The Maine Discovery Museum reopened to the public on Friday after a 2-year closure. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The children’s museum in Bangor has secured $500,000 in funding from Congress that it plans to use to launch a Science Teacher Academy this fall focused on developing an out-of-classroom program to hook elementary-school students on science.

The Maine Discovery Museum’s award came from the $1.5 trillion spending package signed into law late last week.

The new academy will bring teachers and administrators together with Maine museums, learning centers and other organizations to create a hands-on, out-of-classroom science education program for students in kindergarten through grade 5, to complement existing elementary school science curriculum.

For years, less emphasis has been placed on science education at elementary schools, in favor of focusing on reading, math and test preparation, said Niles Parker, executive director of the Maine Discovery Museum. And yet, Parker said, education in science, technology and engineering are among the highest priorities at the middle and high school levels — despite the fact that many children aren’t exposed to much of that at a crucial early age.

“Every study shows that the earlier kids get exposed to something and get their hands on it, the better they are at it and the more passionate about it they become,” Parker said. “It’s incumbent to make sure kids are interested in science as early as possible, instead of waiting until they’re in high school.”

Rather than develop an in-classroom curriculum, however, the Science Teacher Academy will partner with elementary teachers at schools statewide to create science learning experiences outside the classroom. A teacher and students might visit a place like a museum, aquarium, laboratory or other off-campus site for a fun, interactive, informal day of learning with leaders in science and science education in Maine.

“One of the things that excites us most about this is the opportunity to collaborate with lots of different organizations and individuals, and connect teachers and schools with others in the sciences in Maine,” Parker said.

The pilot program will start this fall, and Parker said he’d already had initial contact with a number of Maine elementary school teachers who want to be a part of the first cohort, many of whom are in rural school districts that may lack the resources to offer a more extensive K-5 science curriculum.

Parker said the Science Teacher Academy is part of a larger goal the museum has to transform STEAM — the popular acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts and math — education in Maine. The Maine Discovery Museum has already made significant investments in other programming, including its popular Maine Science Festival and Maine Science Podcast, and the Discovery Kits it began selling and distributing during the pandemic — take-home boxes filled with fun, educational science experiments and learning materials.

The museum, the Challenger Learning Center and other science and community leaders in the Bangor region are also still at work pursuing their even loftier goal of building a permanent science museum and education center in Bangor, a project announced last fall that is still in the early planning stages.

“This funding is part of a transformational investment in science education in our communities,” Parker said. “We still have a long way to go, but this is a huge step forward.”

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.