Shawn Laatsch, director of the Versant Power Astronomy Center at the University of Maine, guides teachers though how to make a tool to view solar eclipses safely at the Maine Discovery Museum. The museum hosted a conference Monday to preview its upcoming Science Teacher Academy pilot program. Credit: Kathleen O'Brien / BDN

The Maine Discovery Museum in Bangor will soon kick off a year-long pilot program aimed at helping elementary school teachers develop hands-on, out-of-classroom lessons to hook young students on science.

The museum hosted a conference Monday to preview the museum’s Science Teacher Academy, a federally funded pilot program for kindergarten through fifth grade teachers.

The pilot program targets elementary school teachers because science often isn’t emphasized for young children, and science-focused professional development opportunities for those teachers are hard to come by, Kim Stewart, director of community engagement, said. Those factors can give students little foundation in the subject when they reach middle and high schools at which science is a priority.

“Maine isn’t alone in not offering elementary science professional development. It’s a nationwide problem,” Kate Dickerson, Maine Discovery Museum executive director, said. “What we keep seeing is middle school is too late to get kids excited about science because at some point, they’ve already decided it’s for me or it’s not for me.”

The lack of science-focused professional development is coupled with standardized testing favoring English, literacy and math, Ashley Graves, a College of the Atlantic junior studying elementary education, said. Graves is completing student teaching in a second grade classroom at Tremont Consolidated School in Bass Harbor.

The Science Teacher Academy will combine the museum’s expertise in informal science education with local science professionals to help teachers build confidence and resources to offer new science lessons, Stewart said. Those lessons could include trips to museums, or be hands-on projects that help young children learn the science behind the world around them.

In the introductory conference on Monday, Shawn Laatsch, director of the Versant Power Astronomy Center at the University of Maine, gave teachers ideas on how to incorporate next year’s total solar eclipse into classroom lessons and showed them how to build tools to view the eclipse safely with shoeboxes.

Hands-on lesson ideas from Laatsch also included how to teach students what causes the moon phases using styrofoam balls and a flashlight. In another session, representatives from Wabanaki Youth in Science discussed the importance of incorporating Indigenous ecological knowledge into Western science curriculum, something that rarely happens.

The Old Town-based organization offers in-school and after-school programs, camps and internships for elementary school to college-aged students. Wabanaki Youth in Science’s executive director, tish carr, said the goal of the organization is to keep native youth engaged in education, as less than 1 percent of Native youth graduate from post-secondary education.

Carol Null, a kindergarten teacher of 20 years at Pemetic Elementary School in Southwest Harbor, said regional science resources have improved their programs for students in recent years, but young age groups can still intimidate them.

“They’re naturally curious, intelligent and ask questions,” Null said. “They don’t have to be taught those skills. They just need to be nurtured and unearthed.”

The pilot program, funded primarily by $500,000 from Congress, begins in August and will include 10 teachers in its first year. By its second year, the academy plans to include at least two teachers from each of Maine’s 16 counties, Dickerson said.

The program will be a hybrid of in-person and online sessions, Dickerson said. The museum will also offer each teather’s school a stipend to cover the cost of substitute teachers during the in-person program days.

Null said she believes the academy would help all Maine teachers develop creative ways to teach science, especially at a time when she sees more educators here “offering some scripted, canned curriculum.”

“That innovative, creative practice is getting lost, and I see that happening in Maine, and that’s sad because we’ve always been more independent,,” Null said. “Anybody can read a script, but not everyone can teach.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story used an outdated title for a Maine Discovery Museum staffer and misspelled her last name, and also contained incorrect references to the museum and the Science Teacher Academy.

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...