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Maryland Science Center launches $7.5 million fundraising campaign to train young critical thinkers

A Maryland Science Center fundraising campaign is seeking to teach visitors how to be scientists through everyday do-it-yourself activities.

There's a corner on the third floor of the Maryland Science Center lined with wooden workbenches and shelves full of hammers and screwdrivers, sewing machines and circuit boards.

On this October morning, young visitors are hard at work making noise. They're talking through tin cans connected with a string, listening to the warped twang of a Slinky vibrating against wood and turning tiny knobs on an electrical panel to synthesize the sound of something like the wail of a ghost in a haunted house.

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"It's cool how sound can travel through different things," said Hope Gaskins, 13, who was visiting the science center with classmates from New Life Christian School in Frederick.

Even as kids play in "The Shed," as the exhibit is known, they're learning how to do science. The center's educators want to show children that scientific inquiry doesn't have to involve test tubes or textbooks, and only requires observation, an idea and some trial and error.

The science center launched its first fundraising campaign in more than a decade Friday with a goal of offering more experiences like this one, teaching visitors how to be scientists through everyday do-it-yourself activities. It aims to raise $7.5 million in the campaign, which is its most significant fundraising effort since it solicited donations for an expansion in 2004.

Two-thirds of the money would go toward underwriting programs designed to train the next generation of visitors to the center to think critically and ask questions. The rest would go toward updating exhibits and the center itself.

Even though the scientific method is the first science unit taught in primary school classrooms around the state and the country, many children — and even adults — don't understand it, says Pete Yancone, the science center's senior director of education. Learning environments like The Shed are intended to ingrain the process of observation and hypothesis testing that forms the basis for theories about everything from gravity to climate change.

"Even though we're teaching it every year, how come people still don't comprehend it and apply it?" Yancone said. "You have to be a participant."

The Shed invites kids to try out everything, from the high-tech — circuit board etching and soldering or animation — to the rudimentary — weaving and sewing, or making hats and masks out of paper. The common thread through its schedule of activities is a reliance on observation, questioning and critical thinking.

When the exhibit launched three years ago, it revealed how disconnected many children were from concepts like how to take apart a computer or how to weave fabric. Many of them didn't know how a screwdriver worked, and instead used a hammer as a blunt tool of exploration.

"Parents were shocked," Yancone recalled.

Clare Nicholls, the exhibit's manager, said it can be difficult to hold some kids' attention and interest — no surprise to many teachers and parents.

Getting kids to engage and take away the intended lessons takes some help. The science center keeps a handful of staff members stationed at The Shed throughout the day, guiding kids through the day's activity, spurring them with questions and answering any they might have.

That is why the fundraising is needed. Science center educators plan to use the money raised to launch more interactive, exploratory exhibits like The Shed, requiring more staff time, and they want to be flexible enough to serve both the visitors who want to spend 20 minutes and those interested enough to spend two hours.

"Facilitation is really key," Nicholls said.

The center's plans follow a decades-long shift toward teaching science as a process, as opposed to as a finite body of knowledge to be absorbed, said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif.

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"It's important that people realize the way we know things like that electrons are smaller than protons or whales are mammals, it's not that you find that in the back of the book," Branch said. "It's that people went out and investigated in the natural world."

Since it opened in 1976, the science center has been a place for informal, hands-on learning for children across Maryland. Last year, half a million people visited, including 85,000 schoolchildren, teachers and parents from around the state. Another 150,000 people were exposed to its traveling education programs.

Science center leaders have gone through their own process of trial and discovery over that time.

"We've learned a lot so we can make it even better," said Van Reiner, the museum's CEO.

The money, $4.6 million of which has already been raised, also will go toward giving some of the center's oldest and most popular features a face lift.

After years of having sand brushed off of them, models of dinosaur bones are in need of replacement, for example. A playing and learning area for the science center's youngest visitors is slated to be refurbished and expanded.

Even those areas fit with the mission of training critical thinkers, Yancone said.

A toddler who drops a ball down a spiraling chute absorbs the observation that the ball accelerates as it whirls around — without being old enough to say "physics."

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