Thursday, March 18, 2010

Making Science Fun

This week, I'm talking with Suzanne Barbati, director of the Roger and Gloria Jones Children's Center for Science and Technology in downtown Youngstown.  The Center goes by the name "Oh Wow," which Suzanne explains is meant to reflect the way children and their families will respond to the new exhibits and programs they plan to offer.

Oh Wow is a new vision for the children's museum, which operated for several years as a more general site.  The new version reflects the efforts of a number of local leaders to redefine the community around science and technology, all built on the belief that the Valley's economy can be rebuilt by emphasizing these areas.  It also reflects a national anxiety about how well we are preparing children in the "STEM" fields, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. 

I love the idea of a science and technology-oriented children's museum.  My favorite museum as a child was the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  You could walk through a super-size replica of a human heart, look at fetuses of various stages in development, and learn about how the telephone system worked by using a phone system that let you have "conversations" with Disney characters. 

Much as I loved that, I grew up to be an English professor, and as a humanist, I'm naturally skeptical of the claim that science and technology are the key to all future success.  Yes, we need to improve the quality of education in these fields, just as we do in reading and social studies, and yes, there are real and troublesome achievement gaps in STEM training, with relatively few African-Americans or Hispanics excelling in these fields. On the other hand, as studies by the Sloan Foundation and the Rand Corporation suggest, the much-touted shortage in these fields may be an illusion

I'm not saying that we shouldn't support Oh Wow (though the name isn't working for me).  It will make an important contribution to our community's kids.  And speaking of contributions, fundraising is one of the Center's primary concerns these days.  You can help by visiting their "donor blog." 

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