This youngster seems eager to explore his new surroundings.

Pittsburgh Public Schools

A new way to engage kids? Science museum teams with local school district to educate preschoolers

The 20 3- and 4-year-olds who came to the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last week weren’t simply on a field trip. Instead, they were the first participants in a yearround preschool program run in conjunction with the Pittsburgh public schools.

Carnegie's decision to host a public preschool classroom reflects a growing interest by museums to extend their reach to a cohort of previously underserved prekindergarten children. “We had the space available, and it seemed like a natural next step in our partnership,” says Jason Brown, the museum’s senior director of science and education. A similar partnership has been operating between the Science Center of Iowa and Des Moines Public Schools for several years. 

Some of the children in the class are part of Head Start, a U.S. government–funded program that annually provides educational, health, and social services to nearly 1 million young children from low-income families and those with disabilities. Its classrooms and those for other preschool programs are typically located in schools, community centers, and religious buildings.

But those early childhood education providers often have little expertise in science. Hosting prekindergarten classrooms in science museums could be a model for improving early science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education for all young children, says Ellen Frede of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Before hosting the children, Carnegie retrofitted space to meet the national standards for Head Start classrooms, creating a designated outdoor play area and a space for food preparation, Brown says. Educators from the museum and the Pittsburgh schools also met monthly from January to August to develop two STEM-focused units that would take advantage of existing exhibits and other museum resources. The renovations and professional development were funded with a $200,000 grant from the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments.

Frede calls the collaboration a “brilliant” way to engage children at a deeper level, which research has shown can yield lasting academic benefits. She also applauds the steps taken to prepare teachers for the new classroom. “Teachers need more robust curriculum models to follow, more resources to execute the activities in those curricula, and better training to help them become comfortable teaching STEM in their classes,” she says.

Museums thinking about hosting an early childhood classroom should also assess whether their exhibits are appropriate for preschool children, Frede says. If not, a 3-year-old may resort to “a lot of trial and error, like button pushing and lever pulling,” interactions that makes it harder for them to engage with the materials.

Nearly all museums do some form of outreach with local school districts, says Todd Happer of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. A few also house their own private preschool classrooms, such as the Orlando Science Center in Florida and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Happer speculates that the cost of retrofitting space to meet Head Start standards may be the biggest roadblock. “Hopefully, the partnership in Pittsburgh will get the ball rolling,” he adds.

Brown believes the early childhood classroom partnerships offer a “tremendous opportunity” to learn about what works with young children. “One facet of our core mission is supporting formal education in creating a next generation of scientists, technologists, and critical thinkers,” he says. “It’s hard to think of a better way to do that.”

*Correction, 31 August, 1 p.m.: This story has been updated to make clear that the classroom at the Carnegie Science Center is not the first early learning classroom at a U.S. science center.