learn how they encourage active STEM learning and professional development in their work. If you are a partner interested in joining their “Steal This” session on 7/14, you can sign-up here.