This new program allows Michigan students to learn from science professionals—anywhere

On a recent school day, 30 fourth graders watched a swirling tornado of fire materialize many miles away. The students in Jeanelle Wonders' Adrian, Mich. classroom were among the first in the state to experience a new program designed to bring informal learning programs to all 83 Michigan counties.

Researchers have long recognized the value of informal, hands-on learning, particularly within the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. Partnerships between schools and informal learning institutions are often effective in helping students succeed in STEM. However, many schools do not always have access to the resources—that's where distance learning comes in.

According to The New Media Consortium—an organization that works to progress and better understand the use of technology in education—hybrid learning (a combination of online and in-person) is on the rise in K-12 schools. The organization's Horizon publication reports that this approach supports personalized learning, resulting in more engaged, self-directed students. 
Image from the "fire tornado" demonstration
The Michigan Science Center has responded to this need with ECHO, a distance learning program that combines technology and hands-on elements like the fire tornado. Early reviews from students and teachers have been very positive.

"The students really enjoyed the experience. They were intrigued by all the activities," Wonders says. "I learned a lot too."

ECHO, part of the Science Center's Traveling Science program, uses video conferencing to connect classrooms with a museum educator who conducts interactive lessons in real time. All content is aligned with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a new set of national science standards designed to help students achieve a cohesive understanding of science over time.

"With students, variety is really important, because we need to approach learning from every direction," says Charles Gibson, Michigan Science Science director of innovation and outreach. "By adopting many different options, like ECHO, we can transform how students learn."

ECHO's virtual visits are approximately 45 minutes and no special hardware or equipment is required. Hands-on materials are provided prior to the visit for a truly interactive experience.

"All you need is a webcam, computer, speakers and internet access," says Jeanane Charara, Michigan Science Center distance learning coordinator. "We use hands-on materials, games, demonstrations, and question and answer sessions to keep the students engaged."

Current ECHO programming is available for students in grades two through five and covers fire ecology and plant science. Additional programming is under development. 

"ECHO is a really great resource for teachers," Charara says. "NGSS is relatively new, and teachers are still adapting as they help prepare students for three-dimensional learning."

ECHO's technology will also be used on-site at the museum's new Toyota Engineering 4D Theater to stream live interactions with with science professionals. Over the summer, Science Center summer campers and members filled the theater for a presentation with Karma Snyder, an engineer from NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center, a rocket-testing facility in Hancock County, Miss. Attendees listened to Snyder discuss NASA's Journey to Mars project and participated in a question and answer session.

Students are also engaging with ECHO through the Peer Learners Connect program. Each week, a group of middle school students meet at the Science Center to learn effective science communication techniques. Under the guidance of Charara, the students are working on their own distance learning program.

"They're learning step by step how to plan and develop their own online presentations," Gibson says. "They have some crazy, cool ideas, and they're all so excited about the opportunity."

Since opening in 2012, the Michigan Science Center has been taking science into the community. Its Traveling Science Program brings demonstrations, science fairs, and large scale presentations to classrooms, libraries, and community festivals in both the lower and upper peninsulas. 

Every year, the Science Center reaches more than 170,000 people, both at the museum and through Traveling Science, and is aiming to increase that number by reaching all 83 counties in Michigan by the end of 2018 with the help of ECHO. 

"Formal STEM learning is only one component of educational learning that happens throughout a lifetime," says Dr. Tonya Matthews, president and CEO of the Michigan Science Center. "With informal STEM learning, we're able to engage curious minds of all ages with STEM in inspiring and meaningful ways."

To learn more about ECHO, contact the Michigan Science Center at Outreach@Mi-Sci.org. Teachers and school representatives can register for a virtual visit from the Michigan Science Center at cilc.org or fieldtripzoom.com. 
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