Not only were the spaces now suitable for science, but by the end of the program, most of the teens were headed to college. Before participating, more than half had been D or F students.
What had made the difference? How had this program resulted in such a marked transformation in so many students?
“We broke through the barriers they had to learning,” explains Miller. “We figured out that one of the biggest deficits was a lack of experience with the natural world. We set out to fill in those gaps by providing the kids with real-world problems and the opportunity to solve them by working together. When they became comfortable, then they could learn.”
Being comfortable with one another and with science allowed participants to learn from successes as well as challenges. Most of the teens in the program had never had a pet, so they decided they wanted to purchase a fish tank. But after setting it up, it didn’t take long for all the fish to die.
“What happened?” the kids wanted to know. “Why did all the fish die?” While providing guidance, Miller and her colleagues encouraged the teens to find the answers on their own, in any way they could. So they read about the problem in books and on the Web, and they discovered that many variables—including water temperature, the composition of the water, the diet of the fish, and the amount of waste (ammonia) the fish produce—contribute to the health of the fish population. They collected data about their own fish and uncovered the reason for their demise: the ammonia level in the tank was too high. By changing the water more frequently, the kids could prevent this from happening again.
“Once students have an experience like this, when they see that they can solve a problem they find compelling, the first major barrier is removed,” explains Miller. “From that point, they become interested and motivated to develop the skills they need to become thinkers and problem solvers.”
To assess each student’s progress, Miller and her colleagues asked students to demonstrate what they had learned, often by asking each student to develop a work product. For example, to explain their thinking about the design of a learning space, students produced detailed drawings illustrating each design element. Then each student gave a presentation about his or her design. “Their presentations were very articulate,” says Miller. “They revealed that the kids were not mimicking what someone else had said. They had internalized what they were describing.”
But perhaps most significant of all, as a result of these experiences, the teens felt differently about themselves. Not only could they solve problems, they could solve scientific problems. “In our culture, if you can do science, then you must be really smart,” says Miller. “If you can do science, you can do anything. By uncovering the hidden scientist in each student, their identity changed, from nonlearner to learner.”
As part of the assessment, one of the teens in the program described this transformation in his own words. “I was misdiagnosed,” he concluded. “I was told I was stupid, but if I can teach at a science center, I must be smart.”15