Marni Anbar ’91 had taught middle school math for years before starting her family. But when her own children started school, she realized their science curriculum was falling short.
And after talking with other parents who shared her concerns, she decided to do something about it.
“The limited time being spent on science was very programmed and, for the most part, treated science as if it were exclusively a body of knowledge to be mastered, not a process for discovering the unknown,” Anbar recalls. “Elementary school students were being taught to memorize the scientific method, but not actually to use it the way science and engineering professionals do, and they certainly weren’t being given time for self-directed questioning and experimentation.”
So Anbar and other concerned parents launched the DISCOVERoom—a space of informal STEM learning for K-5 students. The initiative, which began in 2010 at Kyrene del Cielo Elementary School in Chandler, Arizona has expanded over the past decade. It has allowed Anbar and her fellow volunteers to inspire children to embrace a hands-on exploration of science—one that teaches them how to learn and be curious about the world around them.
“In the DISCOVERoom,” Anbar says, “we attempt to give students the freedom and encouragement to come up with their own questions, and to start to find ways to answer them.”
Cultivating Curiosity and Critical Thinking
The driving force behind the DISCOVERoom is not only a need for more science learning, Anbar says, but also a change in how kids are learning.
“Our goal is to encourage them to understand that science is not a body of knowledge to be mastered,” she says, adding that students are not expected to have all the answers, nor should they feel that there is only one right answer.
“The idea of being wrong can be paralyzing for some kids,” she says. “We’re hoping that what we’re doing is creating a sense of positiveness about STEM subjects, but even deeper than that, creating a natural reaction of curiosity and an impulse to try.”
To that end, the DISCOVERoom is packed with a number of STEM learning tools, from microscopes to snap circuits to an X-Ray table—things Anbar says are too often off-limits to young students. Materials are donated by parents and others in the community.
There’s also a “invention bin” containing all types of clean recyclables. Children receive masking tape, string, and markers and are challenged to invent something, which they can take home.
Not only is there a wealth of materials at kids’ fingertips, but they also develop a sense of agency, since their time in the room is completely self-directed. The role of the volunteers supervising, usually parents or grandparents, is simply to encourage their questioning. They are there, Anbar says, to “mentor kids through their own discovery.”
Over the years, the popular room, which is available as an alternative to recess, has served as a resource for teachers who borrow materials for classroom use as well as a social sanctuary for children who don’t see the playground as a safe place.
“It’s enabled them to connect on a subject matter that they might just gloss over,” Anbar says, “and because it’s a safe place socially, it fills an emotional need for them.”
Building a Community of Learners
Over the past decade, Anbar has invested in relationships with groups across and outside her community. In particular, she has established a bond with high school and university students, who visit the DISCOVERoom to help K-5 students in their exploration.
“Kids build a relationship with the material through the relationships they have with the people in the room,” she says. “They can project themselves in a high school or a college student in a way that they can’t with their teachers.”
Anbar has also collaborated with the science community, offering students the chance to work one-on-one with scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They take on a science project with their family, working with the scientist over Skype or Facetime, and present what they learned in the DISCOVERoom.
At the end of it, Anbar says, children get to say the unique and unforgettable opportunity to say, “This is my buddy. She’s a rocket scientist.”
Making a Larger Impact
Within the past year, Anbar decided to incorporate the DISCOVERoom, now known as the DISCOVERosity Zone, LLC. After working on a full-time volunteer basis to sustain and develop the program, she knew it was time to either commit fully and grow the program or return to teaching.
Things are off to a good start—the business landed its first client this summer, when a local community center hired it to provide STEAM programming for its seven-week summer camp.
Now, Anbar hopes to expand the reach of her programming to Title 1 schools, which serve large concentrations of low-income students. She’s working to obtain grant funding that would allow her to start paying volunteer coordinators, keep a steady supply of materials for the rooms, and continue to expand programming beyond schools.
Anbar says her decision to incorporate and grow is all about impact. It’s about encouraging children to ask questions and try, even if they fail. Most of all, it’s about creating a sense of wonder that lasts far beyond students’ time in the classroom and gives them the confidence to be curious.
“I’m working on developing my vision for DISCOVERosity Zone and then disciplining myself to take the necessary steps to make that vision a reality,” Anbar says. “I’d like to see it become a commercial franchise that can exist anywhere so families can come play together in an environment that celebrates the innate scientist, mathematician, engineer, and artist in all of us.
“I’d also like to see it expand to other schools, as well as other agencies that serve families and kids, so that any kid who wants to can develop their sense of curiosity and wonder about this amazing universe we live in.”
To learn more about the DISCOVERosity Zone STEM initiative, email firstname.lastname@example.org.