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Redefining "Museum": A Fireside Chat with Dr. Carol Tang of the Children's Creativity Museum

Posted by Sara Goodman on Mar 18, 2016
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"There's not one way to do science. Each of us have our own strength, our own approaches. We could get to the same answer, or we could actually come up with different answers, and maybe that's what's exciting. ... Museums need to be that place where society can come together and create things together."

Dr. Carol Tang, executive director of the Children's Creativity Museum of San Francisco, joined KnowAtom CEO Francis Vigeant via webinar to talk about her own journey from exploring museums as a child to directing one; the overlap between classroom and museum education; and the advantages and challenges of doing "stealth education." What follows is a transcript of their conversation on Jan. 29, 2016.

In this interview, you'll read about:

  • Her childhood in Buffalo and how visits to museums shaped her love of science and her eventual career path
  • The idea of co-creating content in classrooms and museums versus delivering it 
  • Higher order thinking
  • How the museum environment is uniquely suited for explorative thinking and play
  • How the Next Generation Science Standards complement museum education
  • Additional resources for teachers seeking to recreate museum activities in their classrooms


Francis Vigeant: Thank you for joining us for this look at the past STEM innovation. I'm Francis Vigeant, CEO here at KnowAtom. At KnowAtom we're really interested not only in curriculum and classroom development but also the stuff of innovation, specifically the purpose of STEM, higher order thinking and the relationship between scientific knowledge and engineered solutions to everyday issues. I'm pleased to have with us today our special guest, Dr. Carol Tang, who is a paleontologist and the executive director of the Children's Creativity Museum in San Francisco.

Carol has been an active and celebrated member of the American Association of University Women. She has literally written the book on the Jurassic period for Encyclopedia Britannica. She has helped design exhibits for the California Academy of Scientists and even deployed science programs in Golden Gate Park to help the broader community understand the impact of climate change on California.

Among her many accolades, Carol was named one of California's top leading women in STEM by the California STEM Learning Network. We're honored to have her here with us to discuss her path to innovation. Carol, thanks for joining us.

Dr. Carol Tang: Thank you so much.

Vigeant: I would love to know first and foremost a little bit about your background in terms of how you have come from being a paleontologist and a scientist to a director of the Children's Creativity Museum, in terms of really what nudged your curiosity into STEM and helped set you on this path.

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Dr. Tang: Paleontology, I think for good reason, is one of the most popular science topics. I think there's just a natural curiosity about fossils and old things and deep time and what was the Earth like before, and we see that in young kids as well, so I think that there's a lot of paleontologists like me who ended up doing a lot of public education, because even at Thanksgiving dinner or at dinner parties, but also in classrooms around the country, paleontologist scientists are going and talking about their work. Even when I first started in graduate in school, I was going to elementary schools and talking to teachers about what it means to be a paleontologist, the lessons that we can apply to our world today but also the context of science and wanting to become a scientist.

If you see here, I've actually worked for NASA astrobiology, looking for how we would go about thinking about life on other planet. The way to do it as a paleontologist is to look here on Earth. I think my science has always been a very accessible touchpoint with the general public, and I love talking about the field in my work with the general public. I don't think it was a really tough switch to go into the museum world.

I think that after having been on university professor for several years, I realized that in order to really inspire a larger number of people, we need to start at a younger age, and your audience certainly knows that. It really is important when kids are young, and they are influenced by so many different factors, that we provide a good role model and good inspiration for STEM.

I left the university, a tenure track position to start working at a Natural History Museum in San Francisco, as you said, and since then, a couple other museum settings and positions, but it always comes back to how much I gain as a scientist, my love of science and using that as inspiration to how do we then help the next generation find that same passion in themselves.

For example, in this project with the Clinton Global Initiative was a project where we look at how to make creative writing and science become this natural pairing. That is a really nice segue to my position. Now it's a Children’s Creativity Museum, because, for me, there's nothing different between being a creative artist, performer or writer and a creative scientist, creative engineer or even a creative teacher.

There are so many underlying mindsets and practices and attitudes. The way that you think about problems and you think about people that are really common to not just different group has but just the people in general and it's often kids. I guess my path from really loving the science to realizing that the science is a great way to inspire kids and to really change the world and tackle those problems of society and how to improve our world and our society and that's where I see the link with museum being a place where we can really influence large number of kids and teachers.

Vigeant: As you're thinking to your own elementary or middle school days, where did this passion for questioning, curiosity and inspiring others to engage in curiosity and questioning? Was there a particular experience or event that you can think of that got that started, or perhaps a teacher?

Dr. Tang: I had really great teachers who gave me projects and spent time with me outside of the classroom in elementary, middle school, and high school. Maybe the reason I am at the museum now is when I think back to my childhood, and what my parents say, probably some of the greatest influences were museum and out-of-school time experiences, and because I grew up in Buffalo, New York.

I went to elementary school for five years in Buffalo, through the blizzard, and what my parents and I remember is, we spent our weekends going to the aquarium, the Natural History Museum, the Art Museum. That was just a part of my life. So I think that's why I'm so committed to museums as a partner for what happens in school.

I think it's important for kids to see that learning is everywhere, that's not confined to the classroom. Everything you see on TV, or when you go into a museum, or do an after-school program or a hike with your parents, you can be inspired and learn, where you engage your senses and you think about the big picture, the big questions, the things that you're interested and tap into your own interest.

I'd have to say that I've been very really lucky to have good teachers, but it's probably the out-of-school museum experiences that really opened up the world to me and made me see the world as a learning laboratory everywhere I go.

Vigeant: It's interesting that the out of school time extension of the classroom and those experiences kicked off your curiosity in, perhaps, an exposure to a world that wasn't the part of your everyday experience and a first form to engage in something science- or engineering-related and sparked curiosity.

Did you always know you wanted to be a geologist, or were there a couple of steps before that? When did you make that decision? How did you come about it?

Dr. Tang: The interesting thing is really I surprised my family, I surprised myself, when I became a geologist. My family is an immigrant family and we valued science, but for me, everybody always thought I was going to become a TV journalist because I'm just a talkative Asian girl, and Asian women role models in America, especially when I was growing up in the '80s, were really the anchors and journalists.

So everyone thought that's what I was going to do, and I thought I was going to do that. I was the editor of my high school newspaper. I was the editor of my college literary magazine. I even won the Asian American Journalist Association Award in college. I really thought that's what I was going to do because I didn't have any other expectations or role models.

But I love science. I talked to myself into thinking I was going to be a science journalist. I majored in paleontology as an undergrad but I still thought I was going to be a journalist. I even went to graduate school and I still kept deluding myself and my family that I was going to be a journalist. What really changed my mind was when I got to graduate school, I started doing research and started teaching as a teaching assistant. It clicked for me and I finally realized, I'm actually a scientist. Why am I denying this part of me and pretending I'm going to do something else? I still love journalism. I love communication, but my heart is in the science. There's a reason why I stuck to it and why I went to graduate school in science, not in journalism.

I think it's been a long path and that I've always been interested, but I don't think I ever thought of myself as a scientist or felt that was something that I could do and or would want to do. I think that it's that so many people have encouraged me along the way. If I had given up my study, then by the time I realized I want to be a scientist, I couldn't have done it, so if I hadn't taken calculus in high school, if I hadn't taken those classes in chemistry and sweated through my exams, I would have closed the door to finally finding my true identity. I'm very thankful along the way, but I'm just such a big believer that it does take all these other factors that allow you to finally find your passion and then really pursue what's you're interested in.

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Vigeant: It's interesting how, in so many ways, after-school programs or out of school time programs play such an important role in extending that school experience, and you're bringing up an entirely different one, but also important: this idea of mentoring and inspiring the next generation as well with your story.

I know that you've been involved with FabFems as a role model and the importance of having role models. How do you see that playing especially as a woman who is a scientist? Is that something that we can do more of in some way and is important? Is it particularly important, do you think, for encouraging girls to become scientists?

Dr. Tang: I think that the studies have been showing that girls actually are taking the same amount of science prep classes and, in fact, having better grades than boys do in high school, especially in elementary school and so on. For some reason, they're not identifying themselves as scientists. They don't go into science. So I do think that seeing a role model and saying that there's not one mold of being a scientist. This is true for boys as well and so on, but this idea of really broadening the concept of what it means to be a scientist or how you need science in your life. You don't even need to be a scientist to still need to be science-literate in terms of your medical decisions, where you buy your house, whether you compost or buy plastic. All these things are science decisions.

I do think trying to broaden the identity of “what is a scientist, what is science and who can be the scientist” is really important. We've also been finding out that for a lot of girls and folks that are underrepresented in the sciences from any demographic is that they need to see that scientist can lead lives that are like theirs, so that if you have a hobby, you can still be a scientist and still have a hobby. You can still listen to hip-hop and still be a scientist. This idea of broadening does mean those of us who are role models need to be out there with our personal lives as well as our scientific and our intellectual lives. What we're seeing is that people who don't go into science, it’s not necessarily that they don't have the skills or even the interest, but there's again, this intangible about not seeing yourself fit into that mold. So we need to break the mold, I guess, and all of us together can break that mold.

Vigeant: What do you think, in terms of K-12 educators, the folks in the classroom, that they can do specifically to help break that mold?

Dr. Tang: I think that some really great projects that I remember from my childhood maybe seem so simple to the teachers that you know, but I don't know if they realized how effective they are so something has stick on my mind is in junior high school. We had a very classic example of a project where you go and collect 30 wildflowers and identify them. I was not a big nature person, I was a museum person but never spent a lot of time out in nature, because of my family really kept me protected in indoors, especially in Buffalo. But the idea, like, going out finding wildflowers, I had to craft the whole project like, “where would I go, how will I collect them? How would I preserve them? How would I identify them?”  

That project sticks with me, and the reason that I mentioned that in the response to your answer is, I think that teachers can allow kids to approach projects in their own ways and that helps broaden this idea that there's not one way to do science. Each of us have our own strength, our own approaches. We could get to the same answer or we could actually come up with different answers and maybe that's what's exciting.

I think that teachers, even in setting up projects that are open-ended and that allow for different perspectives and approaches or learning styles and experiences to be valid in completing a project, I think those are really successful ways to reinforce the idea that every child has good thinking, can craft a good plan, can come up with ways to investigate questions and come up with right answers. That, I think, is something that maybe teachers don't realize how important that personal connection, that personal buy-in is, not only to the child's success, but in reinforcing this idea that there are different ways to be a scientist. There are different ways to be successful.

Vigeant: I couldn't agree with you more, and it seems like that's a natural tie-in with your work now at the Children's Creativity Museum, thinking about how this evolution or, perhaps synergy between the sciences and scientific-thinking creativity, and then public venues like museums, can help to tie that together.

Can you tell us maybe a little bit about the museum and specifically how the Children's Creativity Museum is really redefining what a museum is, or what you can expect from a museum in the 21st century?

Dr. Tang: Great. At the Children's Creativity Museum, our mission is to nurture creativity and collaboration in all children and families. What does that mean? What does it mean to nurture creativity? One, is we assume that there's creativity in everyone. Every child and every adult has creativity, and our job is to bring it out and help nurture and to help them express it. Sometimes it's through technology, sometimes it's through hands-on projects, sometimes it's from design challenges.

I think the 21st-century museum is that just like in education, instead of this passive, “We know everything, let's present it to you and you are going to absorb it all,” You think of the classic museums of the past few centuries is like, here's a pantheon to knowledge, and you come in and you absorb it.

What I think both in classrooms and in museums is this idea that actually that may not be the most effective way to do things and what we really need to do is have a dialogue so that our visitors are actually co-creating content that instead of becoming just a consumer of a museum exhibit, you're actually producing something. You're actually making meaning for your own life and expressing your own creative expression and your experience. Instead of exhibits, we sort of set down spaces where you can get into flow of things and you can make something. It's about this interactive, deep learning as everyone is talking about, rather than 30 seconds at many exhibits giving you little factoids. It's really about making your own sense.

Vigeant: Sure. I was really impressed when I had the opportunity to visit the museum a bit earlier and was impressed by the real diversity of opportunity for children of all ages to be able to create. I like the way that you said that it's participating and actually making the museum a museum. I had the opportunity to be there before any children had arrived and it appropriately felt empty. You didn't really feel like the museum was alive, and creativity is something that's very much driven by humans. The chairs, the computers, and so on aren't creative, but if you fill the museum with children, it really runs on their creativity.

I think about that in the context of a higher order of thinking. KnowAtom, we're so focused on science technology, engineering, and math in the K-12 classrooms specifically, and how, as you were saying, we engage students in that process and place aside that “pantheon vault of knowledge” approach and engage students in creating, evaluating, and analyzing simultaneously, rearranging the traditional Bloom's Taxonomy from a focus on lower order skills that are really fact-oriented to something that is much higher order and focused on bringing it to each other and to our communities.

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I was wondering -- before we even look closer at the exhibits and the labs, because they really aren't exhibits, they are labs, and they do require children to participate to really bring the museum alive -- it feels like a pivot point to me, or a balance, in the sense where this creative analytical thinking skill crosses into many disciplines.

How does that have relevance as a scientist when you look at it, then thinking about that relationship between science, this questioning and generating knowledge, and engineers using that knowledge to develop technology solutions. How do you see that balance playing out, not only in scientific disciplines and as a scientist, but in more maybe fictional disciplines as an artist and so on?

Dr. Tang: First, I mean, it's been surprising to people that I would go from being a scientist in a research university, and then come to a children's museum. I just don't see any discrepancy between the two. I do feel like a good scientist, a creative scientist. The ones who are making the breakthroughs are inventors, engineers, artists and writers, who, as we mentioned earlier, have very similar processes. I think everybody look to the world around them, tries to understand something and then tries to figure out if they could answer questions about the world around them. Whether you're absorbing human nature or nature, I think creative people are asking the right questions, figuring out how to answer those questions and then trying it.

I like this look at this higher order of thinking because I think that's actually much more reflective of what scientists do. We have this idea that science does the scientific method and, in fact, when you ask scientists, then engineers, things gets scrambled. I think as a paleontologist. I've never been a big fan of the scientific method because of course, we don't have time machines. We can't go back and see how Jurassic animals behaved. Our science has always been a little bit different, and so I think evaluating and analyzing, and doing this concurrently or iteratively in order to create, is much more natural for any creative person, including scientists and engineers. Here at the museum, I think this is our approach, although now that you're assuring it, it could really help us define what we do.

We really want kids to be able to find their own way to get the solution, and there's not one solution, so this idea of taking information, experiences that you have and then really evaluating, analyzing, and then questioning yourself again: That didn't work, how would I do it better? What we have here at the museum are not only studios and labs, but we also have made sure that each of them are facilitated so that our educators are asking these prompting questions and having kids really look at what they've done, or helping them reflect on the process they use. What were you thinking when you did this? Why did you do this instead of this? How would you do it differently?

Helping kids understand that they have a process that they analyze and evaluated and created, helping them realize that they can do it, gives them confidence and the ability to do it again. I think we now know in education, the reflection and metacognition is really key to having something stick. That's where I think that the higher order of thinking is applied in our museum and then reinforced in different ways.

Vigeant: I can entirely understand and agree that “point A” to “point B” is rarely a direct route in any discipline. Yet thinking about science and engineering process: the idea that processes exist in STEM does not mean that science or engineering are linear. These are processes that are helpful to move problems toward solutions, and questions toward answers, through prototyping and experimentation. It's almost a logic for applying knowledge and skills through higher order thinking.   

It seems like the next generation must combine them all. How is it that we can involve creative, evaluative and analytical thinking skills into the macro creative process of going from a question or a problem to some solution, but with the realization that it's like if you were saying it's iterative and it's not known. We can't go back and see the dinosaurs. There's no time machine. It's interesting, how does that play out in the different lab experiences that you have at the museum? I think I have here an example of the imagination lab.

Dr. Tang: Right. The imagination lab is really for our youngest visitors. But even here we know that even when you're 18 months old, you're trying to learn about the world around you, and so we have lots of building-type experiences and imagination labs with very difficult materials: magnets, and foam blocks and Lego pieces and so on. One of the things that we not only encourage is building, exploring of materials, but also playing with other kids who are in our society. It's possible some of these kids will never see each other in their social circles or in their schools, but museums need to be that place where society can come together and create things together. Isn't it a great idea to have kids feel like they can build something with other people who think differently, are from different areas of the world?

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This idea of building collaboratively is important for young kids, as we know social and emotional learning is also very important, so we tried to build that and link those two together. This is a picture from our animation studio. It is one of our signature experiences, and what we do here is we really encourage kids to get their imagination and bring it to life. Kids have stories. They have worlds and characters in their head, but they're not able to express them, and even with crayons and paper and things like that, they're not really able to have the dexterity or the language skills to be able to set those down. But with clay and stop motion video, in just an hour you can tell your story with really interesting characters. You do fun things and go fun places.

This is again a signature experience of ours is that helping kids create video, instead of just watch video, and to acknowledge that they have great stories that they can share with their family and friends and the world. How do we help kids be empowered to think of their story? How to get it, put it together and how to communicate with other people?

Vigeant: In terms of the STEM connection, I know as we're going through these labs, here I think we're seeing definitely the use of T, the technology in STEM, and then in building and creating, especially at a problem-solving sense, we see the E. Is that an intentional process as you're going through here to try and bring different elements of STEM alive? For instance, in the community lab or in other labs as we're going through?

Dr. Tang: Yes. It ends up not only in my scientists and my education manager or as a middle school biology teacher, she's a credential teacher and some of our educators also come from science backgrounds, environmental scientists, for example. I don't think it's actually an accident. I think that we have acknowledged and realized that good creativity and STEM processes are very, very similar.

The other thing that we recognize is that the storytelling like the claymation video, it's content-agnostic. In other words, we work with teachers all the time who are teaching science content, for example, the water cycle or watersheds and the ecosystem and recycling and a lot of science and environmental science topics.

What they want to do is to be able to bring those science topics to life, and they come here and they have their kids' storyboard a video using water cycle as the content and using that as the inspiration, but letting the kids express the story of their own using the content. That's another way where we explicitly not just use the technologies of background but actually insert science content as part of the experience as well. There is technology that explicit, and it's about the T in STEM, and one of the other labs that you have a photo as the robot coding lab where we are explicit about teaching coding right here about using a computer language. We're able to program a robot to take on certain challenges.

The T can be explicit but also be just part of the storytelling process, and we find that science teachers especially are really excited to bring creativity in and bring a storytelling component that kids really are drawn to, but using scientific content. We do find that teachers say their students learn more about the content because they are forced to use it and apply it in the story. This robot coding exhibition is one that we just opened recently and a lot of us in STEM and in education know what coding is and the importance of computer science.

What we found out was that a lot of parents don't really know what coding is. It just sounds like some jargon and so we've actually spent a lot of time communicating. The coding is a computer language you could use to control computers and robots. Again, here is an example where we gave them a fun challenge like, “we can attach a pen to the robot.” They draw something, but then they have to use a language to tell the robot how to draw that, or in this case, you can see that they have like an obstacle course or a maze that they have to navigate.

The kids think of it as a problem or a challenge that they can succeed at, but in order to succeed at it, they have to learn how to code. So I think we can use real life and engage their natural desire to figure something out, and then learn some principles that they could use in career but also in an important logical thinking, and so on in curriculum.

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Vigeant: It's interesting that the museum gives you the opportunity to unpack a lot of what's going on in the classroom, and also what's going on in student's minds through creativity and take something that maybe cognitive, something that's an idea (in this case, a particular shape or something that a student wants that robot to draw) then program it using technology, actually see the results of that in real time through the robot, and be able to engage in that iterative process.

It really is on a metacognitive, a physical level, an imaginative level and higher order thinking level can bring all of these things to life simultaneously. In this case, I supposed it's very STEM-y, if we might want to call it that, but it's not only like we've been saying all along here, these students aren't only for robots and they aren't only for paleontology or physics or so on.

You mentioned something that really sparked my interest that parents, teachers and students aren't the only stakeholder groups here. I know you have a community lab. Can you talk a bit about how those stakeholder groups came together, the community lab, and how this main, these experiences aren't only STEM or STEM-y entirely, if that's the word, but in fact they also are engaging in green screen productions and other physical creative tasks which are again both fiction and nonfiction combining.

Dr. Tang: I think we find that parents are often surprised at what their kids can do. Some parents are also intimidated by STEM, so I think in our museum, we really try to engage the parents and see that their kids are going to accomplish things, and also if you give them a design challenge, it's possible that the kids are going to do better than the parents. I think it's a really good way to reset attitudes, parental attitudes about what kids are capable of, what STEM is, and thinking of their family as a creative family or a STEM family when maybe they were intimidated by that before. I think we find it's often more important to engage the parents.

The other thing that I'm sure that your teachers find too is that your parents don't necessary think of themselves as educators, when in fact we all know that they're probably the biggest influence on the kid more than teachers or obviously more than a museum educator could ever be. If we don't really get the parents to understand what a learning experience is, how to correctly challenge their kids or praise them in what we now know is more effective, and helping parents realize that everything is learning, could be a learning moment. I think that we have to get them on our side and see themselves as educators in the broader sense and in the vastness of the word. That is something that we really strive to do, so how do we make sure that parents aren't just checking their email or thinking this is a kid's activity and making sure they are just as engaged?

In some way, some of our educators, we feel like we're modeling good behavior and good questioning for teachers and parents so that they see what it means to probe and get your kids to reflect what they've done. A lot of parents haven't really done that themselves. They're seeing it in action and so when they see our educators do it, we hope that give them an idea of what they could be doing every single day at home with their own kids. I think that's an important part of connecting. I think the different sectors, parents and educators are recognizing the kids turning to adults to be involved in their growing up.

When you are saying about where we able to distill some of the things? I think that's the challenge and the wonderful thing about working in a museum. On the one hand, we're lucky we don't have to give exams and we don't have to pitch a certain amount of information in the school year. On the other hand, we don't have very much time with the kids and what we do have to be fun and engaging. People have to volunteer to come here. In fact, they paid to come here or for a field trip. A teacher, it takes a lot of effort for a teacher to come here even if we've waived the fee, the field trip fee and so we know the time with us is really valuable. We're really grateful for that time together. We have to really make an experience that's fun and memorable and educational and so we really have to distill it down into our time slot when you're here.

Vigeant: That idea too that this is a space where children are bonding with each other through creativity but they're also bonding with teachers and parents and to think of everybody wishes that they have more time with their children but to be able to sit down and spend that time with their child programming a robot or engaging in a green screen production or an engineering science challenge really, it adds whole new dimension.

I think too from a social emotional standpoint for the students, it helps them understand to relate to adults as well. I know that in the work we've done at KnowAtom particularly in areas where there are conflict reach and UNCHR refugee camps and beyond where students are trying to understand how to relate their circumstances to their new world oftentimes, and some of these helps each other into adult that creative play, but also want to involve these different age groups as well and structures, whether it's parent or teacher, really plays pretty powerful role.

I wanted to ask you in terms of the next generation science standards, one of the things that we talked about a lot is the idea of the science and engineering practices, so the idea that within the context of science and a lot of this, I should say, emanates from this definition of science and engineering that emanates from the National Research Council's Work which led to the next generation science standards a bit later. The idea that science is questioning, that it's answering questions through experimentation and developing scientific knowledge, and engineering is using that knowledge to solve problems to the development of technology and technology not always being something that's electronic or plugging in but in fact, it could be a process or it could be a software program and using math as a tool of communication.

How do these next generation science and engineering practices play out or how are you focusing on those things? I heard you mentioning the modeling questions, the questioning process for parents and for teachers and acting in almost the professional development word but not only for teachers but for students. How is the planning of investigations and the constructing solutions and so on, how is that structured when the teacher envision themselves perhaps coming on a field trip or a professional development workshop? How does that come to life there?

Dr. Tang: I think I'm just such a big fan of next generation science standards. I can't tell you because as a scientist, I think it more crisply captures what I love about science. It's about not the things that are in the textbook but the things that are yet to be in a textbook. All the questions that we still have about all the gaps and our knowledge, all these questions that we still don't understand about the world around us.

That's why I think you see the scientific community embracing them is that I think it more accurately captures the essence of what scientific thinking or understanding is and why we love it. As a museum educator, it's wonderful because it now provides us with some language and some outcomes and things like that. What we felt and what we're doing in a museum as an open-ended voluntary place you go, entertainment and educational place.

I think for us as museum educators here at the Children's Creativity Museum is that one, it gives us some common language to really understand why we do things the way we do and how it links up and how we communicate it with parents, kids, and teachers. I think it's a wonderful way to bring us all together and realize that we've all been on the same page. We've all been talking about similar things and now we actually have a language to show that. In terms of how we work with teachers and so on is that now again we can actually specifically ask teachers, what are the things that you're most challenged with? How can we, during a field trip and with some pre and post activities, help you address some of these things but as you say, even among the children learning how to ask the right questions and critique each other is an important part.

Whether we're facilitating that discussion with the students themselves and the students are seeing that, or the teachers seeing us facilitating that discussion, I think that everyone is looking for new ways of doing things and teachers have a lot of new ways, but because we're just starting out, the more different approaches of NGSS and eliciting the feedback and work from your students, the more we'll all have a better way of mapping out what works best, just like every teacher’s going to find their approach to curriculum and content. Every teacher is going to find their own approach to addressing the practices. It's similar here. We have our own approaches but every educator is going to do it a little bit differently.

I feel really strongly right now that this is the time for educators of all kinds to share what works, what is very difficult about teaching to practice and process instead of content. It's one that's a conversation that's worth having and they will probably continue for a couple of years, but I really find that right now is this moment where again educators of all stripes whether you're an after-school provider or a museum professional or a classroom teacher, let's get together and share what's been working about engaging kids, getting them to question, igniting passion, and addressing these practices. Nobody knows the answer, nobody has cornered the answer right now, so it's a great time to come together in equal footing and really share what our vision is for kids learning in the years to come.

Vigeant: I think that's a really important point, especially as you mentioned earlier there is this shift going on right now between what's the traditional model (if we want to call it that) of content being out there, and teachers having to be in that role of content expert or a sage on the stage, whose job is to model facts and demonstrate phenomena, explain what all these ideas are and then that traditional student role being to try and absorb as much as possible and remember it and then recall and repeat and summarize what they've heard in order to demonstrate proficiency.

I think, again, I couldn't be in more agreement and supportive of the next generation science standards. Also, the National Research Council's Work and helping give us a really clear definition of what effective science instruction, or we could call hidden STEM instruction, is.

I wanted to give your reflections on this and I'll read it real quick, but this is the actual definition from the National Research Council from 2011 that effective STEM instruction capitalizes on students' early interest and experiences, identifies and build on what they know and provide them with the experiences to engage them in the practices of science and sustain their interest and those practices being the NGSS, these 8-high level practices of questions defining problems developing and using models. It seems like that's something that you all at the Children's Creativity Museum have really mastered and I think we're ahead of the curve because you predate the publishing of these practices for sure. What are your thoughts on that definition and is that it from your science background? Does that resonate?

Dr. Tang: I think from my personal and scientific and now professional background, it really resonates. I feel like as I mentioned, I thought I was going to be a journalist, but all along the way, I have effective science instruction. That sustained me, it was my internal motivation, and the fact that I really like science that got me to where I am today. I didn't have pressure not to do science but there was just nothing external that would have made me want to be a scientist, so something inside that was sparked, that was nurtured with experience all along that kept me sustained. I really believe in this idea about students’ early interest and again, it's not one thing that's going to spark them. It could be lots of different things. It could be multiple different science topics or it could be a dolphin at the aquarium. Whatever it is, the idea is really capitalizing on it.

The other thing I do want to emphasize as a scientist and an educator is that there's no way that content is not important. Science is full of facts and figures. Math, there are things you need to do. You need to be able to do some basic mathematical computational thing, so I don't want folks to think that it's throwing away the value of knowledge or content, but the idea that content is embedded within activity and with applications and exploration and curiosity and then what kids are already interested in. To me, that's the key of sustaining that. If they're just interested in something they find out that there's not substance to it, that's not going to keep kids interested either.

Kids do see through that, and so I think it's the pairing of real content and real substance and challenges, things that are hard. Science isn't easy, it's not easy to invent new things but it's all those things put together that I feel like this is what this definition is trying to say is that it is, about early interest, embedding it in content, but it's the practice of science that is the substance that they can go to when they're discouraged or they have lost interest in something, but it goes back to being curious and then having the tools and the practices of thinking logically of answering questions of iterating.

All those things are what real science is about, and again, as we said, it's not just about science, it's about your everyday life. It's about you're writing a novel. It's about producing a play or writing a screenplay. All of those things are the same exploration and dedication and passion and iteration and not the resilience and not being discouraged and realizing you have to rewrite your novel again just like you have to rewrite your scientific experiment. Those are the things that I really love about this definition.

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Vigeant: It's interesting because it seems similar to what we were discussing earlier, when it came to the engineering design process and scientific methods. It seems like we're also at a point not only departing from a traditional model of science instruction, which is an expert to a non-expert transfer of knowledge which is quite linear, and also this idea that processes are entirely linear and non-creative, to something that's much more dynamic and something that's much more.

The idea that logic is still valid, the idea that content is still valid, but yet it's valid and non-linear and in and of itself insufficient. You need more than just content and you need more than just process. You need actually both and all of the above which I think, I don't know if that ... Would you agree with that? What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Tang: Yeah, I definitely agree with that and I think it is also the inspiration. So, I remember when I taught Geology 101 and someone would come back a little while later and say “I'm a business major, but you inspired me to look at the ocean in a new way, and I went on vacation and all I did was tell my girlfriend all these things about the ocean and she got really bored.” I remember there is this moment where it is about the content, it's about looking at the world in a new way. He has driven along that ocean for so many times, but he never had the questions until he learns some content. Then being so inspired by it that he had to share it with somebody.

I do think that it is this moment where the content alone, process alone, and inspiration alone doesn't work, but you put those things together in the right place and someone can be sparked to thinking new ways, ask new questions and to change their life, and maybe lose a girlfriend in the process. I think that you're right, that it's this intangible, as well as content and practice, that makes the difference in someone's life.

Vigeant: Do you feel like as -- and it's a little off topic here -- but do you feel as your background has evolved from a scientist to educator to science educator, museum director that core scientific or engineering spirit, the STEM spirit you have has shaped labs that you've chosen to put into the museum or programs that you've chosen? Perhaps over other labs or other programs that you could have put in for some of those reasons you just mentioned?

Dr. Tang: I think it is about the approach to the topic that is might be different, that there could be topics that we've all agreed to do, but coming from a scientific and science educator's perspective, I know that some things are more effective. I definitely don't want to teach misconception in science and I think it's so easy to fall into that. I'm very careful in really monitoring that thing in any of the museums I've worked with. The other thing that I think where the science education comes in, the science and the education come together and trying to understand the child development studies and the learning studies. There are so many things that are being published these days and I think educators and parents were a little overwhelmed.

I think sometimes my scientific background is, “I don't know about that result. Let me look at the data and see if it really says that.” I think that's something I also bring to my current job is I believe in data. I think that and a parent I think is also really good. There's so much information on what you should and shouldn't do with your kids or feed them. Sometimes I find that it's better to rely on my scientific skepticism to really analyze the data before I jump to conclusions.

Vigeant: It's interesting, I mean, it's another version of what we're looking at here. It's that idea that it's not deferring to somebody who you mimic, but in fact engaging in the process yourself and appealing to the data and really almost prosecuting the data and that's quite interesting. One of the things that also really impressed me at the museum is that there are lot of synergies that overlap not only with the STEM side of KnowAtom world, but these practices, these processes and really a model that's  next generation model then instruction that is the departure from the traditional model where content’s flowing through an expert and the students institute absorbing it.

To something that's really students’ developing skills or honing skills even, and those being science and engineering practice skills, higher order thinking skills and all the parts we've talked about here, but that student being really in direct contact with the content with the cross-cutting concepts or the systems thinking or the system behavior of the content. Watching the museum staff interacting with the students, and I'm sure that parents and so on as we're coaching them really playing the role of a guide and really helping to provide supports and helping students engage appropriately and like you were saying earlier, questioning the students and not getting between the student and the content but helping to actually strengthen that relationship.

In our case when we think about K-12 education of the classroom, we're always looking as a way to, how do we assess all of this. On the assessment side, we would look at that and say, 10 students actually demonstrate their knowledge, can they develop and use the content? Are they using the STEM skills to solve problems and so on. Was that again an intentional piece or is that something that evolved or where did it evolve from? Since again, the museum I guess predates a lot of this thinking but somehow got there first?

Dr. Tang: I think in some ways it may have been, nobody really comes to the museums and pays to think that they're going to be talking to a teacher, and so I think that in some ways it's a disadvantage because we're seeing as more of entertainment on the weekend. I think that we had to approach it as in, we're going to be ‘the guide on the side’ as they say, and most museums, we call our educators ‘facilitators’ because we're about facilitating learning. Museums in general, we always have to do stealth education, right? You go to a zoo because you think you're going to see animals and have fun, but do you know what, seeing animals and having fun and learning are not naturally incompatible.

We'd hope that when you're going there, you're also learning and changing your attitude, which is what learning is, or changing your belief system as well as content acquisition. I think the funny thing is that, it's been that way because of the visitor expectations and they coming to a museum wanting to do a social activity with their family. Again, we've been stealthy educators, and so our role has been to facilitate learning and to ensure that there's interactions that are opportunities for learning and for family engagement. That's why we love next generation science standards and now it gives us a structure and a way to talk educators and some value to what we do, but again, we can't compare to a classroom teacher where there's all those hours that you spend with them and that there is content you need to teach them.

It's okay if we don't teach them certain things, because it will happen in the classroom. It's really a true partnership between the in-school and out of school I think, and when we look at NGSS as a way to bring us together and look at an ecosystem of learning and how all of us need to reinforce each other and that there are some things that can learn in the zoo that they can't learn in the classroom, but we really depend on the classroom to deliver so much content, and yet we're now expecting them to do all these other inspiring and facilitating and so on. It's a tough job for sure. I couldn't survive a month in the classroom but I love being in a museum. It's different but at the same time we need to go on and the strengths that we have.

Teachers get to have kids for a whole year and spend so many hours with them. That's such a luxury that we don't have and we envy at museums. We would love to be able to spend more time with your kids. What we do have is we have the luxury of having people come in wanting to have fun and being open-minded and wanting to be engaged. They came in here being engaged already and so we have that in our advantage and then we just have to squeeze so much in, in a two-hour visit. We just each have to be good at our context and what the other does.

Vigeant: I really like that visual of almost learning by accident. You think you're going to go to the zoo, you think you're going to go to the museum and see some cool animals that don't live on the street, but at the same time you're going to learn something because the people at the museum have been so thoughtful the way they've constructed this experience. I wanted to ask you about that because I think the Children's Creativity Museum has a really distinct advantage, especially over a zoo, where you go to the zoo, you see the animal, and then you have to deconstruct and understand all about that animal.

The Children's Creativity Museum is a construct, I would view that as a constructive experience where perhaps there's a problem or a question that students or children have to come and creatively construct meaning from, or if the challenge was to navigate a maze or so on, the student has to figure out with the tools available, the robot, the tablet, the programming language. Do you see a difference in that approach, because oftentimes in K-12 education we see a default, perhaps under a traditional model where things are almost by default deconstructed versus constructed?

Dr. Tang: I think that by starting from like a blank slate into deconstructing an existing product, I think you open it more as more open ended and you can come up with some very surprising end results. If our challenge is to build a shelter and you start from the form of a house, you can be creative within that context, but there's a limit to it, whereas if you give the challenge as in “if you go to Mars, how would you build a shelter?” It's not starting from what you think is going to be the result but it could be, you dig a hole underground. It could be that you're building a house. It could be all these other ways of approaching the same challenge. I think that it's more, you're more able to really have divergent thinking.

There's a place in time for convergence and for limitations and there's also for a time for these really open-ended, big, audacious, crazy ideas, and so I think that both can be valuable. We had to be intentional about doing that if we want there to be really open-ended discovery and kids being able to come up with something completely new and completely on their own and feeling real ownership of something, then I think the first wave being constructive is a more effective way to do that because it really allows you to value what a kid brings, their imagination, their experience. Some crazy idea that they've seen or some metaphor or something that they have in their mind's eye.

I think by not restricting it early on, you're allowing them to do that, valuing that, you're appreciating their contribution and then maybe then go to more convergent thinking like, “would you think that would work? What are the tools you would need to make that happen? What are the challenges of making that design?” Then they come up with the idea saying, “yeah, you're right. This could be modified in this way. You're right. If I think about it this way, what if I did this? What if I tried this material?”

I think starting from really wide open and then allowing them to challenge their own thinking, their own design, I think give them more empowerment and then they feel more confidence in what they, confident in what they produce. I think to that process, if you have the time to do it I think it really creates the real learning environment where you're applying lots of different practices and that kids can bring their best to meet that challenge.

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Vigeant: I really like that picture of empowerment, and not only empowerment of the students, but also the teachers. Wrapping up, I wanted, I know that the museum regularly offers events, workshops, and across all these different stakeholders group that we've talked about parents, students, and teachers.

I wanted to ask you that, given all of the people that will be hearing this across the U.S. and even internationally, many of them are likely to cross through San Francisco, downtown San Francisco, what opportunities are there for folks who say, “yeah, I've been stuck in the traditional model, trying to get to effective STEM instruction, trying to get to a next generational model. I know I need to learn more about how to question students appropriately, engage a higher order thinking.” How can they engage with the museum to meet some of those needs?

Dr. Tang: The teachers in the Bay Area, we have thousands of school children who come here on field trips, but if you're not from this area, you come by and see what we're doing with the kids and talk to our educators. You can make an appointment but also just talk to them. Many facilitators who are on the floor, all of them also work on field trips and have a conversation and engage us and ask a question and what the challenges are. I would also say that it's not just our museum, but there are many museums that are doing this great work, and the Association of Children's Museum, the Association of Science Technology Centers, and the American Alliance of Museums are just resources you could go to and find out who's in your neighborhood, who's doing interesting work.

There is also the Center for the Advancement of Information Science Education, CAISE, and the have a great resource of publication and assessments that have been used in informal science education. Again, many of us in museums have been doing things without knowing that they're aligned to next generation science standards. I think hopefully those will be some good resources.

One other place that I would just point you to is howtosmile.org, a website of museum activities, hands-on activities that have works in many different museums and you might be able to use those in your own classroom, and they're aligned to science standards as well.

Vigeant: That's great. I appreciate you sharing those resources and really appreciate your time and really helping us understand really not only the Children's Creativity Museum but where museums are headed in the 21st century and what we can hope to expect from field trips and professional development experiences that we can take back to our class, and also as parents, being able to not only go and enjoy a great visit, but to be able to engage and creating and participating in that moment and creating museum.

Thank you, Carol. I appreciate your time and I hope everybody who has joined us will visit Carol and our friends at the Children's Creativity Museum in person in their San Francisco location in the Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown San Francisco. Visit them online, they have a fantastic website at creativity.org, which is one of my favorite URLs. Thank you very much Carol for your time.

Dr. Tang: Thank you so much.


For more information about Dr. Tang's work, visit creativity.org. If you'd like to like to watch a recording of the interview, click here to download the webinar.

Topics: NGSS, higher order thinking, Creativity, interactive science, Museums

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