Informal STEM Learning Luminaries: Bernie Zubrowski

August 12th, 2015

CAISE presents “ISE Luminaries,” a series of interviews with leading practitioners, researchers, and evaluators who shaped the informal STEM learning field as we know it with their influential work. Beginning our series is an exchange with sculptor, exhibit developer, and educator Bernie Zubrowski.

What originally got you interested in exploring natural or physical phenomena?

I was a tinkerer when I was a kid. I took things apart and built various kinds of devices with materials that were around the house. This curiosity has stayed with me my whole life. When I was developing activities for kids at the Boston Children’s museum, I chose phenomena that was interesting to me and then found ways of presenting it to children.

When did you first get involved in helping others investigate and learn about the natural and physical world?

I first became involved as a science educator when I was in the Peace Corps in Bangladesh. I was assigned to teach science to middle school students. There was a very limited budget for equipment, so I had to improvise a lot. There was also the challenge of teaching in Bengali because of my limited acquisition of the language. I had to rely heavily on nonverbal communication and became a close observer of what students did with the materials I presented to them.

As an artist, have you always seen natural connections between creativity in the arts and sciences?

Most of my working life has been in science education developing curriculum, writing children’s science books, and various kinds of teacher education. I tried to design activities and workshops so that there was genuine scientific inquiry. I had to triangulate between the science concepts, student interests, student understanding, and the kind of materials I presented to them. So, it was a type of design challenge. Also, I found that aesthetically interesting phenomena readily engaged students and teachers, and was a way of introducing them to a process where they could begin to investigate phenomena in a more scientific manner. My pedagogical approach was different from the prevailing way of designing curriculum. Rather than starting with concepts and finding materials to illustrate the concept, I started with a phenomena and materials. Then I spent time designing the materials and structuring the activities so that there was a natural progression leading to the development of science concepts.

Bernie Zubrowski

In contemporary approaches to art some artists take a conceptual approach. They start with a concept and then find materials to play with that can relate to the concept. On the other hand, as an artist, as I did with science activities, I start with materials that suggest ways that I can manipulate it to get to specific effects. All of my pieces involve movement, so engineering-type problems come about. I do occasionally draw upon my science background to solve some of these problems.Overall, for me there are some similarities between creativity in art and science. However, I think there are real differences that must be kept in mind when involving students in a project where art and science may happen.

What do you think about the “STEAM” movement? Is there something different about making the connection more explicit via this acronym? Do you think it’s generally a positive thing?

I was pleased to see that there is a movement to include art as an important subject matter. Some schools are attempting to make an explicit effort to keep art activities in their overall program. However, I suspect that the art portion is being done in a superficial manner and is in the service of other subjects while not giving it its full due. Recently, I volunteered at a local school system trying to get a science and an art teacher working together on a common project. The art teacher was okay with the project, but not the science teacher. The pressure to address state test questions is greatly felt by science teachers;they feel like they don’t have the time to go in-depth with various topics.

Have you seen children or adults become more comfortable as experimenters when they approach phenomena from an art “entry point”?

As mentioned previously, I have found that aesthetically interesting phenomena or materials is a great way of getting students exploring and “sciencing”. However, in the past I would not have described it as an art “entry point”. I think art activities need to be done in a way that is open-ended and allows students to express themselves. I see them as parallel, but they can be closely related activities. For instance, activities with inks and pigments can be done in a way where, in separate sessions, students paint with these materials and express themselves, whereas in other parallel sessions, they explore and carry out experiments regarding the chemical and physical properties of these materials. In a similar manner, mirrors, shadows, mobiles, and air and water movement could be a means of self-expression and scientific exploration.

Having been connected to informal science education for many years, what changes have you seen and what do you think are the interesting new directions?

Informal education covers a wide-range of activities. Before I retired I was involved in developing curriculum for afterschool programs. In this particular area I have seen great changes compared to 15 years ago. There are now a variety and a number of efforts to involve elementary school children in science and to design engineering activities. However, some of these efforts are not deep enough, and they are superficial in what is done. Hopefully, as these types of projects become more established in the makeup of afterschool programming, a greater effort will be made to have the activities happen more often and in a more in-depth manner.

As a versatile, reflective practitioner, what have you learned from learning research, or evaluation?

During my time as a science educator I sought to find out more about various areas of research that might help me understand children’s exploratory behavior and how they go about making sense of the world. I looked into what had be done about play. At one point in the 60’s and 70’s there was an active effort studying animal play and pre-schoolers play, but very little observation of older children. Nevertheless, I did find some of this useful. Some researchers and theoreticians closely linked exploratory behavior and play. Based on this connection I found that there was a way of designing curriculum and exhibits that could be useful. For instance, lots of people tend to associate play and exploration as completely open-ended and without boundaries. But, if you think about games, they all have boundaries and rules, which. you need to be playful. Closely connected to play is the aesthetic impulse, as some philosophers and theoreticians have proposed. So, I looked into this area of research and found some useful ways of designing educational activities. A great deal of research in science education has also looked at the role of models and metaphors in the learning of science concepts.

Drawing upon my on-going observations of children, and widely-reading into these different areas of research, I wrote a book that brings together these seemingly disparate areas of knowledge. I start each chapter in the book with a scenario of elementary children exploring, and then use this scenario to develop a review of various literature. (The scenarios are in a set of videos available from the Education Development Center (EDC) titled Learning to See. In the book I link together sensory understanding, empathy, play, exploration, and model making.

If readers are interested, the book title is, Exploration and Meaning Making in the Learning of Science, published by Springer. Though the book is very expensive, individual chapters can be downloaded at a reasonable rate, and a significant discount is available if the book is ordered by an institution.

As the types of designed settings and experiences have varied and multiplied over the years, have you seen informal practice inform what is going on in school classrooms, and/or vice versa?

I have seen attempts to make afterschool programs more school-like, which I find highly disturbing. With the pressure of state testing I don’t think schools will allow a more playful and creative approach to the teaching of science.

Visit Bernie’s website to learn more about him and his work.