Furthering Science Education for Urban Youth

Written by
Lois Elfman

Mar 12, 2024

Mar 12, 2024 • by Lois Elfman

After almost three decades with the New York City Department of Education working in various capacities, much of them focused on mathematics and science, Dr. Linda Curtis-Bey accepted a position with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. Today, she serves as the museum’s senior director of education and co-director of the Master of Arts in Teaching Earth Science Residency program.

“As a kid, I came to the museum, like many of our school groups, once a year,” says Curtis-Bey, who grew up in NYC. “Now, we talk about DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and belonging, and it was a sense of coming into the museum with other Black and brown kids and feeling somewhat alienated.

“I always had this sense of not belonging, so one of the things I focus on now is school groups and developing a better sense of belonging,” she continues. “I work with visitor services, security and everyone involved with school groups when they come to the museum to improve the experience.”

Educating Science Teachers

NYC schools have a shortage of science teachers. AMNH’s master’s degree is a 15-month program in which participants receive the instruction, mentoring and classroom experience necessary to become certified earth science teachers for grades 7–12. In addition to courses, it includes a teaching residency at an urban school, which allows them to see how the concepts they learn can be implemented. The master’s students also spend two weeks conducting field research.

Following receipt of the master’s degree, participants, most of whom are early career teachers, have access to two years of support, including professional development focused on classroom management and curriculum development. Most of the graduates teach in high needs schools and remain in NYC.

“With the museum’s program, they always have an educator teaching with a scientist from the museum (AMNH is a research hub in multiple fields),” says Curtis-Bey, who teaches one of the courses. “The teachers that graduate from our program are extremely strong and are recruited by schools before they even graduate.”

Building Opportunities

“There is a lot of research and evidence that points to students not only learning content in the classroom, but learning outside of the classroom,” says Curtis-Bey. “As a former elementary school teacher, I thought it was really important to get students outside of the school. When I taught in Brooklyn, we used to go on multiple trips to the Botanical Gardens, to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and to the Brooklyn Libraries because that had a different impact on students.”

Coming to the AMNH can enhance classroom learning, so Curtis-Bey’s office works with teachers. There is a hotline and office hours to help align what is being studied in the classroom with offerings at the museum. Education guides give teachers pre-visit activities and activities to do at the museum.

Curtis-Bey is involved with the longtime Urban Advantage program, a citywide partnership between the Department of Education and eight science-related cultural institutions, AMNH being the lead. It offers professional learning for the teachers, support for administrators and support for families.

There is also AMNH’s recently launched Beyond Elementary Explorations in Science (BEES) program, which offers a week-long field trip experience for NYC public school students. BEES utilizes the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation, which AMNH opened in 2023, and students are in the new Gilder classrooms.

“It’s about students and teachers understanding how the museum can supplement and enrich what they’re doing in school,” Curtis-Bey says. “Teachers get professional development credits because we teach them about the next generation science standards, culturally responsive teaching, DEI, about identity and about how they can more effectively work with students and more effectively use the resources at the museum to support what they’re doing in their classrooms.”

Creating Pipelines

Instead of contacting teachers or even principals directly, Curtis-Bey suggests contacting school superintendents to discuss programming in which NYC public school students can interact with the museum. This enables superintendents to suggest schools within their districts that would benefit most from an AMNH program.

“That has gone a long way in developing good relationships with school districts,” Curtis-Bey says. “Especially if you want to go to them to either place graduates from our master’s program or to do programs for teachers.”

The master’s degree program focuses on teachers who will teach in middle and high schools. Elementary school teachers teach many subjects, and some are not as strong in science as they are in English or social studies. Curtis-Bey says strengthening the science skills of those teachers is part of the AMNH’s job, and there are professional learning options available to them.

“There should be a spirit of inquiry for the students,” Curtis-Bey says. “The goal for me now at the museum is to keep teachers excited and therefore students excited about the possibilities and the fact that they have what they need to become a scientist. It’s a community effort to keep students focused and excited about STEM education and STEM careers, so we try to work with all pieces of that community.”