Shining a spotlight on issues surrounding the environment, biodiversity, and sustainability, the California Academy of Sciences provides educators and learners with comprehensive videos, activities, teaching guides, and more—all to inspire an interest in understanding how humans and nature coexist. We spoke to Megan Schufreider, California Academy of Sciences director of education, to learn more about the Academy's work and educational content, which can now be found in the LabXchange library.
Founded in 1853, the California Academy of Sciences is a renowned scientific and educational institution dedicated to regenerating the natural world through science, learning, and collaboration. We are an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and natural history museum in the heart of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park—and a powerful voice for biodiversity research and exploration, environmental education, and sustainability across the globe.
While it would take hours to properly summarize all of our efforts and initiatives, my department focuses on supporting preK-12 students and teachers, with goals to increase the amount of time spent learning science, improve science instructional practices, and expand access to high-quality science learning resources at no cost to educators.
If you visited the administration area where our education teams sit, you’ll find a slightly messy, somewhat boisterous floor filled with an always courageous, helpful, and competent crew of educators committed to engaging audiences of all ages, and, in turn, listening and learning from them. Our ways of working are values-oriented and people-centered, and honestly we have loads of fun, even with complex challenges.
Did I mention our adorable stuffed animal mascots? Our teacher professional development team’s mascot is Norm the Cuttlefish, chosen from the small, charismatic cephalopod in the Steinhart Aquarium. Our student-facing team selected Giselle the California Quail, in honor of our state bird which we hope will become successfully reintroduced to our hometown of San Francisco within the decade. Giselle plays a role in our field trip programming for 5th graders, and Norm primarily makes an appearance at staff retreats and planning days.
Oh, how would I ever choose! Well, [just recently], I heard from the School Outreach Coordinator at the Natural History Museum of Utah, who was requesting permission to modify a lesson from the Exploring Energy unit of Flipside Science—one of the Academy’s first content pathways jointly distributed through LabXchange—to increase relevance for the local audience of teachers attending professional development at the museum. I’m heartened each time we learn of another organization amplifying our efforts to provide free access to engaging materials for the science classroom.
Assets from Flipside Science have also been integrated within afterschool curricula in India, embedded in a U.S. based out-of-school time program for middle school, published in a Science World magazine from Scholastic, and included in syllabi at local community colleges. I’m excited each time we can connect with another educator developing an experience tied to their own classroom’s needs.
As for educators, please adapt our content as you see fit! You know your students best, and will continually learn from them. Note that we have Spanish-language materials, too, and that our videos tend to have closed captions in a variety of languages.
As for learners, the pathways nestled within LabXchange structure the material in ways that guide you from beginner concepts to more advanced ones that build on the former, so I might recommend that you take advantage of all of the associated supports embedded in a pathway.
I’m lucky in that I see the impact of our efforts every day, whether it be in the thank you notes from students visiting the Academy on a field trip, the student work posted online after a Distance Learning broadcast, or the exit tickets full of positive feedback from educators participating in our professional development workshops. The United States continues to face critical structural problems in science education; California ranks toward the bottom of the 50 states in student science achievement and per capita expenditure on public education.
While daunting, informal science education organizations like the Academy make significant improvements in science teaching and learning, and we know that we do so within an ecosystem of STEM providers working towards a common goal. My coworkers keep me motivated each day, and our partners such as LabXchange remind me that we aren’t working in a vacuum.
Ack, once again, how impossible to decide! Hmmm, I’d love to give a shout out to my friends in the Academy’s Morrison Planetarium, who entertain the public while they get seated to watch our immersive dome shows. No matter the staff member presenting, the deadpan delivery of astronomy-themed puns gets me every time. “I heard there’s a new restaurant on the Moon, but it lacks atmosphere.” Others might be groaning, but I’ll be slapping my hand on my thigh while laughing aloud!