Science education: It's not just for kids at the Michigan Science Center

Ever notice how young children are fascinated by dinosaurs, rocket ships and nature hikes? There's a reason for that; kids possess a natural curiosity about the world around them that makes science and technology appealing fields of exploration. Unfortunately, many people lose their sense of wonder for these topics as they grow older.

According to the National Center for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Elementary Education at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, a third of all children have lost their interest in science by the time they reach the fourth grade. It's even worse by eighth grade, when research shows a staggering 50 percent of students have lost interest in science or consider it irrelevant to their education or future plans. 

With STEM jobs being touted as critically important in the U.S. for the foreseeable future, that's bad news. But at the Michigan Science Center, programs targeted at audiences of all ages are changing the conversation in Metro Detroit.
"People tend to think that we focus on elementary school programs," says Charles Gibson, Director of Innovation and Outreach with the Detroit-based institution. "But we also look for interactive ways to engage middle school students, teens and young adults."
Visitors look at an exhibit from "1001 Inventions"
The center's current special exhibit, "1001 Inventions: Untold Stories from a Golden Age of Innovation," is a wonderful example of this hands-on approach. The exhibit educates visitors about an exciting period of technological innovation in the 7th through 17th centuries with a combination of films, video games, hands-on activities and live actors. Open through January 7, the award-winning exhibit is free with paid general admission.

The science center also sponsors an after school distance-learning program called Peer Learners Connect that's aimed at engaging older students to learn and teach STEM topics through media creation and broadcasting. This initiative is part of the science center's ECHO program, which aims to reach all 83 counties in Michigan with virtual STEM activities. 

"Young people are engaged through social media," Gibson says. "So we're bringing middle schoolers in and teaching them communication and broadcasting skills. We're helping them to share information about science in a really impactful and widespread way."

The students' videos are still in development and will soon be available on YouTube.

Middle school students are also the focus of The STEMinista Project, a program that engages 4th through 8th grade girls with STEM through hands-on lessons, hack-a-thons, camps, role model connections, and more. To date, more than 1,000 girls have registered as STEMinistas.

For those in the 21-and-up age bracket, the Michigan Science Center offers a monthly happy hour, After Dark, held the third Thursday of the month. Popular with young professionals, past themes include time travel, 80's pop culture, and Star Wars.

"One theme that's quite popular is Vintage Video Games," says MiSci innovation and discovery specialist Kevin Farmer. "We fill the Science Center with vintage games and explore the science behind them. Guests have fun with like-minded people learning, seeing, and doing cool things."

An After Dark event at the Michigan Science Center

Another initiative aimed at young adults is MiSci's new Science & Society Forum. Past topics include, "Should We Edit The Genome?" and "Should We Engineer The Mosquito?", both of which delved into the field synthetic biology. The series features panel discussions on current trends and gets attendees talking about why these issues matter to their daily lives.

"The series explores about how science affects our community and helps scientists understand how the greater public feels about their work," Farmer says.

The next Forum is scheduled for this coming February.

These initiatives have been a great success for the Science Center and community. And that's important, as science is going to be an integral part of the jobs of the future. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations were projected to grow by 8.9 percent from 2014 to 2024, compared to 6.4 percent growth for non-STEM occupations. The agency also found STEM degree holders can, on average, expect to earn at least 12 percent more than non-STEM degree holders.

"Detroit is really poised for this technology boom," Gibson says. "If we're going to continue on that trend and attract more companies like Amazon, we need young people to be prepared for those jobs. It's important for the growth of the city and the state."

And, with the contributions of staff members like Gibson and Farmer, the Michigan Science Center is well-positioned to become a hub for people to engage with scientific advancement.

"We really want the science center to be seen as that STEM resource for everyone, no matter what your age," Farmer says. 

This article is part of a series on the state of STEM education and workforce development in Detroit. It is underwritten by the Michigan Science Center. Read more articles in the series here

All photos courtesy of the Michigan Science Center. 
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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.