It is difficult for people to walk past Storefront Science in Washington Heights without stopping to stare.
Tucked between a beauty salon and a Dunkin’ Donuts, the front window of Storefront Science is filled with specimens – a sea snail, a frog, a baby chick – all carefully preserved in glass jars. Leonisa Ardizzone, the owner, put the jars there to attract attention to the small, for-profit science center.
Ardizzone, a teacher and education professor, opened Storefront Science in January 2012 after being frustrated by what she saw as a lack of engaging science education in many public schools. At a time when many New York City students are falling behind in science, Ardizzone has designed a hands-on space and classes meant to capture children’s imaginations.
“I do think that children and families, but especially children, are looking for ways to make meaning of the world and to see that science matters: to interact with gross things in jars or to build stuff and ask someone, ‘how does it work?’ They don’t always get to do that in school.”
At Storefront Science, children participate in courses like Darn Tootin’ Newton, which focuses on the laws of motion, or Whose Genes Are You Wearing?, a crash-course in the human building blocks of DNA. The store also hosts “Open Exploration” several times a week, a rotating selection of activities that might include examining animal specimens, building marble racers or experimenting with magnets.
During both class and exploration times, Ardizzone encourages her students to ask questions, formulate hypotheses and test them through experiments. This approach, known as inquiry-based learning, is something she says is missing in many classrooms due to the focus on standardized testing.
Felicia Mensah, a professor of Science Education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, trains and observes science teachers across the city. She said that she often sees science taught in a very test-focused way.
“A lot of times the way that science is being taught in schools is very much in the traditional, where teachers give worksheets for students to complete or they’re telling students answers to questions or students are doing a lot of independent seat work,” Mensah said.
This approach seems to be hurting New York City students. In 2009, the last year for which data is available, 44 percent of the city’s fourth graders scored below the basic level on a national standardized science test. More than 60 percent of eighth graders missed that mark. Students at both levels were able to perform simple, computer-modeled experiments, but they had difficulty interpreting their data and explaining their conclusions, the kind of higher-level thinking skills that Mensah says inquiry-based learning encourages.
“When students are able to engage in inquiry themselves, it just opens up their opportunities to be able to feel the excitement,” Mensah said. “Students are able to discover for themselves. They are able to question for themselves.”
That excitement was on display one recent evening during the Darn Tootin’ Newton class. To learn about force and motion, the students built an electric marble racer and were attempting to make the marble fall through a basket by way of a trampoline. After a few missed tries, they adjusted the angle of the trampoline and added gates to the track to slow the marble. When the marble landed in the basket there were high fives and smiles all around.
There is not yet any statistical evidence to show that the classes at Storefront Science have improved students’ scientific knowledge, but parents like Jonny Schremmer have noticed a difference. Her son Huck has taken multiples courses at Storefront Science.
“I’ve definitely noticed huge changes in his understanding of science. The other day he taught me all about the food chain, giving me definitions of producers, primary consumers, secondary consumers,” she said. “He didn’t talk about this like it was a dull subject; to him it is very, very exciting because of the way Leonisa presented it.”
At $325 for each 12-week session, Storefront Science’s classes are less expensive than many New York City activities, but are still too costly for many families. Ardizzone said she is aware that the cost could be a challenge, but hopes to someday offer scholarships. She wants Storefront Science to be accessible for everyone.
“The aim would be to make it an inviting play space for learning and to help the greater community see that science literacy, science learning matters,” she said.
Lindsay Armstrong will graduate from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in December 2012. She was an intern at MetroFocus this summer.