Partner Highlight: Explore Science and Bars without Barriers in Shreveport, Louisiana

By: Alan Brown, Sci-Port Discovery Center

Sci-Port Discovery Center

In July 2015, with funding from the Beaird Family Foundation, Sci-Port Discovery Center began a joint venture with the Caddo Parish Sheriff's Workforce Re-entry Facility. While that re-entry program provides job training and skills, our Bars without Barriers program provides training on Informal Science Education techniques and activities in order to serve two primary goals. First, we want to raise awareness of the importance of STEM education because we work from the assumption that the offenders’ children will someday engineer the spaceships expected to carry our children to Mars. Second, whether those children grow up to be doctors, engineers, artists or athletes, those children will be better people if their parents are involved in their lives, and the STEM activities and communication skills we teach can help those offenders rebuild whatever bonds may have been strained by their years of incarceration.

The program is comprised of six classes, each of which is followed by a supervised parent visit. Each class is designed around a theme such as "Science in the Supermarket." Science begins with simple observations, and a supermarket is full of opportunities to engage children in observation. For instance, the produce department is, in essence, a zoo for fruits and vegetables, and a large box of mashed potato mix is, surprisingly, much lighter than a smaller box of pancake mix. For younger kids, a box of rice pilaf mix makes a great shaker: combine it with another boxed grain like quinoa or couscous and you have a great sensory experiment, given that they produce different pitches. This sort of example-driven, staff-led instruction is then combined with activities inspired by the theme: For Science in the Yard, for instance, the offenders learn to make seed balls and pinecone bird feeders, identify common "urban birds" through Urban Bird Bingo, and get their hands dirty dissecting plants.

We were excited by the opportunity to fold the NISE Net Explore Science: Zoom into Nano physical kit into our Science in the City theme. That week’s focus is on cheap or free local resources available to parents actively engaged in their kids’ STEM education: Around Shreveport, we have a number of fantastic, free opportunities, ranging from wildlife refuges to the Air Force Museum located at Barksdale Air Force Base.

  

Pairing that discussion with the Explore Science: Zoom into Nano kit was a perfect fit. As with most populations, the offenders had limited experience with nanotechnology prior to our training, and beyond the basic training afforded by the activity write-ups we kept that training to a minimum. This was intentional. We wouldn’t expect the offenders to brush up on steam technology before heading to the Water Works Museum or study up on owls before heading to the local nature park’s annual Owl Night Open House. Taking your child somewhere you’ve never been and exposing your child to concepts that are unfamiliar to the parent involves a degree of risk that some populations are more comfortable taking than others. While Sci-Port staff were there to lend support, the Zoom into Nano kit forced the offenders to take those risks.

Of course, every parent has heard of owls and heard of steam. That is not true of nanotechnology. Rather than throwing the offenders into the kit completely blind, we introduced the concept through the activities Measure Yourself, Gravity Fail, Ooblek and Ferrofluids. Next, in order for the offenders to gain a little more experience with the concepts, we had them break into teams and play I Spy Nano and the Power of Tens game. Finally, working in small groups, the offenders studied the activity write-ups and worked with Smelly Balloons, UV Bracelets, Draw a Circuit, Mystery Shapes, Rainbow Film and Mystery Sand.

The following week, the supervised family visit was, as typical, controlled chaos. The excitement of both parents and children during the bi-weekly family visits is a refreshing change of pace from what we typically witness at Sci-Port, where parents with faces in phones tend to miss out on the fun!  There is a tendency to try to do everything at once, so keeping the Explore Science: Zoom into Nano kit of activities separate and organized became a Sisyphean challenge. Sci-Port staff is there as a resource, but the offenders are in charge. Things designed to use a drop of nail polish or orange extract never go quite according to plan, and all it takes is one restless and curious child (named Eli, in our case) to mix differently colored sand samples.

While a good time was had by all, observation and a post-visit informal survey revealed that learning did take place. UV Bracelets and Smelly Balloons were, as always, a huge hit, and the two games (I Spy Nano and Power of Tens) both kept the families engaged for extended periods of time.

Over all, the training session and family visit where we first debuted the Explore Science kit was perhaps our most instructive session to date. We continue to fold a number of nano activities into our Bars without Barriers training sessions, including Ready Set Fizz, Ooblek, Smelly Balloons, Ferrofluids and the games. But, we feel that the true value of the Explore Science: Zoom into Nano kit came in the way those programs are organized. 

As we explore opportunities to expand this sort of STEM-based parenting-skills class by offering the program to other parents (both incarcerated and civilian), we are eager to apply those lessons more broadly. We look at the Explore Science and other NISE Net physical kits and training materials as the perfect model for how we create our own kits and lessons for use during training sessions and family visits.

Learn more about the Explore Science: Zoom into Nano kit and all the activities mentioned above by visiting http://nisenet.org/explorescience-nano

For more about Sci-Port Discovery Center's Bars without Barriers program, please contact Alan Brown, Director of Education, at abrown@sciport.org