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White bubble letters on the brightly painted purple wall proclaim: "Engineering is cool!"
At The Works, a science and technology-savvy museum/playground in Bloomington, the goal is to engage children in the sciences at an early age, and perhaps motivate them to pursue science careers down the road.
There is a pressing need for more students to enter the "STEM" fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics, said The Works CEO Jill Measells. But elementary-aged children are often a "forgotten age group" when it comes to STEM education, said Kris Best, the museum's director of development.
The Works tries to engage kids with hands-on exhibits and experiments that can make learning look more like play than work.
Its goal is "to awaken every child's inner engineer."
Measalls said while the United States needs more people pursuing these careers, all students should have exposure to engineering because it develops skills like creativity, collaboration, problem-solving and communication.
For the 2011-12 school year, Minnesota schools had to integrate engineering curriculum into classes at all grade levels.
The Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards in Science were changed in 2009 to include engineering education requirements, said John Olson, a specialist with the Minnesota Department of Education.
At all grade levels, teachers must embed hands-on lab activities rooted in scientific inquiry and engineering design into their science curriculum.
And kids in kindergarten and grades 2, 4, 6 and 9-12 have specific accomplishments that they must complete. A fourth-grader, for example, must identify and investigate a design solution and describe how it's used to solve an everyday problem, Olson said -- like how a tool was designed to meet a certain function.
"It's part of a call from our professional community to be more forthright in this area," Olson said.
Measalls said a lack of engagement in formal education can push students away from STEM fields. So The Works tries to supplement that education with workshops for groups of schoolchildren.
While The Works is open to the general public Thursday to Monday, including evening hours until 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, it also hosts field trips by dozens of elementary school classes each year as teachers look for fun ways to supplement their STEM programs.
First-graders clambered around a wooden ramp and raced wheels on a recent Tuesday afternoon as their teacher, Darcie Mullinax, looked on.
"That's always a hot spot," she said, pointing at the ramp and then to a room filled with black foam blocks where other students were building a house.
Her class from the Annunciation Parish School of Minneapolis was visiting The Works on a field trip. The students had just completed a "Mixing Molecules" workshop, which allowed them to experiment with chemical properties and color mixing -- something they don't get a chance to do back at school.
While the school in the past has sent students on field trips to the Children's Museum and the Science Museum, they now come to The Works because the space is smaller and allows teachers to watch all their students at once.
Best said that school groups generally spend about an hour in a workshop learning a lesson that supplements Minnesota education standards, followed by an hour in the museum to roam around and experiment.
Most of The Works' educators hold degrees in elementary education but have a passion for science. While half a dozen educators work year-round, The Works hires additional staff in the summer.
In addition to lessons for school classes, The Works offers summer camps on subjects such as "Lego Robotics," "Motor Boats and Bottle Rockets" for kids going into grades K-7, and, of course, it will host birthday parties.
The museum offers scholarships to summer camps and makes school tour admissions available on a sliding scale to ensure that economically disadvantaged students have access.
The Works opened its first exhibit in 1995 at the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum of Natural History. For the next six years, it occupied temporary spaces provided by malls in Minnetonka, Eden Prairie and Edina before finally settling into a permanent home on the third floor of the Edina Community Center in 2002.
The big move
After nearly a decade it was bursting at the seams with exhibits and visitors. That prompted the move to Bloomington last fall.
In its old home, The Works could remain open to the public for only 12 hours a week, Measells said. At its news three-story facility, it can stay open about triple that time. Since its grand opening on Nov. 12, she said, The Works has welcomed more than 25,000 visitors to the new site.
Rebecca Schatz founded The Works because she felt children need more opportunities to explore engineering and study the man-made world. With degrees in mathematics and computer science, she also was inspired by a year she spent in the mid-1980s studying in Japan, where she saw how immersed its people had become in technology.
Currently, The Works is funded by a combination of corporate supporters, grants, individual donors and revenue from admissions.
In its spacious and brightly colored interior, the museum offers three areas for kids to experiment: "Gears and Gizmos," "Build" and "The Interactive Image." It also features a new gallery for changing exhibits like "Toys: The Inside Story," which lets children look at the insides of their favorite toys.
Along the way, kids also can learn how a street lamp turns on when it gets dark, or how a zipper operates.
When kids get interested in how things work, they want to bring that interest "from whimsical to practical," Best said. The ultimate goal is to "inspire the next generation of innovators, engineers and creative problem solvers," The Works says on its website.
The new location also sports a "family friendly" Design Lab upstairs supported by 3M Corp. There, parents and children can learn together, Measells said, by making, testing and competing with gadgets like ring gliders (straws with colored paper rings taped to them so they can fly like paper airplanes) or hovercraft (created out of CDs with a bottle cap to glide on a cushion of air provided by a balloon).
Students and families also can use "real tools," Measells said: The circuits to make motors and light bulbs all require real wiring, and students in the workshop can use drills and saws to complete their projects.
Best said the average family spends two to three hours in the museum when they visit, and she hears the same reaction over and over again from adult visitors: "I wish I had this when I was a kid."
Jill Jensen is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.