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Harnessing STEM in Informal Learning -- Adventures with Ray and Kahla DeSmit

In today's blog, we meet a power couple who really know how to connect STEM experiences and picture books for powerful 21st century learning. Kahla DeSmit is the executive director of the Lewisburg Children's Museum and Raymond DeSmit is the Summit Early Learning site coordinator and maker space director. I met both of them at a Steve Spangler workshop last year where we were putting water over our heads, making bubbles, exploring connections, and bonding over a shared love of STEM/STEAM learning. What follows is a transcript from our recent conversation, where we explore a wide range of topics, including the power of informal STEM education experiences, strategies for building powerful connections between picture books and STEM experiences, and the freedom and joy that comes from being able to fail and try again. If you want to listen to the full episode, you can access it here.

Describe your adventures in learning.

[01:13] Dr. Diane: Well, I'm so glad to have you both here. And honestly, I was so grateful to get to crash the Summit Early Learning Conference last year. It was fun to get to know you guys at the table, and I'm so excited for this conversation. I want to start by asking you both the question I always ask my guests, which is, tell us a little bit about what you do now and describe your adventure in learning. How did you get there?

[01:39] Ray: I'll let you go first. Ladies first.

[01:42] Kahla: Okay. Ray and I actually met in our undergraduate courses at Susquehanna University, and I kind of always knew I wanted to be a teacher. And I had this really amazing experience. In my junior year, I got to do an internship at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, and I was their education and archaeology intern. So my internship was split right down the middle between those two — the curatorial side of museums and then the educational programming side. And I kind of thought in my head, museums, curatorial objects, stuff. And that was the chance that I had to see, wow, you can really do amazing things with museum education. I just told this story to somebody else. Part of the experience was doing overnights in the Pilgrim Village, and I still remember we made a dinner, and it's an authentic pilgrim dinner because they had a lot of seafood, so it was a fish. And I still recall one of the students, she got so excited about the meal and everything. She was running around with the fish head, and she was talking all about the fish head and the meal, and you don't do that with a fish head anywhere else. Part of it also got to be spending a night on the Mayflower. And I came back after that summer. I was like, museums. That's where I want to be. And so I do have my undergraduate is in history secondary education, and then I did my master's at SUNY-Oneonta in Cooperstown, and it was in museum studies, and I was really fortunate to do a lot of upstate New York museums. So many, so many.

And then I came home to this area, and I was volunteering at a local children's museum. It's probably about 45 minutes away. And the director at the time was like, I hate to tell you this because I don't want to lose a volunteer, but they are opening a children's museum that's 20 minutes from you, and with your background, I'll put you in touch. And so it was really an amazing experience that I first started as a volunteer because the list for children's museum has only been open for five years. So I started as a volunteer. Yeah. Helping everything from exhibits to outreach to scrubbing the toilets. I still scrub the toilets.

[04:22] Dr. Diane: Yeah, that doesn't end.

[04:25] Kahla: And I've got to really grow in my role there. And so it's been a really fun experience doing education, which I've always wanted to do, but just in an informal learning environment and getting to replicate running around with a fish head every day.

[04:45] Ray: Yeah. And then myself, like Kahla said, we met in college, and I wanted to do anything but teaching. I honestly thought I was going to be the next modern day Indiana Jones, and I was going to go into history and go exploring and all that type of stuff until that summer after freshman year, I worked at a summer camp with early elementary kids, and I'm just like, okay, informal learning. Like, I'm good at it. I like it. Maybe that's what I'll start doing. So of course then I thought I was going to be a secondary ed history teacher, and so I spent my entire college career doing that until I was just shy of actually getting my teaching certificate. So I went into then just working in some private schools, long term subbing.

And then after I got married to Kahla, I moved up to Pennsylvania and worked in retail until all of a sudden I found out there was this childcare company right in my backyard in this area. And so I went to apply for a job that was not suited for me at all. Until, though, all of a sudden, the HR person is like, I don't think early pregnancy is your cup of tea, but can I hold on to your resume? And so I'm like, yeah, sure. And within months, I was working with school age in a nontraditional classroom, and Summit was lucky enough to get a PPL grant here in Pennsylvania for a great sum of money to open a STEM lab. Through the process of starting that, a group was getting together. I was kind of here and there with the part of it, but then the pandemic hit, so everything kind of just flatlined and was basic and waiting until finally things are opening up. And so I'm inside of the school, actually. So my process is split 50/50 of half my day. I'm working with before and after school kids just doing fun lessons and activities and all sorts of stuff. And then the other half the day, I actually have school groups coming into the STEM lab throughout the day and then the evenings that my group gets to use in the after school. So basically, I get to do a lot of the fun, messy, problem solving, coming up with solutions of just these things that teachers are like, wow, I didn't realize that was STEM. And I'm like, yeah, we're having fun.

What is the role of informal education and STEM in helping kids gain 21st century skills?

[07:01] Dr. Diane: That's a great segue into this whole notion of STEM. You're both doing informal education, and it's a little bit different from classroom ed. But what do you see as the role of both informal education and STEM in getting kids the skills they need to be 21st century learners?

[07:34] Ray: That's part of our partnership with the school is to help move along, especially with the new STEM standards coming in 2025, we're really there to just help the district to understand that:

STEM can be almost relabeled as problem solving, team building, all these things that are just the adjectives that you hope kids leave school with.

And that's what is taught. And so it's been really neat seeing in my before and after school, my summer camp, kids to all of a sudden think outside the box, use both their right and their left brain.

I love your storybook adventures. We do a lot of things like that where we're doing Three Little Pigs experiment where we're using Popsicle sticks to try to build a house. And all of a sudden, the real lesson is, are you able to work with these three kids who you don't really know very well and each have their own job and work together?

All the teachers have come into me who come throughout the school day. They're like, wow, these kids just never work together like that. I'm like, well, that's the other side of the lesson that we don't tell the kids about, but that's what they're learning. They're learning how to deal with, oh, man, that didn't work. Can you try a different solution? What might work? Hey, don't worry about it. There's no grade. That I think is the top question of all, the fail, that’s I think the top question of any kid. Is there a grade on this? No, it's just a challenge. You work together. If you solve it, that's great. If you need help, just ask. And so that's been really that relief, to just have the kids get messy, get their hands on something, and to not worry that you can get it wrong, because you can't. It's whatever you come up with.

[09:20] Kahla: And I think, too, in terms of informal learning spaces, I grew up on a small family farm. I'm one of three girls. My family, we couldn't go away on big vacations, but we did a lot of day trips. And being in central Pennsylvania, we're like 3 hours from everything. We're 3 hours from New York, DC. Philly, Pittsburgh. And these places have lots of great museums. And so growing up, I got to go to so many museums, and I think that's where that kind of started my love of learning. But I think really, ultimately, the museum was just the environment. I can't tell you specifically which museums I went to and what I learned and came away with, but I remember going to them with my family, and I remember how that made me feel. And I was more curious with them, and I felt safe with them. And I was in these new places experiencing new things. And I think that's the beauty of informal learning environments. That in a classroom, and I'm a very type A person, so in a classroom, I was one of Ray's students that was like, if I don't do this right, am I not going to get the grade? And that would hold me back. But in a museum setting, in an after school program, I don't have to worry about that. And there's that level of freedom that kind of it's harder in our environment today with standardized tests and this pressure to meet all the standards.

Sometimes I think kids are more worried about not literally meeting the grade, and we lose some of those opportunities for the curiosity and the critical thinking and the problem solving because you're so focused on just getting the right answer. And as somebody who works in a small nonprofit and wears many hats, nobody has all the answers for me, and I have to use these skills every day. They are not specifically science, technology, engineering, mathematics, STEM related, but it's those soft skills that are part of it that are so important for kids to come away with and be exposed to. So when they go out into their future careers, they feel prepared and they can make really valuable contributions in their future roles.

Describe ways informal education helps develop social-emotional learning, critical thinking, and problem solving.

[11:38] Dr. Diane: What are some ways that you, in your respective roles, have set up ways for children to explore those soft skills, to build that social, emotional learning, that critical thinking, the problem solving? Can you offer some specific examples of ways that you do that within your two programs?

[11:57] Ray: I know my program might be a little bit easier than Kahla's just because the places I influence are our preschool classrooms or our school age childcare or now within the school and their own classrooms. And so each one is usually linked to a lesson or an activity. Or I like to relabel them as a challenge where even within my own, it's PA standardized. We follow the PA education standards, but we also have a whole section as to what are some of those skills or emotions or all those things that are going on. And so in our lessons, my favorite thing is, one, I pick the groups. And so especially if they're kids, I know I will put kids who just actually aren't very good with each other and not because I don't want them to succeed, but because they need that part of the challenge. I also make sure before an activity starts that they each define their role so that they understand that this is my job. So they take ownership of something, but then also all the activities. One, there is no failure, but two, they also have the opportunity to just kind of take what they know, share with each other, even go to other groups or teachers. But then there's also that no pressure. And even a few of the other teachers in the district classrooms, teachers who have come in, they're just like, oh, do we have to finish today? No, if you guys want to keep going and add on for the next day, that's fine. Just so that there's not that added pressure, there's more materials. Don't worry about that. So it's just kind of that added freedom and chance to wonder. I love the Fred Rogers style of just give a little seed and let the kids kind of explore. And then once they've kind of experimented enough, then I add in a little bit more of the scientific labels and all that type of stuff or add in hey, did you realize you're doing math right there? Oh, no, I didn't. So that they realize at least a little bit, not overtly, but that they are following everything that they should be learning, but just having fun.

[14:01] Dr. Diane: Exactly. And it sounds like you're also creating sort of an authentic experience that they're doing something that's meaningful and can then be extended beyond that.

[14:14] Kahla: I think one of my first experiences with the concept of STEM as a specific focus within our museum was a collaboration that the Children's Museum was able to participate in. And it started in 2019. And there's a program called Leap into Science, and it's done by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the National Girls Collaborative, and I think there's one other participating organization. And so they developed this curriculum that was intended to be used at museums and libraries and other community centers. And what they focused on was the skills, the STEM skills of problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration. And they paired it with children's literature, which is right up your alley.

[15:03] Dr. Diane: Yay.

[15:04] Kahla: And one of the things that I thought was so beautiful about it is not only did they give it the lesson, there was this theme, but they divided it for preschool, elementary, and then family.

I think that's one of the most interesting aspects I've seen is this idea of family learning with STEM. Oftentimes parents, when we do programs at the museum or in the community, parents are hesitant to participate because they feel, oh, science. I don't know anything about science. I can't do this with my child. And they really hang back, and then that gets projected onto their child too, whether they mean to do it or not.

And so programs like Leap Into Science and some of the other things that the museum tries to work with, it's not just about helping the child have this positive experience about STEM, but it's also their caregivers, because they're with me for 40 minutes to do a program. They go home with their caregivers, and at the dinner table that night, they can talk about, oh, my goodness, do you know what I see right now? I see shadows. And that was just like in the book that we read today. And they can use it to make connections with one another and then connections in their everyday lives. And so that keeps the momentum moving.

I try to be really aware of when I'm developing programs, especially for families, that really it's about this perceived capability, not just for kids, but for their caregivers too, because that's going to impact a child's attitude about not just STEM, but learning in general.

[16:50] Dr. Diane: Absolutely.

[16:51] Kahla: And I think that's what's so important. I think, like I said, going to museums with my family, it was always positive. It was always seen as not as, oh, I have to go to school tomorrow. It was, you are trying something new. You're always growing and moving forward. And I think that's the really amazing thing that informal environments and STEM in general in these environments has the capacity to do.

[17:20] Dr. Diane: Absolutely. It's sort of combining the experience with the connection to the people around you, to the world around you. And when you can draw those families in, that's so critical, because you're right, we do have this tendency to be afraid of science, to think, I'm not good at it. Never mind that you are good at it. You use it every single day as you navigate your life and your world. But sometimes you have to break down that barrier.

Building connections between children’s literature and STEM.

[19:20] Dr. Diane: You touched on one of my favorites, which is children's literature, and sort of providing that connection between the books that you're hoping are being read aloud and the activities or the challenges as well. And something I've been focusing a lot on is trying to make sure that every kid has opportunities to experience windows and mirrors (thank you, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop), that they see themselves reflected in the literature, but they also get that important opportunity to see somebody else's experience.

And I was reading a study yesterday that talked about if girls saw more role models in STEM, we'd close the innovation gap by 50% in the next ten years between male and female. And that was a Harvard study that was done that I thought was really interesting, and I think it applies across the board. The more diversity we can show in the STEM models, the better.

So I'm going to put you guys on the spot for a moment and just think about some of the books that you guys are using in your programs. Are there favorites that you've recently discovered or that you go to when you create challenges, ones that show up in your programs or your camps that you think parents or family members ought to know about?

Note: A link to the books discussed appears here. I am a affiliate. If you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission. I encourage you to support your library and indie book stores.

[20:15] Ray: Well, I kind of lucked out because the last few months, because winter during the school year, we have a pretty set curriculum that we kind of follow that has books in and out.

The past couple of years we've used during March, like, we do the Who Would Win? Series where the animals are going at each other. We do our own March Madness where the animals have to go and the kids have to do their own research and stuff like that. But I've been having fun now going through, and we're getting ready for summer camp, and we decided to go with all new books that we've never used before and try to fit it with some of our old curriculum. And just even for our first month, which we labeled under the theme of Ignite, because we try to ignite and then inspire and then activate our kids. And so the first month these books are really just silly. Like the No Lies: Pigs in Their Houses Can Fly. It's one of those Three Little Pigs example, it's by Jessica Gunderson, and it's of the wolf's perspective as to what went on with the Three Little Pigs. And it's not really his fault. He just has very big breath syndrome and he can't help it. And so in the end, though, it's the last little pig helping him realize how he can use that breath for good. And then we have a series of activities that are about wind power and balloons and that type of stuff that go through.

And another new one that is just right up the STEM Maker Spaces alley is Rube Goldberg’s Simple, Normal, Humdrum School Day by Jennifer George. And it's really fun because the whole book is not really a reading book. It's well, he had to wake up for school and then that's the whole sentence. And then the next thing is his whole big elaborate system just to get himself out of bed. And then the next one is how he had to get for breakfast, and then the next one is how he gets to the bus. And so it's just a really fun one.

But then a really fun one I'm excited for at the end of our summer that we're going to use is two different books. We have Edward Built a Rocketship by Michael Rack. And Sadie Sprocket Builds a Rocket by Sue Fliess. And it's kind of two really silly books of just one about a boy named Edward, the other one's about a girl named Sadie. And they both just use their imagination to build a rocket out of random junk in their backyard. And it hopefully should be a lot of fun. And then we're going to do some fun bottle rockets and that type of fun stuff with a bike pump.

[22:50] Dr. Diane: Very cool. As you were talking, I was thinking about a couple of books that would connect really well with what you were doing for the pigs. Check out Penny, the Engineering Tale of the Fourth Little Pig. It's Kimberly Derting and Shelli R. Johannes, I think, and it's a female engineering pig who saves her brother's bacon basically. It's a really good add on to that. I also have been using a book called Dreaming Up, which is all about different kinds of construction, and it shows children as they're building side by side with the actual architecture in the back. It has little descriptions of the different architects and engineers, which is a really cool listing.

And then, as you were talking about space, Markette Sheppard has My Rainy Day Rocket Ship, which is a lovely one about imagination and building, and features an African American boy as the protagonist. And then there's Born Curious, which I've got behind me. It's Martha Freeman and Katie Wu. And it's a bunch of female scientists, modern ones, ones we don't necessarily know, but it offers a couple of pages about each of them and it's in really kid friendly language. And so it's a fun one to use.

[24:11] Ray: That's perfect, because especially that's right up my alley. Every day, I try to display books in my after school program. And then in our maker space, we have a wall similar to you guys. Not that the kids have too much opportunity during the school day to read, but those are the types of inspiration that I'm just hoping at least be there, that the kids can see it.

[24:31] Dr. Diane: Exactly. So, Kahla, what about you? What are you guys using at the museum?

[24:35] Kahla: So one of the books that we really like to use, it actually came about as part of the Leap into Science. It's called Dreams. I think it's by Ezra Jack Keats, and it's about a little boy who lives in New York City and his very diverse environment/community. And one night the lights go out and it's sort of how he copes, because it's talking about light and shadow, that element of I see something in the street and was that a dream or was that, did I actually see a dog chasing or a rat chasing a dog? And it's really fun to do. I did this at an outreach event with the libraries, and it was really fun to even just kind of talk with the kids because we're in central Pennsylvania. We don't have multiple stories on top of each other. We don't have rolling blackouts. It's kind of a different environment. And so it was really fun to talk with the kids. And when I read, I really like to make connections between what they're seeing and things like that and the pictures. And so sometimes I think the parents think I'm getting off track but I'm not. Just keep moving through the story, but the librarian and I had this discussion about how much more fun the story was because the lights went out in my house and this happened to me. And so kids can make these really tangible connections to a little boy that they've never met before in an environment that they've never experienced. And so that was really fun.

One of the other books, it's called What is a Scientist? And it's a very short book, but I love using this one before and after any type of STEM activity because it does a really great job of breaking down a scientist does not have to be somebody who's launching rockets into outer space, right?

A scientist is somebody who's asking questions, somebody who's making observations. And when kids are able to frame it in that way, they can see themselves as a scientist.

And so I think that book has been really helpful. I specifically remember a time I was using that to start a discussion for a program, and I asked the kids, I'm like, the only thing that I'm going to ask you today is that you have to be willing to be a scientist. And this little girl looked at me and she's like, I'm not a scientist. I'm like, oh, but you are. And by the end of it, she was the one as we're going through the what is a scientist I did that her hand just got shot is and so the excitement for kids to just oh, it doesn't have to be solving long equations. It can be. I noticed that this happened when X happened. Those just very tangible things. And that changes the way that they perceive themselves. And so for a book to put that together in a way that young children and adults who might be science leery can see themselves, I think it was really valuable too. Note from Dr. Diane: I like the poetry book What is Science? for similar reasons.

[27:54] Dr. Diane: That's awesome. There are some really fun ones out there. I saw on your camp list you're doing like Once Upon STEM this summer and you had amazing camp programs. So if you all are in the Lewisburg area, I highly recommend them. But I was thinking about your Once Upon a STEM camp in particular, which looks like it's a fairy tale science approach. Have you seen the Ashley Spires Fairytale Science series?

[28:21] Kahla: No.

[28:22] Dr. Diane: They are multicultural fairies and they don't want to use magic, they want to solve problems using science. And so the other fairies put them down for wanting to use science to solve the problems. And there's one that deals with the scientific method. There's another one that's solid, liquid and gas. It's a great book, especially for something like that, but also for your young families and sort of the ones who are science phobic.

There's a whole series by Kimberly Derting and Shelli R. Johannes, and Vashti Harrison is the illustrator ,and they are the Love Science series. And it's Vivi Loves Science, Cece Loves Science, Libby Loves Science. And in each of these they take physical science, chemical science, animal science, and the characters are exploring it in their everyday lives. And they're written as picture books and transitional readers, so they're really good for that lower end of the spectrum. And they're a good short read aloud. But they're just really fun.

[29:30] Kahla: I get a lot of preschoolers in my programs, too. Picking the right book is sometimes half the battle for when you have an audience who has a very short attention span. So to draw them in long enough, but to not have anything that's too lengthy.

[30:13] Ray: I know. I've learned even with the Kindergartners on up who's normally day to day, who I work with basically K through 6th grade, that we've cheated a little bit. Now we have the physical book, but we always find someone who can read it much better than we ever could with fun voices and then we just put it on the display, so then we're able to kind of enjoy it along with the kids. But it's still amazing how, even as fifth graders, that attention span is pretty short. And so it's that same thing where you just need the little buy in, I guess, which is always fun to use.

[30:45] Kahla: And honestly, though, that's what I found when I'm reading the story and we're talking back and forth. It's amazing those types of strategies to keep kids engaged longer, because they're like, oh, wait, they're making those connections, and they want to share them and be excited about them. So, like I said, the parents sometimes think I'm getting off track, but there's really important learning that's happening. Yeah. And sometimes you don't worry about the clock.

[31:13] Dr. Diane: Sometimes no. There's a method to your madness. And with read aloud, I think that sometimes we stop them far too soon, because I think that upper elementary, middle school, even high school students enjoy a good read aloud. And there are so many wonderful picture books that are actually much more sophisticated than a preschooler can handle that are great mentor texts for these STEM/STEAM challenges and for other things that teachers are doing as well. So I'm glad that you're doing read aloud all the way through. That makes me happy.

What strategies do you use to connect books to learning experiences?

[32:26] Dr. Diane: There is a strategy that you have to use when you go through and you think, okay, how do we connect this book to this activity? And I'm wondering if you guys can walk me through your process a little bit as you're building your experiences for kids. What are some of the strategies you use in thinking about how do I make this an effective experience for either the kids or for entire families?

[33:36] Kahla: Usually when I'm leading a program, the first thing I ask, so who can tell me about or who can tell me something about or, what do you know or have you seen about wind or light? And after kids kind of it's an opportunity for them to kind of share what they already know, that they feel confident. Hey, I've seen the wind before. I've seen kites flying. They have those connections that they can already make, and it makes them feel confident, like they already have a buy in to the topic. Another thing that works really well at the beginning, too, is incorporating some type of movement. So if it is about wind, we get up and we do like a gentle breeze with our arms in the air like a tree, or if it's a really strong a gust or a gale and moving our arms in our bodies in a way that would suggest we were caught in one of those types of wind situations. And then while reading the book, like I said, I find it really helpful to if you're reading the book and the lights went out and Roberto was left in the dark, wow. Have you ever been left in the lights gone out suddenly? How did that make you feel? What should you do next? And then what do you think Roberto is going to do next? Drawing those connections between what the children have actually experienced to what might or might not happen in the story, those have always been really valuable. And then at the end or through the activity, because we usually use the read aloud as the start to prime the prompt, making references back. Oh, my goodness, this is just like what Roberto did earlier, or some type of way to connect to the reading, which in turn connects to that knowledge, that prior knowledge that they had and that they were feeling confident about. So those are some strategies that I find work really well. And that's the thing about teaching, too. Each scenario and each group of kids and each group of kids and parents is different. So sometimes you have to revisit either or at any given time and be okay with that.

[36:05] Dr. Diane: Exactly.

[36:06] Ray: Yeah, definitely. Some of them have to be a little more on the nose as to how obvious it's connected to the lessons. But some, just like Kahla said, are a lot of fun. That just getting the kids to tie in on either the social emotional end or especially referencing back or saying, hey, let's say the story kept going, like, now, what would be the next thing that would happen? Or sometimes it's even just coming up with our own story and prior connection. That's one thing I love doing of just then all of a sudden, I invent a whole other scenario. Like during May, we do kind of a Pokemon math unit, and then we come up with this whole big, elaborate story that's related to a park ranger book that I can't remember off the top of my head. But just basically, then we go, all right, well, now we're Pokemon rangers, and we have to go through and we have to rescue these Pokemon. And so we're building towers out of cards and all this type of stuff, and meanwhile, they have that emotional buy in of like, no, we have to save these Pokemon. Like, come on, we got to go. We're park rangers. We got to do this. And it's just a lot of fun to see these kids go and start to get flustered. I'm like, hey, guys, just problem solve. Just come up with a solution, see if it works. If it does, great. If not, just try again. Like, no big deal. And so it's just a lot of fun to see when they have that buy in, you can just see it.

It's hard to explain, but you just see it on their faces that they're just ready to go and really emotionally drawn in.

[37:28] Kahla: Well, I feel like if kids feel like they have the permission to keep going too, we use something called at the museum, we call something called a Rigamajig. It's a lot of fun. It's like a large scale building apparatus with planks and nuts and bolts.

[37:45] Ray: No instructions.

[37:46] Kahla: Yeah, and that's the thing that freaks kids out the most and the adults, too, that I've done this with. There's no right or wrong way, and I will show kids how they can use the nuts and the bolts. But basically, when we give the challenge, it's really open to them, and staff serve as a facilitator. And sometimes I just did a workshop over Thanksgiving with kids and this little girl. The challenge was to build something that was going to make a noise. And she had in her head, she wanted to use these very specific items, and we kind of talked through and she tried lots of different things, and in the end, she couldn't get it to do what she wanted it to do. And I think at first she was getting frustrated, but it was really fun that we had more than time than you would have had in a traditional classroom setting to troubleshoot it. And it was really cute because a couple of weeks later, she came back afterwards and she said, I went home and I built something and I've made it work.

And I think that's the thing in real life, too, you're seldom going to be in the office where you're presented with a problem that you have to solve in under 40 minutes, right. Most of the time, you don't have that type of time crunch. So I think environments like museums and after school programs and libraries where there's this free open time to explore, it takes away that pressure, and it allows kids to think a little bit more creatively than if they were in a setting where they had a very set time schedule that they have to keep to.

And I completely understand why schools, you have several hundred children in a building at the same time. There are logistics involved with that. But that's why these outside facilities are so important, because they do provide the space that children and families can kind of have. That free choice, free play opportunity.

[39:54] Ray: And definitely how books become that initial key, because it gets kids to kind of just relax as to get off guard a little bit of like, no, I'm not here to learn. Oh, I'm here to listen. Okay, this is fun. Okay, I'm engaged now. And so it's that really nice. Like, surprise, you're actually in the story now, and we're doing stuff. And so that's I think that nice, especially I've seen it from young all the way to those fifth graders that they're just like, I'm not going to learn. I don't want to do lesson. I don’t want to do it. And then as they're watching the video, then they're like, okay, so what's next? And like, okay, here we go. Let's do this


How has informal education adjusted to a post-pandemic world?

[40:27] Dr. Diane: That's awesome. And coming off of the pandemic, you referenced earlier that it had created issues with Summit, and I'm sure knowing what I know about children's museums, it created all kinds of fun challenges for you as well. How has the world shifted, and how are things changing as we're coming out of the global pandemic?

[40:50] Ray: Well, I know I've seen firsthand, just even that first summer, after everything was starting to open up. It was our first full summer camp. I was just starting to get the maker space kind of going again. And this was just what, one I guess even just last summer. Wow. It's crazy to think that it's been that short of time over much longer. But just how the kids went from the beginning of the summer of just no social skills, no ability to free play, no ability to do anything besides look at a screen, to all of a sudden, by the end of the summer, they were working together. They were being do imagination play. They were asking the right questions, not necessarily what's next. Instead, it was, hey, could I try this? And it was so relieving to see that it was possible, if you're proactive every day, to give these kids the opportunity to think for themselves, not necessarily be told what to do and just how that works. And I guess a few of my students, even then, at the beginning of the school year, which is where I learned this, stuck, they're answering questions that the teachers before the test or quiz ever came up. Oh, we already learned this. And so they're telling the teachers. She was like, oh, that's great. And apparently they're just the ones that just teachers came to me to say, like, hey, what do you guys do this summer? That these kids were just adjusted to come back to school. And obviously all students had issues with walking in line and not talking when they're not supposed to because it's not a screen anymore. They can't just talk whenever. But the fact that they were just prepared to go back into creative problem solving and working with their fellow students, not necessarily just being self focused.

[42:33] Kahla: Yeah, I was going to say, honestly, one of the problems that we had is there was sort of an increase in damage done in the museum during visits. And that kind of always happens when you have 500 people go through a space in a single Saturday. That's a lot of traffic. But we were seeing it to the extent that we hadn't seen pre pandemic. And staff was trying to get a little trying to think about how we could do this. And one of the things that we kind of landed on that kids have been deprived of being in public spaces for so long that really they don't have the experience to know what's socially acceptable to do in another space that is not their own, that's not their living room. And so it was kind of this idea that we're helping children kind of emerge from, as Ray was saying, that self reflective to a more we perspective that I'm a part of something bigger. I'm in a place where there's other people.

And it was kind of interesting to see, and I think we're seeing it more frequently now. People aren't quite as hesitant to even approach others as we might have been in the early days of the pandemic. We're socially distant, 6ft away. And now people are starting to kind of let that anxiety kind of fade away a little bit more and they're more willing to engage with other people within the space. And what I've seen with that happening is parents finding connection among other parents, feeling supported, oh, you're from out of the area. And then they find out they have these connections with one another and they leave, like, oh, that was really nice talking to that parent. And it's not just happening with the parents, happening with the kids. My favorite we have a niece and she lives about 40 minutes away from the museum, but you know, Aunt Kahla's at the museum, so they come and I asked her once, what is your favorite thing about the museum? And she said, Aunt Kahla, that's where my friends are. And I'm like, Honey, honey, you don't know anybody, they’re like three towns away. But she goes and just plays, when she goes, she makes a new friend.

And I think that's the beauty of these informal learning spaces as well, not just for the kids, but also for the adults as well, to make new friends. And we're kind of seeing this emerge more and more, which is really nice. I think one of the other issues that we're kind of working with our local United Way is to address learning loss too. Our United Way has a great initiative for STEM and mobile making throughout our five county region here in central PA. And I really see the museum being able to support because a lot of times with maker spaces in STEM there's a push for the elementary age kiddos that are 8-10 and up. And I really see getting kids interested in STEM and STEM skills starting much earlier.

[46:05] Dr. Diane: Absolutely.

[46:05] Kahla: Two and three and four. And so you were talking about some of our summer camps. That's our goal with our summer camps, too. And if you wait until a child is in fourth grade, this 10 year old and try to help them work collaboratively with a group, it's too late. They've already passed the point where they're able to really empathize with others and work creatively. So I am really hopeful with our role within our broader initiative here for STEM and Making is to really push those other important, maybe not content specific skills that go along with STEM, but the social, emotional side that's really going to play a role in not only how the kids perceive themselves, but also their place within the community ultimately. It sounds kind of grandiose, but it really does have a long term trajectory in how they see themselves. And we talk about trying to retain people in our region and providing these experiences where kids feel good about themselves and they feel good about their community and they want to stay and they want to make it better. It all kind of plays a role. We can't see it yet. We're kind of in the midst of it, but in the future, we know this will play a part. And so to address that now, yeah.

[47:36] Ray: That's where I'm excited with Summit Early Learning. Right now, the main focus has been the older kids, but we've been developing box kits that just are going to go because we have over 1,000 kids in our Summit programs. Only 200 of those are school age. The rest are all our preschool, infants and toddlers. And it's been really fun to kind of blow the minds of some of the preschool teachers. I'm like, well, you actually have a lot of STEM in your classroom already. What do you mean? We don't have any STEM. I'm like, well, you see those piles of just the wood pieces and the blocks and those rocks that the kids try to stack. They're already focusing on engineering and they're like, oh. And so then it's been really fun just kind of making these little kits. And like Kahla was saying, that's just my and just in some in general, those in charge, just we see that these three, four year olds, they're the future 20, 30, 40 year olds who are going to just be owning the world. That just if they can start problem solving at that age, by the time they get to school, age, high school and beyond, they're just going to be ready for anything.

Hopes and dreams for the future

[48:39] Dr. Diane: You guys give me so much hope. I love hearing about how informal education is making a difference and I think you're absolutely on the right track in both organizations. Last question then. What brings you hope for the future? What are you hopeful about? What are you hoping to see develop in your community or in your position?

[49:04] Kahla: I'm excited. I have two answers, but they're kind of different within the museum's role in the broader community and the projects and the programs and initiatives that we do in collaboration with other community organizations and partnerships. I think seeing these grow over time and open doors to new opportunities is what excites me the most. The museum accessibility is really important to us and that runs the gamut from children with special needs to families that might not have the resources to visit the museum. And initially we started ,there is a national program called Museums for All, which provides free or reduced admission to families with EBT cards or food stamps. And when the museum first opened, we participated in that program, which is great, but over time, in partnership with local businesses and our United Way, now we have passes in like three local counties that give families free admission to the museum. It just keeps evolving as more and more we get more and more buy in from our community and all striving ultimately for the same goal to support children and families in our region.

I think one of the things that on a personal note that we're hopeful for, like I said, we live on a small family farm. I joke. We live on a compound. My sister is on one side with her daughter and husband, and my parents are on the other side of us and we have this beautiful my sister has horses and she's been partnering with a local occupational therapist to give riding lessons for children with autism and other sensory processing disorders. And one of the things that kind of came about this is as a family we're like, wouldn't it be great to have this learning farm here in central PA? And for us too, we would love a special emphasis on adoption. My sister and her husband adopted their daughter, Ray, and I adopted our son. And for adoptive and foster families in particular to support them and all the things that they're facing every day, which are really hard.

[51:32] Ray: And just to hopefully develop a facility in place that just kind of has a combination of just outdoor learning animals, STEM fun that just is kind of you go to a place for just these experiences to just kind of again, just to learn and grow and make those bonds. Yeah, the very future goal, but it's definitely on a personal side, hoping and thinking about that more and more.

[52:02] Dr. Diane: You'll have to come back on and give us an update.

[52:04] Ray: Definitely.

[52:05] Kahla: Well, my sister, she's also a local fourth grade teacher, and then we have our occupational therapist who wants to get in on this too. And I have our nonprofit side covered. And so Ray also has this mix of education and curriculum development. So we feel like between the four of us, we can make this work.

[52:23] Dr. Diane:. Oh, absolutely. It sounds like an amazing dream.

[52:29] Kahla: So that's long term, I think one of our joint hopes as well. But go ahead.

[52:35] Ray: So short term on Summit. Just now that we're partnered back in the school district, just kind of opening it up a bit more. I've been working with a lot of the local professors over at Susquehanna University, which has been a lot of fun. And just they're wanting to get in as much as possible and just have them come in and get their students in because they're learning. Even as college students, they have no real knowledge of working with kids or in a classroom before they get to actually becoming a teacher. And so they're wanting to utilize that.

But especially, I'm excited, like I said, with those kits that just to start getting around to the preschool classrooms and just have the families and the classroom teachers just understand that you don't have to change your curriculum. You can just have this out on the table and let them keep going and just asking the fun. Even just with just last week, some fifth grade teachers out in there, they're like, I didn't realize you could do STEM with social studies. I'm like, yes, my background is history. And you just connect it with that story and then you just get it that it's connected. So we just did baking soda and vinegar all last week with six different 6th grade classes, and my hands still smell like vinegar. But it was just a blast that these kids are just building, working together and just having that fun. And so my hope is just to bring that either maybe in a van or get some more staff, that just as it grows, that we can stretch out from just the one school district to support the other four districts that Summit supports and just kind of keep it going.

[54:05] Dr. Diane: And what an incredible opportunity to be able to connect all of the subjects, to bring the science and the STEM together with the social studies, with the writing and the math and the literacy and call it fun learning.

[54:21] Kahla: That's my running joke all the time. First it was STEM, and then it was STEAM, and then it was STREAM. And I was like, what you really mean is all the subjects just a cross-curricular way of learning, right?

[54:34] Dr. Diane: Well, we did things in a silo for so long, I think the pendulum is swinging back to the idea that we can connect things thematically, and students and teachers are going to be the richer for it.

[54:46] Ray: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Agreed.

[54:48] Dr. Diane: Well, thank you so much, Ray and Kahla, for joining us on the Adventures in Learning podcast. We will definitely check in with you again, and I'll include contact info for both of you in the show notes.

[54:59] Ray: All right, well, thank you again for having us.

[55:01] Kahla: Yeah, thank you. This has been fun.

[55:05] Dr. Diane: You've been listening to the Adventures in Learning podcast with your host, Dr. Diane. If you like what you're hearing, please subscribe, download and let us know what you think, and please tell a friend. If you want the full show notes and the pictures, please go to We look forward to you joining us on our next adventure.

Kahla DeSmit is Executive Director of the Lewisburg Children’s Museum. You can reach her via email, or follow her on LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook.

Ray DeSmit is the Summit Early Learning site coordinator and maker space director. You can reach him via email, or follow him on LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook.

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