Community Science Nights bring the Sciencenter to Ithaca schools

Ithaca has become a center for quality education for science, technology, engineering, and math, especially through Cornell alumni Bill Nye and the late Carl Sagan. The two have left their mark on not only Cornell but also the Sciencenter, the local science museum for children. Sagan was a member of the advisory board, and Nye narrates the outdoor planetary exhibition named after Sagan.

Giving back to the community

The Sciencenter fosters STEM education through interactive exhibits and programs, such as the Community Science Night series. According to director of education Michelle Kortenaar, outreach is very important to the museum, and they hold five or six science nights per year at local elementary schools to fulfill this.

“People can come to their local elementary school, which is close to where they live, a place where they feel comfortable, and get to enjoy an evening of science,” Kortenaar said.

Each year, the Sciencenter comes up with a new theme for the science nights based on activities from summer camp programs, past exhibits, and more. Past themes have included chemistry and astronomy, and this year’s theme is nanotechnology. As the northeast hub for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network, or NISE Net, the Sciencenter helps develop many of the programs used nationally and internationally to educate kids about nanotechnology. The activities help relate complicated topics like nanoscale science to things that kids are familiar with, such as a computer or sunscreen.

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Elementary school students the target group for STEM education

Students at Cayuga Heights Elementary had their first science night March 6, and school principal Brad Pollack said the school wanted to participate after other elementary schools had done these events. He said it was a good way to complement what the kids were already learning about topics in science, technology, engineering, and math, including from older students.

“The high school groups that are involved with Science Olympiad want to be able to do Science Olympiad at the elementary school, and that’s starting [March 4] as well,” Pollack said. “I think the juxtaposition of those two things, starting the Science Olympiad for elementary-age students and having the science night and the Sciencenter come [March 6], is a good way to promote both.”

Programming such as the Community Science Night series emphasizes the desire and need for quality STEM education. Junior biology education major and former Sciencenter volunteer Marisol Blanco said the experience volunteering helped her apply her skills as a science educator not only for the kids but for parents as well, as they also might not be familiar with the content. She also said teachers in these fields have the ability to get kids interested and pursue important careers in the long run.

“It’s obviously science and math that’s going to pull countries forward and be successful, so you need people going into these fields,” Blanco said. “It starts as early as elementary school, middle school, and high school.”

Pollack pointed out that the US has been historically behind other developed countries in terms of science achievement and promotion, and programs like the science nights can help combat that.

“We want to be able to cultivate as many young scientists, mathematicians, and engineers to be able to keep our country strong in a global economy,” Pollack said.

To finish up their nanotechnology Community Science Night season, the Sciencenter once again will be hosting NanoDays on March 22, a free admission event that features all of the NISE Net programming.

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