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Michele Cahill responds to probing questions about why stronger math and science education is crucial for all American students. MORE

 

Connecting to Your Work

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Explainer Program, New York Hall of Science: Engaging Young People in Science Education and Stimulating Interest in STEM Careers

The Explainer program offers the informal science field a window into what success can look like on many levels, particularly in terms of how “science rich” institutions can:

  • Motivate student interest in STEM
  • Offer career development opportunities to young people in the community
  • Create a pipeline for students leading from high school to advanced STEM careers, particularly among populations that are historically underrepresented in these fields
  • Increase access to high quality science and math content in out-of-school time particularly through project-based, real-world activities
  • Engage community organizations as partners to improve STEM learning

Program at-a-Glance:

The Explainer program is a science education program of the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI). It offers high school and college students meaningful, career-building employment and volunteer opportunities in a STEM-related field while staffing the museum with knowledgeable young educators who enhance the visitor experience.

Easily identified by their red aprons, Explainers are located throughout the science center and are tasked with interpreting exhibits, conducting demonstrations, welcoming school groups, and assisting with various education programs and events. With three levels of involvement, all participants undergo extensive training in science, education, and public speaking and are assessed periodically to help them improve their skills.

The program is part of NYSCI’s “Science Career Ladder” model (for more information, see below), which provides local youth with a graduated system of opportunities that feed into one another, allowing younger students to aspire to the next phase of involvement and offering increasing levels of both responsibility and compensation.

Explainers participate year round, working between 7 and 20 hours per week; most stay with the program for about 2 years. There are approximately 150 Explainers in the program at any given time, and more than 2,200 students have participated since the inception of the program in 1986. Many go to college or on to full-time careers elsewhere, and some get promoted into higher positions at NYSCI. According to a retrospective impact study of Explainer alumni conducted in 2009 by the Institute for Learning Innovation, “Nearly all former program participants go on to attain advanced education (undergraduate degree or higher) at a far higher rate than the general population of New York City, with a particularly stark contrast among those identified as Spanish/Hispanic/Latino, where program alumni attain advanced education at a rate five times higher than those in the general population.”

NYSCI actively recruits Explainers from local high schools, colleges, and community organizations in the New York City borough of Queens—the most diverse county in the United States. About 90 percent of Explainers are multilingual, speaking 29 different languages, from Urdu to Haitian Creole.

The program was begun by physicist, science museum director, and science educator Alan Friedman, who oversaw NYSCI’s renovation and reopening in the 1980s. Friedman had the idea to engage a student workforce, and the Explainers format that evolved over time is now an integral part of NYSCI’s structure.

Mobilizing for Effective Math and Science Education:

 

Sisters Nathali and Valeria Aucapina entered NYSCI’s Science Career Ladder as “Science Club” members during middle school. Their enthusiasm and commitment helped them to rise quickly to the position of club captains, where they coached younger students in club activities. They then progressed to the Explainer program, first as volunteers, then as interns, and now as paid employees who work with NYSCI staff to create exhibits on climate change and flight. Nathali graduated from Aviation High School in June 2010 and is starting college in the fall, and Valeria is entering her senior year of high school this fall. While they have been a part of the NYSCI family for nearly 10 years, their younger brother Christopher, age 9, is just getting started in NYSCI’s after-school program.

 

“Before I came to the science club, I never thought about college or careers," says Nathali. "Now I am looking forward to college and thinking about becoming an engineer."

"The Science Career Ladder is such an important asset for young people in NYC. I've seen the change in students after they become Explainers,” said NYC schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein. “They mature, gain confidence, and develop aptitudes for science. Many Explainers have gone on to become NYC teachers, and their years of preparation at NYSCI pay immediate dividends because they are confident and capable classroom leaders."

“The Explainer program is an example of how informal science institutions can be partners with K-12 formal education,” said Jennifer Correa, senior manager of the Explainer program. “Science in general is a topic that many students find intimidating in the classroom, but when an Explainer is interacting with visitors, their excitement is evident. Kids respond and educators pick up on what works.”

With hundreds of teachers coming through the museum with their classes each year, NYSCI’s Explainer program is actively addressing the need for improved teaching and demonstrating the motivating power of real-world involvement in science for young people. Placing young people in the role of science facilitators demonstrates their abilities to adults and peers, exemplifying ideal teaching models, and reminding students of their own capabilities.

“The Explainer program has been a dynamic force in shaping lives and affecting the course of this institution,” says Margaret Honey, NYSCI’s president and CEO. “The implications are far reaching, with positive impacts on the Explainers, the museum, the public, and the field of science education. Young people get powerful career-building experiences, visitors have an enhanced experience, and a diverse student base becomes engaged with science.”

"Before I came to the science club, I never thought about college or careers. Now I am looking forward to college and thinking about becoming an engineer."

Program Impact:

The Institute for Learning Innovation survey of former Explainers found that more than 67 percent were employed within the STEM fields, many as educators or at museums. In fact it cited “a greater impact of the program on influencing career directions than on academic achievement, with more alumni reporting it influenced their decisions in some way. Program alumni largely choose careers and college majors in the sciences and in education/teaching. A large number of participants entered with a strong interest in pursuing one of these paths, although for some, the program helps reveal new directions. The impact of the program seemed to be less in directing individuals to a particular career, and more as a test-ground for their choices. They could gain assuredness in their career choices through experiences that highlighted existing and new interests, passions, aptitudes, and potential.”

The program has become a model for the field and is currently being disseminated around the world through organizations including Thinktank, in Birmingham, England; Yale Peabody Museum, in New Haven, Connecticut; and the National Council of Science Museums, with 27 affiliated science centers and museums throughout India.

Additional Information: NYSCI’s “Science Career Ladder”

NYSCI’s “Science Career Ladder” model provides local youth with a graduated system of opportunities that feed into one another, allowing younger students to aspire to the next phase of involvement and offering increasing levels of both responsibility and compensation. The ladder begins with “Science Club Member” and rises to “Program Explainers”.

  1. 1. Science Club Member

Elementary and middle school students come to the museum once a week as part of the After-School Science Club. They participate in hands-on science activities, get exposure to college Explainers, and become familiar with the museum environment. They see the Explainers in action and staff encourages them to consider applying at the end of their 8th grade year.

  1. 2. Explainer Volunteers

High school students with an interest in working with the public can apply to be Explainer Volunteers. They learn how to engage visitors in birthday parties, sleepovers, craft projects, early childhood learning, and special events.

  1. 3. Explainer Interns

Paid positions as Explainer Interns are available to those students who have successfully completed their volunteer training and have received a positive assessment from supervisors.

They continue with the same responsibilities as Explainer Volunteers but can also handle cash transactions. Interns who demonstrate leadership skills can fill the supervisory role of “floor captain.” This visitor service experience prepares Interns for Explainer roles.

  1. 4. Explainers

Explainers interpret exhibits, conduct demonstrations, welcome school groups, and assist at various education programs and events including After-School Science Clubs. They undergo extensive training in science, education, and public speaking and are identified by their red aprons. Explainers are assessed periodically and encouraged to learn new exhibits and demonstrations throughout their work experience. Explainers are hired for a 150-hour probation period, and with successful assessments may continue employment throughout their education.

High school Explainers work one weekend day each week and weekdays during the summer. College Explainers must have a high school diploma and be enrolled in an accredited college or university. College Explainers work 7-20 hours per week on the exhibit floor and with special events and after-school programs.

Explainers who demonstrate strong leadership skills are invited to become Explainer Floor Captains. They are responsible for supervising their peers and, with the assistance of Leadership staff, managing challenges that arise during the day.

  1. 5. Program Explainers

After completing a minimum of 300 hours and demonstrating overall mastery of the exhibits and demonstrations, Explainers are invited to apply for the Program Explainer position. Program Explainers oversee the exhibit floor, assist Leadership staff, and implement special projects.

Science Career Ladder from Carol Lynn Nordin on Vimeo.

The Explainer Program offers the informal science field a window into what success can look like on many levels, particularly in terms of how ”science rich” institutions can:

  • Motivate student interest in STEM
  • Offer career development opportunities to young people in the community
  • Create a pipeline for students leading from high school to advanced STEM careers, particularly among populations that are historically underrepresented in these fields 
  • Engage community organizations as partners to improve STEM learning