In a meeting with education colleagues, Brian Williams tried to answer the questions, “How do we connect the classroom to the real world?” He talked about the desire for universities to engage the community, but admitted he was stumped about ways to get started.
“Then a woman in the back of the room yelled, ‘Come on over!’ ” recalled Williams. “It turned out, she was with the Children’s Museum.”
Williams, who holds degrees from Georgia Tech and Emory and teaches at Georgia State, took the offer seriously. Six years ago, he began working with the downtown museum to make his field more inviting to young learners. He accomplishes part of that goal by sitting on the museum’s science advisory board, but he also engages children directly through hands-on “wondershops” that bring science principles to life. A typical session might find kids - and parents - with their arms coated in cornstarch or picking green slime out from under their fingernails.
“Instead of putting ‘work’ in there, I wanted kids to ‘wonder,’ ” said Williams, a New Orleans native who lives in Clarkston. “It reflects the kind of work I’m doing with kids, which is really science at play. I want parents and their children to understand that science can be engaging and playful.”
Williams’s sessions, held on Sundays afternoons through April 21, are 60 minutes of fun created by using simple materials kids can find at home.
“We’ve launched rockets, made slime, tie-dyed T-shirts and made butter,” said Williams, who has two kids of his own, ages 4 and 6. “These are things they can do themselves at home. And it’s the simplest things that keep their interest. I even have parents who say, ‘If I’d been taught science like this when I was in school, I’d be really interested in it now.’ ”
Williams pairs making science fun with his other passion: reaching out to audiences who are not usually exposed to science education. As the director of GSU’s Alonzo Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence, he trains faculty to work in city schools.
“I want to work in urban schools and communities with children and families who are not enjoying science - the poor, refugees, immigrants and children of color who are often left out of that conversation,” he said. “That’s what brought me and my wife to Georgia State eight years ago. We are both part of the department of early childhood education and the Urban Accelerated Certification and Master’s Program for people who were in a profession and now want to work in an urban school. We get a lot of people who are career-changers that we can put in the classroom.”
Though Williams himself has not been a lead classroom teacher, the museum workshops give him the chance to run the show.
“I was always the science support guy,” he said. “The Children’s Museum is trying to do more and more with science, and I’m happy to help with that any way I can.”
Williams also offers science tips and projects on his website, www.sciencewondershop.com. Information about the museum’s wondershops is online at www.childrensmuseumatlanta.org. The sessions are free with admission; 404-659-5437.
By H.M. Cauley: For the AJC