Taking Science Out of the Classroom
Dr. Marcia Winter and the VCU-CMoR Partnership
If there’s one thing Dr. Marcia Winter knows, it’s that there is a lot we can learn from children. Winter, assistant professor of developmental psychology, is passionate about studying child development and “taking the science out of the classroom” so that families can apply it to their own settings. Winter makes this possible through a longstanding VCU Service-Learning partnership with the Children’s Museum of Richmond (CMoR).
On any given weekday afternoon, stop by the Living Lab at CMoR and you’ll probably see a child playing the “Whisper Task” with a VCU service-learning student scientist. In this activity, the scientist shows the child images on a deck of cards and gives the child simple instructions to whisper the name of each image aloud. The catch? Some of the deck are notable characters from popular kids tv show Paw Patrol — and seeing their favorite characters often excites kids so much that they can’t control their whisper and shout the name aloud.
Director of Education at CMoR Krista Dawson says that engaging scientific demonstrations like the “Whisper Task” is a way for children to “elevate the museum as a place of learning through play” and for parents to learn “how to temper their expectations of their child’s abilities, what is typical behavior for children that age, and open their minds about what more they can learn about their child’s development.” In the case of the “Whisper Task,” for instance, if a child screams when they see something exciting, it’s because they are still developing their impulse control — and is completely normal behavior for a young kiddo.
Children and parents aren’t the only ones learning in the museum: the VCU service-learning students are too. To design successful activities for the Living Lab, students have to take the scientific studies they learn about in the classroom and break them down in ways that are fun and make sense for both the parents and children. This practical application of theoretical knowledge, Dawson and Winter emphasize, teaches the students important research dissemination skills. Through this work, VCU students help CMoR make science approachable for the community and, at the same time, get hands-on practice themselves.
The partnership also makes science more approachable by exposing children to the many faces in science. Winter’s student scientists are “diverse in race, ethnicity, sex, gender identities, and ages,” she says, and “this diversity is represented [by the students] in the museum to children.” In this way, children from diverse backgrounds are able to see themselves represented as a person in science. Since research suggests that the presence of relatable role models can impact whether underrepresented minorities participate in STEM fields, this element of Dawson and Winter’s work is especially critical to developing pathways into STEM for children of all backgrounds.
The service-learning partnership between Dawson and Winter offers a compelling example of the potential impact university-community partnerships can have on both community members and VCU students. This partnership, established seven years ago and supported in part by grants from the Office of Service-Learning, has touched the lives of hundreds of VCU students and countless families — and shows no signs of stopping. Dawson highlights her commitment to the partnership, saying that their work is “worth doing and as long as the students are interested, the opportunity will be available.”
Dawson also encourages faculty from other departments to collaborate with the Children’s Museum of Richmond to see how many other ways VCU can make science accessible within our local Richmond community: “If other departments wanted to do service-learning through the museum, it would be welcomed to have someone come in with a different lens to inform our practices.”
For more information, please visit VCU Service-Learning and the Children’s Museum of Richmond.