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Museum educator's on a mission to teach science to all

By Cindy Atoji Keene

What kid doesn’t remember a field trip to the museum? But Annette Sawyer grew up an hour west of Bangor, Maine, and such visits were never part of her school year. This is part of the reason she appreciates the exhibit halls and programs at the Museum of Science in Boston, where she is lead educator. The educational role of the Museum of Science is at the core of its service to the public, said Sawyer, who heads up a team of museum educators who offer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education in many formats – not just school field trips, but also workshops and courses, overnights, and teacher professional development. And as school budgets tighten and field trips become less feasible, “backwards field trips” or traveling programs take museum lessons beyond its walls into the community. “Staying relevant in science not only encompasses natural history or evolution, but also talking about current events, whether it’s the Mars landing or the Higgs particle because that’s how kids get excited about the next discovery,” said Sawyer, 59.

Today’s museum stresses assessibility – being inclusive and encouraging participation of the widest possible audience – and Sawyer has been working on making the museum more welcoming for children with disabilities such as autism, through universal design, technology and communication aids, and hands-on materials. “Making ourselves more welcoming, whether it’s using larger exhibit labels or captioned multimedia programs, ultimately helps meet the needs of all visitors,” said Sawyer, who has also been working on developing creative revenue streams through corporate partnerships and sponsorship of exhibits.

Q: What’s on your desk right now?
A: A bunch of paperwork, of course, including an old business plan that I recently found. I read through it, and thought, ‘This is awesome, we accomplished most of this.’” There is also a box of Mentos for a workshop on rockets, when we’ll explore the principles of force, motion and gravity by shooting off bottles powered by the geyser-like effusive combination of Diet Coke and Mentos. Finally, there’s a memo about a new fleet of STARLAB portable planetarium vans, and the fun part of my job is deciding what color they should wrapped in.

Q: How do you align exhibits and programs with state learning standards?
A: Anytime we have an exhibit, such as the temporary exhibit A Day in Pompeii, I brainstorm about different angles to support curriculum goals. It’s obvious that there was science in the volcano eruption, but maybe Latin classes and early history classes may not be realizing that the artifacts, language and social studies are also relevant to them.

Q: You started your career as a speech therapist. How did you make your way to the museum?
A: I realized that speech therapy wasn’t a good fit, and thought that engineering might be a better career. I got a degree in chemical engineering then worked for decades at Polaroid. I know way too much about silver-based negatives. When public interest turned from instant film to digital cameras, I moved to the Tufts University technology transfer office to work with researchers to license their inventions. Then, eight years ago, already a loyal museum member, I decided to switch to a career that allowed me combine my science and business skills.

Q: Was it hard to transition to working at a museum?
A: It took a good year and a half to adjust to the museum of culture. Back then, there was no formal training for museum studies; everything was learned on the job. I’m a geeky nerd, and I needed to adapt to my fellow museum types. I have a colleague who leads safaris in Tanzania every year; another college who builds a singing Tesla coil. We have a lot of delight bringing forth the quirky bits of knowledge we all know.

Q: What little known fact did you learn this week at the museum?
A: How to identify various owl pellets as well as the details of the Mars landing.

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