Museums can expand young minds outside classrooms

As schools and learning partners across Chicago and the nation work to help students with learning recovery, museums and other informal learning institutions are eager to support your efforts.

We often consider schools as the places where children go to be taught, understand new concepts and discover ways of thinking. And while, yes, this is certainly true, we should also remember that learning is in all corners, and so too can be teaching opportunities. Educating our young people cannot and should not rest solely on schools.

A community-driven approach allows us to think beyond schools and create learning ecosystems that use the strengths and assets of museums, schools, colleges, libraries and the industry leaders who call our communities home. As community partners, museums can provide content that aligns with learning standards and best teaching practices. We can create learning opportunities that are differentiated to individual students’ needs.

As a former teacher, I know how hard our schools work and the challenges they face. At the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), we see an opportunity and responsibility to partner with schools and communities to burst open the school doors and allow the wonder of our exhibits and programs to offer new possibilities for learning and growth. I am eager for MSI to assist schools, and hope to engage more deeply in supporting schools to innovate and expand their work.

The good news is, we know that when students are engaged and motivated they achieve higher levels of knowledge, make connections and experience deeper learning. This learning comes from environments with an atmosphere of youth-driven, exuberant discovery.

Science museums are excellent partners to create and foster such environments. In fact, research found that 95% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning does not occur in school. Another study of high school and university STEM majors found that the majority reported that they were inspired to study science from an experience they had outside of the classroom.

I arrived in Chicago a year ago and quickly learned how revered and connected many Chicagoans feel toward MSI. To continue to foster these connections, we want to be sure we grow and evolve along with our populations.

Institutions like ours must prioritize reaching out to school and community organizations to understand how we can best partner with them and make STEAM (STEM plus Art) learning opportunities more accessible. I encourage my team to get out of our building and find ways to embed ourselves in community centers, visit schools, attend events and truly listen to the needs and interests of our schools and communities.

Recently, MSI celebrated a year of successful collaboration and training with Phalanx Family Services, located on the South Side, to envision and create a maker space — a collaborative work space for making, learning, exploring and sharing — in their center that meets the community’s need for workforce development. The space at Phalanx is modeled after MSI’s Fab Lab, which is part of the Fab Foundation network and focuses on educational training. This is just one shining example of how partnerships can create meaningful opportunities for communities to access MSI’s resources.

As informal learning partners, we have a critical responsibility to support the efforts of our schools and communities, and to listen to better understand their priorities and needs.

Through intentional and meaningful partnerships, museums can create an ecosystem where these opportunities seamlessly weave into the fabric of our schools and community.

MSI is in a time of reimagining and connecting with schools and communities. Building better support for students, educators and communities is an opportunity for us to put our institutions to work in service of learning in action — schooling wherever youth may be.

It’s time we all think about the education of our young people differently, and how MSI and institutions like us play a key role in these efforts.

Jessica Chavez, Ed.D., is the Ruth D. and Ken M. Davee vice president of Education and Chief Learning and Community Partnership Officer at the Museum of Science and Industry.

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