Credit:Taod, "Self-portrait in spin"

Can children learn science through play?
by Lauren Bertin

[Blog post featured on Under the Microscope, December 2012]

A young boy approaches Dr. Leonisa Ardizzone, and asks, "How does this work?" He has brought over the "Ballon Air Pressure Game". The contraption is as simple as the question: an enclosed container with a pump on the top and a deflated balloon inside. But it is not the question or the contraption, but rather the concept behind it that intrigues the boy as Ardizzone drives the air out of the container, causing the balloon to slowly inflate.

A science educator for two decades, Ardizzone believes that children possess an innate curiosity about science that needs to be encouraged and nurtured. However, she says, "I just kept getting frustrated in general about how public education was being run, specifically how science-- and any kind of inquiry allowing kids to explore-- was completely absent from the curriculum."

In January of 2012, Ardizzone took matters into her own hands and opened Storefront Science in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. The space is intended to offer kids an opportunity to engage in critical thinking about STEM topics, as well as a means for parents to fill the gaps in their children's science education.

"Children should be learning science can be fun," Ardizzone says. "Educators need to not be so afraid of science. It is about questions, so it's fine if you don't always know the answers."

At Storefront Science, children have the opportunity-- on their own or in one of the offered classes-- to take part in a number of experiments and discoveries. Depending on their interests, they can stare at specimens under microscopes, engage with live rats, guinea pigs, fish and snakes-- all named after famous scientists, as well as explore physics through magnets and engineering by building novel structures.

The impetus for starting the project came from several places, explains Ardizzone, including her daughter's "lack of science education" and funding gaps in her school district. "I realized that I should do what I have always wanted to do, which is science the way I want to do it," she says. "My daughter and I were sitting on a beach in Rhode Island one summer, collecting hermit crabs and doing really cool stuff like dissections, and I said city kids need this too!"

Ardizzone grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, but explains that as a child she practically "lived at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City." Raised by a mother with a passion for the sciences and a father who was a mechanical contractor, she found herself challenged to "step out of [her] comfort zone." Her curiosity in science-- specifically "critters, electricity and tinkering"-- was only natural, she says, describing herself as "a poke around type of a kid," who was "always wanting to learn."

In middle school and high school, her interest in science was further encouraged by "great science teachers" as well as "projects and experiments."

When she first attended Ithaca College for a degree in biology, Ardizzone says she was "set on being a doctor." However, after a short stint doing HIV research in a laboratory and a move to the West Coast, she found herself pursuing a master's degree in science education at Western Washington University, after which she went on to receive a Ph.D. in international education development from Columbia University's Teachers College.

From working as an assistant professor at Adelphi University and Fordham University, as well as the executive director of the Salvadori Center, Ardizzone has found that there are definitely aspects of higher education that seem like a "boys-only club." While she doesn't think that it is "overt," she feels it has been passed on through generations and needs to be dismantled.

So far, she has noticed that there are more boys than girls coming to Storefront Science. But is not sure of the cause of this difference.

One thing that is certain, however, is that Ardizzone has an impact on how girls-- and boys-- perceive science. When kids see her in the street, they often call out, "Hey, Science Lady!" Considering that my generation grew up with the "Science Guy," it's nice to know that there is a "Science Lady" hard at work in my own city.