The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 3, 2004


Carlisle teachers consult at the Discovery Science Museum

On a warm day in November Carlisle teachers Rob Quaden and Al Ticotsky, along with retired Superintendent of Schools Davida Fox-Melanson, were invited to the Discovery Science Museum in Acton to discuss how Systems Thinking could aid the organization of the science exhibits.

Ticotsky and Quaden, Systems Mentors at the Carlisle School, support Carlisle teachers in incorporating Systems Thinking into their curriculum. Their work is funded by a grant from the Framingham-based Waters Foundation. Systems Thinking offers tools to understand the process over time of events such as water systems, the life cycle of mammoths, soil, or city construction, for example. The methodology examines what is changing (observe the behavior), how is it changing (graph the change over time and look for patterns), and why is it changing (examine reasons for those patterns). See the review of their book, "The Shape of Change," in the November 26 Carlisle Mosquito.

How to connect the exhibits?

Joining the teachers and Fox-Melanson was Maria Conley, Associate Director of Education for the museum, who began the meeting by explaining they have had a continuing goal of connecting exhibits together, but were struggling to find the methodology to create the connections. Conley, who used to teach gifted children in Knoxville, Tennessee, heard a talk about Systems Thinking several years ago. "I started to think about how to make these connections available immediately" to the exhibits by using Systems Thinking, she explained.

Currently, exhibits "stem from an individual who has an interest," explained Jeff Nelson, Exhibit Director. He will make a model, a prototype, of the exhibit, and let staff members try it out. There is a lot of trial and error (and fun) in the exhibit development.

Fast-moving visitors a problem

"What is the typical age" of visitors? Quaden asked. "Between kindergarten and eighth grade," answered Denise LeBlanc, Director of Education. The majority of school field trips are by second graders, she added. Nelson and Conley pointed out the children move quickly through the exhibits, not lingering, but often coming back to something that caught their interest. When museum staff members, floating around the three floors, encourage a child to further explore an exhibit, some children become uncomfortable and move away. "How can we show the connection when people are moving so fast?" posed Conley.

Use Systems Thinking to create pathways

The goal, continued Conley, is to find 'pathways' or connections to exhibits. If exhibits were connected by a theme or purpose, the children could be encouraged to visit the exhibits with the connection in mind. "Like different lenses," said Fox-Melanson. "Exactly," replied Conley. "In Systems Thinking we call it mental models. You have to examine your mental model," added Fox-Melanson. Conley said they would like to provide materials to teachers which would explain the pathways and purpose of the connections.

As the rumble of a second grade field trip filtered into the conference room, Conley suggested they tour the museum. She warned that the noise level might be difficult. "We'll try to keep it down," joked Ticotsky. In addition to Conley, Nelson, and LeBlanc, museum staff members Nancy Koehler, Director of Media Relations, Jill Foster, School Program Director, and Michael Judd, Executive Director, joined the tour.

Teachers on tour

Quaden and Ticotsky immediately became involved in the exhibits. Quaden stood at a steam table, waving his arms through a billowy cloud, while Ticotsky, pulling on a looped chain, poked at it to create shapes. Rob joined Al at the chain, one pulling and one pushing to watch the cause and effect. But quickly their focus turned to brainstorming with Nelson on how the current exhibits would follow the "stock and flow" model of Systems Thinking. Rob and Al were particularity interested in a "control the flow" exhibit of water tubes, and shut-off values. Together they and Nelson started envisioning new exhibits that would tie in with the exhibit. We could tie it in with forest management, and mammoth studies, explained Quaden, and drip, water, disease, supply, control and loss. "You could be talking water, you could be talking dinosaur, kids would understand." They moved through the floors, stopping to try various exhibits such as the pendulum sand table, which both teachers seem to enjoy immensely.

"I think it is very important to have kids experience this," said Quaden. "To me, that's an interesting way to start." "It's a natural starting," agreed Ticotsky. "We have to make explicit the systems concept," said Fox-Melanson. "But allow a certain amount of play first," answered Ticotsky. Nelson stressed how challenging it will be to keep kids at the exhibits long enough to gain understanding of the connection. "Your exhibits already show lots of stock and flow," said Ticotsky.

Planning the next step

As they finished the tour and sat back in the conference room, Fox-Melanson suggested mapping out the next steps, including a Thinking Systems seminar, which would be given by Quaden and Ticotsky. But Nelson, Quaden and Ticotsky were not ready to stop designing, and continued exploring ideas with Leblanc. "Should we write this up?" interrupted Conley. "Should we focus on funding?" "That's my job," said Fox-Melanson. Judd requested a condensed version of their systems seminar, which was tentatively set up for January 13, or 14.

Carlisle School grant fading

The grant given to Carlisle School for Systems Thinking was reduced by half this school year, according to Business Manager Steven Moore. The Carlisle School began offering Systems Thinking curriculum support "eight or nine years ago" when the Waters Foundation gave the school seed money, explained Fox-Melanson, reached later in the week. She recently contacted the Waters Foundation to let them know Quaden and Ticotsky were consulting with the museum. "They were thrilled," said Fox-Melanson. "We had a lovely conversation." But she said she received no indication of why the Carlisle School grant had been reduced. "I was very surprised" to hear about it," she said. "I had no prior knowledge" of the reduction. The school is anticipating funding the Systems Thinking team in the FY05-06 school budget.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito