Local museum is expanding offerings, minds of children

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Discovery Space, the children’s science museum located on Foster Avenue, stands out among the storefronts in downtown State College. Its colorful signage and painted walls -- in addition to the giant blue Adirondack chair that sits outside -- send a playful and warm invitation. Its mission also stands out: to provide engaging science experiences to children that spark creativity, curiosity and imagination. Michele Crowl, Discovery Space’s director of education and Penn State College of Education science education doctorate student, plays an active role in helping the museum meet this mission.

Michele Crowl

Michele Crowl sits among some of the exhibits at Discovery Space.

Image: Kevin Sliman

Crowl has been a part of Discovery Space since March 2011, and helped open the museum later that year. Since then, she has had a hand in the educational elements of the exhibits as well as the planning and facilitating of events, weekly programs for children and families and summer camps.

Crowl said one of her main goals is to provide exciting science experiences for the community.

“We want to get children interested in science or, at least, not be afraid of science,” said Crowl. “And it’s happening here. We’re seeing children identify with science in a more positive way. For example, the child who is not thinking about science, but who finds himself interested in things like the flight simulator or the Bernoulli blower.”

The Light Table at Discovery Space

The light table at Discovery Space uses signs to help guide children as they learn.

Image: Kevin Sliman

The museum is a fun and active space with exhibits that children can explore at their own pace.

“We’re not telling children to use an exhibit in a specific way, although we’ve designed it in a way that there is an intended use,” said Crowl. “But we realize that some may not do it that way, and we’re OK with that. I think that lack of guidelines may encourage children to explore further.”

But Discovery Space is not devoid of all instruction. Throughout the museum, there are aids for parents and children.

“We have signage to help parents understand the amazing things that are happening here,” said Crowl, “including vocabulary that they might try using with their child and text to help explain the science behind the exhibit.”

Music Tubes

A sign explains the science behind the music tubes, an exhibit at Discovery Space.

Image: Kevin Sliman

Crowl said that the music tubes, for example, are fun for children to play with, but the signs empower parents to talk with their children about the science behind the exhibit.

“Maybe a child who looks like he’s just playing is really working on spatial reasoning or thinking about how to repeat a pattern that his parent just played on the music tubes,” said Crowl. “Along with getting children interested in science, we see them, over time, explore the exhibits in a more scientific way.”

Discovery Space also offers children guidance through pictures.

Snap Circuits

The snap circuit table is a popular exhibit at Discovery Space.

Image: Kevin Sliman

“By using pictures, we’ve seen 3-year-olds build circuits,” said Crowl. “They might not know it is called a circuit, but they’re able to be successful and see the parts that matter to make it work.”

Children can explore the museum as an individual learner or in groups, according to Crowl.

“We see children who are most interested in engaging with exhibits by themselves, which is great,” said Crowl. “Then we see children who come in with a sibling or with a parent, and they all learn together. There is an important social aspect to the way that people are learning here.”

Crowl said that the staff at Discovery Space could not do all of the work that they do without their partnership with Penn State.

Earthquake

The seismograph exhibit challenges children to build a structure that can with stand the force of an earthquake.

Image: Kevin Sliman

“We have partnerships with many colleges across the University,” said Crowl. “Students help work on the exhibit floor and also assist with educational programs and marketing efforts.”

One partnership brings College of Education students together with students in the College of Engineering to design exhibits for Discovery Space.

“A lot of our mechanical engineering students do not have experience explaining engineering and science topics to children,” said Crowl. “Our education students are thinking about that, so they can work together to finish an exhibit.”

Crowl added that the College of Education students who are involved are getting an amazing experience.

“The undergraduate students are in school to be teachers,” said Crowl. “They might design something that they can use in their classroom someday.”

Another partnership is with Teaching Elementary Science Leadership Academy (TESLA), which is under the direction of Carla Zembal-Saul, head of the curriculum and instruction department in the College of Education, and Mark Merritt, a science education doctorate student and instructor in the College.

Fossils

Children can dig for fossils while learning about paleontology at Discovery Space.

Image: Kevin Sliman

TESLA’s goal is to cultivate a multigenerational community of pre-service teachers who are committed to improving the teaching of science among young children.

According to Zembal-Saul, TESLA helps educators to differentiate themselves from generalist educators as they enter their profession and build a lasting community of friends and colleagues.

“The partnership between Discovery Space and TESLA is an excellent example of a collaborative initiative that benefits teacher education majors, as well as the local community,” said Zembal-Saul. “Discovery Space provides a rich setting for TESLA students to engage with children and families around science learning opportunities in an informal setting. In turn, TESLA students support educational programs associated with the museum.”

TESLA has been active in helping the museum, including improving exhibit engagement as well as helping coordinate educational programming for large groups.

“TESLA is helping us design programs for field trips that match state standards that teachers are using,” said Crowl. “It works to extend what students are learning in the classroom.”

According to Crowl, Discovery Space is growing and might outgrow its current home soon.

“It’s been really amazing to see the number of programs, educational offerings, and summer camps increase,” said Crowl. “When we started, we offered two weeks of summer camps. This summer we have planned for nearly 10 weeks of camps.”

“Watching this museum grow and transform has been so fun,” said Crowl. “We regularly hear positive feedback from community members and, with their support, we’re excited for what the future holds.”

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Last Updated February 19, 2014