Research News

School of Education researchers examining ways to bolster out-of-school science activities

April 06, 2018

A team of faculty members and graduate students with the School of Education is taking part in this weekend’s Science Expeditions event, which is UW-Madison’s 15th annual scientific open house.

But unlike many of their counterparts from across campus, those from the School of Education will not only be delivering interesting and interactive learning activities — they’ll also be speaking with families about their everyday experiences and the science underlying them in an effort to bolster and improve out-of-school science ventures.

“We are really excited,” says Leema Berland, an associate professor with the School of Education’s No. 1-ranked Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “We absolutely love feeling curious with people about the science of their everyday experiences, and this is our first opportunity to do this as part of our research project, out in the community.”

Curiosity Practice poster
Noah Weeth Feinstein and Rosemary Russ of the
Department of Curriculum and Instruction pose for a photo
during the Grand Challenges Engage Poster Fair event in
August at the Education Building. These two, plus Leema
Berland, received Engage grant funding for their "Curiosity
Practice" proposal.
This past fall, Berland and Department of Curriculum and Instruction colleagues Rosemary Russ and Noah Weeth Feinstein formed a team that participated in the School of Education’s Grand Challenges initiative. This was an effort to bring together faculty, staff and community members to start thinking about innovative ways in which to address critical problems that span education, health and the arts.

Fourteen teams representing more than 50 people ultimately submitted proposals for the inaugural Grand Challenges Engage initiative. And in September, eight of these projects were selected to receive a combined $200,000 to carry out the Wisconsin Idea on behalf of the School of Education.

Berland, Russ and Weeth Feinstein formed a winning team for a project titled, “Curiosity Practice: A powerful new lever for science engagement across Wisconsin.”  By cultivating a sense of curiosity in families, this project is designed to change how Wisconsinites engage in out-of-school science experiences and in public discussions about socio-scientific issues. As part of this project, this team will study the nature and development of curiosity in diverse Wisconsin communities.

“Our Challenge Grant is about boosting participation in, and enjoyment of, out-of-school science activities by encouraging people to stay curious instead of looking for right answers,” says Berland. “Research tells us that both kids and adults often assume that science is about finding the right answer and that this can reduce enjoyment and participation. Our goal is to develop a library-based program that helps parents and kids shift away from answers towards curiosity and wonder.”

Saturday, the “Curiosity Practice” team will be hosting two “Exploration Stations” as part of the university’s Science Expeditions event.

In one station, half of the team will be working with visitors to explore electricity with batteries, bulbs, wires and a range of random materials at a table set up on the main exhibition floor in the Discovery Building. Visitors will be challenged to make the bulbs light up — in as many creative ways as they can with as many materials as they can.

“Our questions and supports will vary so that visitors of all ages will be able to engage in this activity,” says Berland. “We will give our youngest visitors extra tools to help set up the circuit and to manage all the different pieces and we will ask our oldest visitors questions like, ‘Can you make it brighter or dimmer?’ and ‘Why does that circuit work and this one doesn’t?’ ”

The “Curiosity Practice” team will use the electricity station as an opportunity to inform visitors of the group’s second station — which will be off of the main path in a quieter space. This is so the group can have longer conversations with the children and adults about the science underlying their everyday experiences.

“For example, we plan on asking visitors about the source of wind and allergies, as well as about pufferfish,” says Berland. “The purpose of this station is to have fun discussions in which we are puzzling through interesting questions together with the visitors. The goal of these discussions is not necessarily to land on a particular answer but to spark curiosity and a desire to think more about the questions. In our experience, participants in these sorts of discussions leave with many new thoughts and questions and are compelled to continue thinking together.”

All of the “Exploration Stations” will be set up in the Discovery Building on campus from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“Our stations in the Science Expeditions event are a step toward helping our project reach its goals,” says Berland. “This will give us an opportunity to talk to groups of families about their everyday experiences and the science underlying them — and to learn from the families about what makes them curious and how we can help sustain that curiosity.  We will use lessons learned from this experience in the design of our library program.”

Curiosity Practice poster