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N.Y. Hall of Science President Serves as Keynote for STEM Conference

New York Hall of Science President Margaret Honey addresses a packed hall during the 2014 STEM conference.

New York Hall of Science President Margaret Honey addresses a packed hall during the 2014 STEM conference.

New York Hall of Science President Margaret Honey told a packed room of educators, business leaders and policymakers at the 2014 conference of the R.I. STEM Center that conventional approaches for engaging young scientists and designers are not working.

She bemoaned the traditional drill of teaching science as a memorization exercise, where students read a chapter and answer questions at the end. “That is SO not what STEM is about,” she said.

As keynote speaker for “Creating Rhode Island’s Future: Building Capacity for STE[A]M,” Honey explained that successfully engaging the next generation in STEM – also known as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – is critical to the future of our workforce. “That’s where the jobs are,” she said.

The New York Hall of Science engages students through Design-Make-Play, a philosophy that allows children to explore STEM principles in a creative, hands-on environment.

“Happy City” is one example of an activity center at the Hall of Science. Faced with a three-dimensional, student-made map, young visitors are encouraged to design and build their own addition that “makes the corner of your neighborhood a happier place.” Kids then combine their imaginations with pipe cleaners, Legos and even LED lights to add their solutions to the growing grid. Often, Honey noted, the road to children’s happiness is paved with food. “There are lots of pizza places in Happy City,” she said with a smile.

Honey emphasized that this type of activity is successful because it has a low barrier to entry. “Everybody can find a way to make something that is meaningful to them.”

Activities that are meaningful to kids form another component of successful STEM education, she said, adding that many of the Hall of Science activities allow kids to choose what interests them.  “They learn the problems they want to learn and solve the problems they want to solve,” she said. “It’s incredibly empowering.”

In her office, Honey keeps a Manifesto Wall full of words and phrases that exemplifies the Design-Make-Play ethos. Among the posts are “Deep Participation,” “Access to and confidence in using tools” and “NO BORED KIDS.”

Her team’s latest project is the creation of “noticing tools” – low-cost digital applications targeting middle-grade students and designed “to put young people at the center of activity,” she said. In a demonstration of one of the noticing tools scheduled to be publicly available this fall, Honey wowed the crowd with a perception application known as Size Wise. The tool allows users to photograph a virtual prop – a rocket ship, a seashell, a space suit – against a live background and then calculate the resulting ratio with a caliper tool. Because the props can’t be sized, students have to manipulate their environment to get the desired effect – whether it is a student taking a bite out of a giant flying hamburger or a child’s high-top sneaker looming large over a diminutive Tower of Pisa. The math, while entertaining, is real and present. “How far away from the camera do you have to stand to fit inside the astronaut suit?” Honey asked.

In closing, Honey’s message to the audience was two-pronged. First, plan for divergent solutions in your education. STEM, she said, “is not just one right answer.” Second, start from what Honey called “a playful core.” She warned, “It all starts with engagement. If kids aren’t engaged, they can’t be learning.”