At the core of Alan’s vision for the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) was the commitment to providing the opportunity for high school and college students to develop their interests in science by sharing the experience of discovery with others. For nearly 30 years, the brilliance of that vision has been proven through the many programs Alan created and inspired, most notably the Science Career Ladder (SCL).
Established in 1986, the SCL program began as a series of graduated opportunities that enabled young people to interact with the public by helping visitors to engage with the science behind the exhibits and demonstrations. Combining youth development and youth employment, the SCL provides high school and college students with a meaningful work experience that offers growth through continuous training and peer mentoring.
The creation of the Science Career Ladder captures many of the qualities that made Alan so invaluable to the informal science field. Alan came to the New York Hall of Science when it was effectively derelict. The building was closed to the public and he often recounted how the first time he visited after taking the job there were puddles on the floor. He and his deputy Sheila Grinell had a knack for finding excellent colleagues, and they quickly pulled together a small committed team, including Dr. Peggy Cole and Dr. Marcia Rudy (who is still at NYSCI.) As the first exhibitions came together, Alan realized the need for a corps of floor staff who could greet the public, help to maintain the exhibitions, and generally enliven the visitor experience. The Exploratorium, a science center in San Francisco founded by Frank Oppenheimer, had created a program for Explainers, and that model was the core of a very smart and opportunistic synthesis that Alan and Dr. Cole created. They recruited students from nearby Queens College with interests ranging from theater to physics, and gave them sufficient training to become Explainers, thereby fulfilling an operational need.
At the same time, they recognized a broader need for expert science teachers. They started to shape the Explainer program into the Science Teacher Career Ladder (as it was originally called) and secured significant funding on the hypothesis that this kind of apprenticeship would encourage more young people to become science educators (before the term STEM was born). This hypothesis turned out to have significant value in encouraging STEM participation, and an early survey documented that over 60 percent of the early Science Career Ladder cohort went on to careers in STEM fields, the majority of those in STEM teaching.
This, in turn, helped to shape the invaluable Wallace Foundation supported Youth Alive program, which disseminated and strengthened youth programs at science centers and children’s museums. While Youth Alive was designed to foster youth development across many domains, the Science Career Ladder continued, and continues to this day, serving the dual purpose of enlivening a visit to NYSCI and fostering STEM careers among its diverse community of participants.
The SCL has become not only a highly recognized program that other institutions have modeled, but also an integral part of NYSCI. The Explainers are the diverse face of our museum, supporting the exploration of science with a range of skills and activities. The SCL’s mission is to encourage young men and women from across New York City to pursue STEM careers. Students participating in the SCL demonstrate enhanced science content knowledge, confidence in oral presentations, and strong problem-solving skills, and they show significant growth in communication abilities, interpersonal skills, and leadership.
In its current form the SCL reaches between 120 and 160 young people a year, with about 85 percent coming from a minority background. As the SCL has evolved, so have the programmatic supports that are offered to participants to expand their skill sets, better preparing them for their next academic and career steps. From career development workshops to opportunities to connect with STEM professionals, the program exposes its participants to a wide range of options that are there for them to pursue.
To honor Alan’s contributions to NYSCI and the field at large, NYSCI has established the Alan J. Friedman Center for the Development of Young Scientists through a generous founding grant from the Noyce Foundation. The Friedman Center will encompass the Science Career Ladder program and will create opportunities for high school and college students across New York City to explore their prospects in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. The goals of the Friedman Center are to develop NYSCI as a place where youth and community organizations can learn about STEM opportunities, with multiple pathways for engaging youth in the STEM career pipeline. As it develops, the Friedman Center will make strategic investments to develop, pilot, and roll out new events and opportunities that broaden our reach to youth in New York City. Alan’s memory will continue to be honored and his legacy will live on.
About the Author
Priya Mohabir has been with the New York Hall of Science for the last 15 years, starting as an Explainer herself. In her various roles in Education and the Explainer teams, Priya has led numerous projects developing and leading professional development for diverse audiences. As the new Director of the Alan J. Friedman Center for the Development of Young Scientists, Priya will lead the Science Career Ladder as well as the Science Career Ladder Institute. Working with the Explainer leadership team she will continue to develop new and interesting opportunities for the Explainers and Residents. We expect to add additional programs to cultivate the interests and careers of young scientists in ways we can now only imagine.
As an alumna of the Science Career Ladder (SCL) program, the I have had invaluable support all along the way. From the motivation to challenge myself to the network of colleagues with whom I share this experience, the SCL has supported my professional growth and has introduced me to some great friends.