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Learning Without Schooling--Science Education Outside the Classroom

Most school-age children spend an important part of their day at school. But children spend many more of their waking hours outside the classroom, and that time offers children many learning opportunities. For a few science educators, that time provides a career opportunity as well.

Next Wave profiles two scientists who made the transition from researcher to science educator, but who do most of their work outside the traditional classroom. Their stories illustrate the risks and rewards of operating outside the usual institutional boundaries.

No “Soul” in My Job

Jane Snell Copes lives and works in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) region of Minnesota, teaching science to elementary school children as a contractor to the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. Copes also gives science presentations for children at other Minnesota institutions, community centers, and birthday parties and organizes science classes for home-schooled children in the region.

Copes (pictured right) says the sessions she presents at the Science Museum of Minnesota supplement the normal classes at the area's elementary and middle schools. The children receive novel, fun educational experiences from a nearby institution, presented by an experienced and enthusiastic scientist. This arrangement enriches the children's education, at a fraction of the cost to the schools.

And because Copes's presentations are considered supplemental or enrichment programs, she does not need to meet normal teacher-certification requirements. She has also started offering classes for adults who, she says, "missed out on science," or who just want to be able to understand more about the world around them.

Copes earned her doctorate in inorganic chemistry from Syracuse University and then held faculty positions at colleges and universities in upstate New York, Alabama, and Minnesota. Later, Copes joined 3M in St. Paul, where her research in materials science led to two U.S. patents.

By most measures, Copes had a successful career, but something was missing, she says. In graduate school, "I had some teachers who were so narrowly trained; I just didn't want to do that." Later, during her work at 3M, Copes came to the conclusion that "there wasn't any 'soul' in my job," adding, "making a patentable invention just didn't get me going in the morning."

She didn't have to go far to find an outlet for her yearning. The company had an outreach program called the 3M Visiting Wizards, in which 3M scientists took part in classroom and after-school math and science programs for children. Being a Visiting Wizard, says Copes, "was often the best part of my job."

“Still Eat Something at the End”

Today, Copes's presentations contain ideas transplanted from her work at 3M, including what she calls a pretzel-breaking machine. The device holds an ordinary supermarket pretzel and submits it to increasing structural stress caused by the cumulative weight of pennies dropped into the machine. Copes drops as many as 150 pennies into the device, before the weight of the pennies breaks the pretzel. The experience, she says, shows "how you can measure how strong something is, in a repeatable, quantitative way, and still eat something at the end."

In recent years, Copes has run into a series of bad breaks. She had been a full-time staff member of the Science Museum of Minnesota but was laid off 3 years ago. (The museum soon brought her back as an independent contractor through her business called Science Outside the Box.) Later, Copes was diagnosed with leukemia, and the illness required her to devote all her energies to convalescing for a year. Following a bone-marrow transplant, she has recovered enough to go back to teaching. But the experience taught Copes to be cautious about the future. "In the cancer world," she says, "it's difficult to look too far ahead."

Copes advises graduate students and postdocs considering a career in science education to "find a mentor, or someone who is teaching and who is enthusiastic about it." She also encourages early-career scientists to volunteer in the local school system or science museum--another way of finding out if you like this kind of work. Even if you intend to stick with a more traditional science career, Copes says, this kind of work can be rewarding: "Volunteer activity can satisfy that need of people constrained by traditional science."

Young scientists, says Copes, need to have an open mind about their futures. The long, intensive training that young scientists encounter can narrow rather than broaden their outlooks. But scientists should think about their educations as opportunities to gain a valuable set of tools applicable in a variety of endeavors. Learning a specialty is just a part of the experience. "It's hard to believe [after] you spent so much time to get that 'union card' that you would do anything else," says Copes, but "think about it as [a] springboard to do other things." "I didn't ‘used to be a chemist,’ ” Copes adds. "I am a scientist, and I have fun with science every day."

"A Physics Major by Age 4"

Another research scientist who became a nontraditional science educator is Ken Fink, who has a company called Wondergy. Wondergy offers fun and entertaining science programs to elementary and middle-school children and adults while combining Ken's three passions--science, entertainment, and education.

Fink (pictured left) says he was "a physics major by age 4," although he didn't earn his bachelor's degree in physics--from Columbia University--until he was quite a bit older, in 1999. In high school, Fink attended Columbia’s Science Honors Program, and as an undergraduate, he was a founding member of Columbia’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students. Fink did research at the KEK High Energy Accelerator in Tsukuba, Japan, and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

But for Fink, research by itself was not fulfilling, so he used his personal time to pursue his other interests. He took music classes at Columbia and--being just a subway ride from New York's Broadway theatres and TV network studios--got the show-business bug. Despite his musical talent (he sings bass-baritone), his best employment prospects were backstage. After leaving Columbia, Fink worked for a theater and TV lighting company in New York as a field-service technician.

Although working on major TV productions was exciting, it was never Fink’s career goal; he wanted to share what he’d learned along the way. Fink remembers a childhood visit to Disney World's Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida, where he was "surrounded by thousands of people, all who had spent considerable time and money to stand in a temple to science. It confirmed that science was worth caring about." Fink cared about science, and he wanted to share his passion. In society, he says, "there's a dichotomy between work and play. I thought science was play." So in 2002, he founded Wondergy.

Maximum Educational Value

At Wondergy programs, children play. Children make ice cream in 30 seconds using liquid nitrogen. They make speakers to learn the principles of audio waves, and they become part of animated laser light shows while learning about the workings of lasers themselves. Wondergy gives programs at community festivals, birthday parties, school assemblies, and Boy and Girl Scout groups, mainly in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware (Wondergy is now based in Philadelphia). And they take the show on the road. In May and June 2005, Wondergy presented 40 shows in Hyderabad, in southern India, and four other cities in the region.

Ken Fink uses liquid nitrogen to make a cool fog on a hot day.

It's not all fun and games. Fink designs Wondergy performances for maximum educational value, focusing on only a few themes in each performance. If you use too many unrelated themes, he says, "you end up with a magic show." Although they use a series of more-or-less standard program modules, Wondergy presenters avoid using scripts and tailor the programs for each audience. Fink says that the programs are aligned with the National Science Education Standards, as well as state guidelines.

Fink estimates that in the past 4 years he has taught some 300,000 people. But the real satisfaction comes from watching young minds connect to the idea that science is all around them, not just in school. Fink recalled an incident from a recent program in Camden, New Jersey, where one of the children in the audience said, "This doesn't look like science. I thought we were doing science." Fink notes, "What does science look like? You don't need beakers, a lab coat, or funny glasses to do science. Anything you can touch can be science."

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .

Alan Kotok, managing editor of, never let school get in the way of his education.

Photo credits: Larry Copes, Jacques-Jean Tiziou/ (courtesy Wondergy Inc.)

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