Flying under the radar…

December 4, 2009

I am just leaving the Midwest Afterschool Science Academy, a 3-day convergence of youth service providers, “mid-line” staff coordinators and managers, and a smattering of funders and state-policy-level stakeholdes, mostly from Midwestern states. Organized in large part by Jeff Buehler, with support from the Mott and Kauffman Foundations, the project has its origins in a 2008 National Conference on Science and Technology in Out of School Time coorganized by the Coalition for Science After School and Project Exploration.

Ok, enough introductions.

Something is happening, for the most part under the radar, that may have enormous implications for science and society as we know them both.

Advocates for youth are asking questions about science – and how it can be for their kids. Let’s skip over, for a minute, the practicalities of the work at hand: equipping folks to help students learn science, figuring out what the “standards of practice” should be, the tensions brewing between the so-called “formal” education system and the so-called “informal education” system.

Youth service providers, ranging from local social service agencies to national entites like 4-H, work with exactly the kinds of students least likely to get involved with science: that is, they’re serving kids of color, kids from families who can’t afford fee-based programs, kids who have disabilities. They’re serving millions of them, everyday. These people are getting involved with science – and they want access to it for their kids. Not just “keep-em” occupied activities; they want high-caliber programs that will give young people in ther programs the ability to think critically, go to college and get top line,top paying jobs. They want their kids to do science that is fun and inspiring and real.

Why should anyone care? Because in the last three weeks we’ve seen the tip of the iceberg on a national-policy roll-out to support science education. The New York Times heralded the news November 23 with a nearly-full page article entitled “White House Pushes Science and Math Education.” Time Warner is going to “Connect a Million Minds;”  the MacArthur Foundation is underwriting video game strategies; Sesame Street is on board: science will live in Elmo’s world. “nationallabday.org” has launched. The “Race to the Top” is on!

It’s clear the kids already at the top academically will benefit from these efforts. What is unclear is whether anyone else will. When the primary purpose of an investment in science is national competitiveness, investments, by and large, are geared towards those kinds of students (and corresponding teachers) who can help move this agenda forward.

Which is why the convergence of  folks who came to the Academy is so relevant.

Conversations and questions at the Academy were impassioned: What’s worth knowing and experiencing in science? How can I make this stuff relevant to my kids? Who can help me? What should we be working FOR? What should our agenda be? What can and should change? How will we make these changes happen? Who else is doing this work? How can I work with them? What is next for us?

These are not just curriculum questions, these are the questions that may be at the heart of a nascent movement that could fundamentally transform who science is for – and who gets to do it.

Us. It’s an identity. It’s an understanding that there is a WE.

At lunch on the last day, before Dianne Miller’s closing session, I asked one of the members of the Missouri Afterschool Network if she felt there were folks from the K-12 system she wishes had been at the conference. She said, “You know, sometimes when you’re just getting started, you don’t really want everyone in the room – people who have really different ideas about what kids should do after school. For example, some people really think kids should just be doing remediation work after school; having that added to the conversation right now wouldn’t really be helpful, sometimes it’s better to fly under the radar for a while.”

And so we will. We will fly under the radar while we find allies who want to put kids at the center of teaching and learning and who care about using out of school experiences to help kids develop vision and passion and voice. We’ll find and learn from models that help us envision how science could be different for kids. And we will use these models to fight to change the world in which science for some remains acceptable.

As has been said before, beware a revolution that comes singing…

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