The New York Hall of Science might be the best public STEM resource in the country. Yet, you might have never heard of it.
Ensconced on a generous campus in the NYC borough of Corona, Queens, this part museum, part architectural wonder, part educational playground has been quietly boosting the city’s community awareness of science since it opened its doors in 1986. And as NYSCI Chief Learning Officer Katie McMillan Culp tells Parentology, anyone can take advantage of it.
“At NYSCI, educators, researchers, exhibit designers and program developers are all working together to create amazing experiences for all of our audiences,” Culp says. “We believe everyone can use the tools of science and engineering to ask and answer their own questions about their world and community. We want to help everyone recognize those tools are available to them, and they can use them successfully.”
Culp points to one focus of NYSCI’s learning process, “ Thinking like a scientist, or engineer, can be a fun and playful experience, but can also be challenging and frustrating. We want our visitors to learn about themselves, what they’re curious about and capable of, just as much as we want them to learn about the world around them.”
A Short History of NYSCI
It all started with the 1964 World’s Fair. Held at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the World’s Fair featured exhibits and wonders from around the world. The Great Hall (the first NYSCI building, the original Hall of Science) was designed and built for the event.
This impressive structure, designed by architect Wallace K. Harrison, wasn’t even in the fair’s original plans. But there was a determination to have a science museum, and the Great Hall was a start. It broke ground in 1963, and features dalle de verre, an architectural technique that arranges small segments of glass within a concrete structure. More than 5,000 2-by-3-foot panels of glass make up the building’s facade, and at the time of its completion, it was the largest poured concrete building in the world.
The giant space, with its undulating walls and soaring heights, is still fantastical in scope. Upon its completion in 1964, Mayor Robert Wagner said of the Hall:
“…the advances of science will be reflected and the history of science will be dramatized. Here there will be demonstrated the great ladder which leads from the firm footing of tested facts upwards, upwards toward the moon, toward our sister planets, outward into boundless space.”
Unlike most structures built for the World’s Fair, the Great Hall was not dismantled. Instead, it became a resource for the city’s students. In 1979, it temporarily closed for renovations and reinvention. In 1986, it reopened as NYC’s only science museum, offering a training program for science students at Queens College and many exhibits for school children.
NYSCI was fortunate to receive funding during the 1990s and beyond. It has expanded its facilities and programs to serve a huge urban community. A $20 million donation in 2005 from the Carnegie Corporation and former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg aided its growth. Today, NYSCI stands as New York City’s only hands-on science and technology center. More than 450 exhibits explore biology, chemistry and physics. NYCSI serves over 500,000 visitors each year, with an additional 50,000 participating in off-site, school-based programs.
NYSCI’s Maker Space Offers a Hands-On Approach to STEM
There’s a bounty at NYSCI to engage kids. Much is hands-on, allowing children to fully immerse themselves in the scientific process without even noticing it’s an educational experience.
Take, for instance, its Maker Space. Resisting the current overprotective helicopter parenting trend, the Maker Lab lets kids create their own inventions using real tools (under supervision, naturally). Its workshops, held every weekend, run the STEM gamut from woodworking to 3D printing.
Just some of the Little Makers workshops running in August 2019 include Flying Launchers, Cardboard Engineering, even workshops designed specifically for kids on the autism spectrum, like Ooey Gooey Slime and Bubble Play.
The activities that seem like ordinary child’s play, including the playground and the Rocket Park mini-golf course, also have STEM in mind. Elements in the mix: slides, seesaws, sandpits and fog machines. Their purpose: exploring the scientific principles of motion, balance, sound, sight and simple machines, as well as sun, wind and water. And where else can a family play mini-golf in the shadow of two real NASA rockets, with nine holes exploring key science concepts such as propulsion, thrust, gravity, escape velocity, launch window and gravitational assist?
“Our goal is to increase STEM awareness and interest through innovative programs that foster creativity, collaboration and a deeper understanding of how science relates and impacts us today, tomorrow and in the future,” Sylvia Perez, Vice President of Education Services tells Parentology. “Our programs are tailored to reach a variety of audiences including parents, children and teachers to cultivate an empowered community that builds and sustains best practices for teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering and math.”
NYSCI’s ongoing exhibits range from explorations of light and color to ecosystems and evolution. There’s even a 3D theater.
NYSCI’s Science Career Ladder Leads to STEM Careers
For high school-aged and older kids, NYSCI has an incredible program called The Science Career Ladder. The program is comprised of Explainers that advance through a series of job opportunities. These high school and college students work the museum floor, interact with the public in increasing science knowledge, and get involved in peer mentorship opportunities. Out of over 4,000 Explainers, more than 60% are female, over 95% of program grads complete undergraduate degrees, and they speak a range of over 20 languages.
“The Science Career Ladder is a program for high school and college students that introduces students to a variety of complex STEM ideas in a fun and engaging manner, equips them with the skills to engage visitors at NYSCI, and empowers them to be creative problem-solvers that use their STEM knowledge to explore the world,” Priya Mohabir, Vice President of NYSCI Youth Development tells Parentology. “The opportunity to explore STEM not only allows them to think more deeply about careers in STEM, but build communication, teamwork, and problem-solving skills that can be applied to all future endeavors.”
You Can Download the Power Of NYSCI
If you’re unable to make the journey to NYSCI, or are an educator looking for STEM resources, the museum offers a plethora of apps, lesson plans and continuing education opportunities.
Take, for instance, The Pack app, a game that seems like a survival scenario on the fictional planet Algos to kids, but is actually packed with environmental science concepts that also boost computational thinking.
“Players use algorithms to help them explore the world of Algos,” Stephen Uzzo, chief scientist at NYSCI said on NYSCI’s website. “In the process, they test and revise their algorithms until they succeed at the task. This helps to develop their computational thinking skills – skills that are in high demand, not just in the classroom, but also in the workplace.”
Another downloadable offering, Transmissions: Gone Viral, is a digital comic book about a West Nile outbreak and epidemic. Students must use critical thinking skills along with epidemiology knowledge to click their way through the story.
Noticing Tools is yet another online tool, pairing scientific theories and laws with everyday actions kids do, like playing on a playground or creating mashups of pictures taken on their parents’ phones.
An added bonus? These apps are completely free.
NYSCI Provides STEM Resources to Its Community
The museum has workshops and programs available to educational professionals, of course. But, NYSCI went further by including parents in the STEM stream as well. The NYSCI Neighbors program involves the local community as a whole and pinpoints families even more finely with its Parent University.
Parent University promotes families exploring NYSCI together, while introducing parents to various activities they can explore with their children both at NYSCI and at home. The goal: to have parents be as hands-on and enthusiastic about the museum’s exhibits and activities as their kids seem to be.
The program developed through community research, asking the question: what did families need?
“In our interviews with parents we realized that parents have high aspirations for their children and are committed to helping students’ achieve their goals, but they want to know how to help with actionable steps,” Andrés Henríquez, Vice President of STEM Learning in Communities tells Parentology. “After evaluating what kinds of programming a science museum could offer, NYSCI staff came up with a comprehensive parent engagement and empowerment program we call Parent University. “
Henriquez and his team tailored Parent University to fit the neighborhood demographic.
“Parent University uses a variety of strategies to engage parents. The program provides parents with tools and resources to help them understand and navigate the school system in New York. It increases parents’ awareness and access to essential STEM academic coursework and real pathways to STEM-related careers. And it emphasizes a two-generation approach — for children and families.”
As one Parent Ambassador participant said on the NYSCI website:
“One of the best things about this program is spending more time with my daughter and nephews because, honestly, at home, they grab the phone and their tablet. But here, we spend time together and they teach us a program about where water comes from and I honestly never thought that it’s like that and well, I was surprised that we learned so much today.”
Making STEM Relatable is What NYSCI Does Best
So whether it’s a visit to NYC, a school trip to the borough of Queens, or a private birthday party (yes, of course, NYSCI offers those, too), NYSCI makes STEM part and parcel with the world around kids. Engaging children early, connecting concepts with realities, and making STEM fun in every way is the NYSCI mission.
What’s great about it is that it’s really a family environment, a place where both the young and old can find something to engage them. It’s no wonder that NYSCI is a favorite travel destination for family bloggers visiting New York, partially because it’s designed as a learning experience for everyone.
“Our audience consistently tells us they value the NYSCI experience because we give families an opportunity to do things together,” Tania Tiburcio, Vice President of Audience and Business Development tells Parentology. “We see multi-generational groups of visitors sharing an experience they can’t get anyplace else. Together, they not only learn but also discover things about themselves, following their curiosity where it takes them. The NYSCI environment is versatile and can give everyone a chance to be creative while spending time with the people who are most important to them.”