…reflections on the power of play, imagination and museums by Stacey James McAdoo…
(originally written for the Museum of Discovery’s SPARK Stars award ceremony luncheon)
Growing up, I used to line my dolls up in my bedroom and play school with Craig – my baby brother and only sibling. We would do lots of hands-on activities like making up songs to explain things or breaking and taking things apart just to see how they worked. We would even go on these “place-based” learning excursions outside where we would play “war” in the woods behind our house or learn about aquatic life (or lack thereof) in the dirty creek just on the other side of our backyard gate. I even vividly remember the day I truly came to understand gravity and impact when I jumped off the roof and busted my nose. But that’s a whole different story.
The point is, my momma encouraged us never to lose our sense of wonder. And when we’d complain about not having anything to do, “Smart people,” she’d say, “never get bored. Use your mind and your imagination to fill up time. Or you can always go in there and clean up.” So we played and played.
Those pretend school days are now memories of the past. Today I’m all grown up with a family of my own. A quick peek into my home (or car) confirms that using our mind and imagination still takes priority over cleaning up. In approximately six months, my son, Norel, will be graduating from college with a degree in civil engineering, and he is already receiving job offers from engineering firms. One of the things companies have been impressed with is his lived experience with STEM. Museums, and Little Rock’s Museum of Discovery, in particular, played a part in that. At the end of his ninth-grade year of high school, he had his first job interview. It was for a volunteer position as a Discovery Camp Counselor at the Museum of Discovery. The after-school ride to the museum for the interview was endearing. My heart smiled as I listened to this nicely dressed fourteen-year-old practice the interview skills he had recently learned about in Mrs. Mann’s Speech Communication class.
I knew he was a scientist/an engineer/a problem solver way before I had heard the term STEM….I saw that spark. Yet, even as a teacher, I didn’t know much about the career opportunities available for him. So I relied heavily on the community and extracurricular programming. When he turned 12, his birthday present was for him to find 12 Black men in STEM-related careers to interview, job shadow, and find out the one thing that would make their job easier. His task afterward was to try to solve that problem. The search for those answers led him to various camps, a documentary of the process called “The Manhood Project,” entrance into a film festival, research internships, employment at the Arkansas Department of Transportation, a soon to be Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, and an upcoming promising professional career in the field that he’s always loved.
Informal educational experiences by way of museum and community programming, interactive exhibits, hands-on labs, lectures, etc. are huge contributing factors that enabled my son — a little Black boy born from two creatives — to understand science and math in ways I (nor his math or science teachers) could ever teach him.
If we want to have a diverse workforce full of qualified STEM innovators, we must continue to be intentional with our community outreach and mentoring efforts — especially when it comes to enabling marginalized communities and individuals to discover the power of STEM. Museums aren’t just tourist attractions or places to go for fun. They are places where magic comes to life, where children’s interests are sparked beyond their wildest dreams, but more than that, they stand in the gap and serve as a bridge between school and society, curriculum and careers, and they serve as reminders of the greatness inside each of us waiting to be discovered.
Stacey McAdoo is the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year and has nineteen years of classroom experience advocating for traditionally underrepresented students. The award-winning Arkansas PBS docuseries Closing the Opportunity Gap and course Coaching Self Expression: Go-In Poet provide an intimate look at her relationship-based approach to nurturing students. As the founder of the Writeous Poets (a spoken word and youth advocacy collective) and a professional development facilitator, she designs and leads sessions that focus on arts integration, empowering student and teacher voice, and promoting equity and the success of diverse learners.