There is something special unfolding at the northeast corner of Flushing Meadows Corona Park where the burgeoning partnership between the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) and the Pre-K Center that opened across the parking lot in September is already a model for the city and the nation. The relationship has had a ripple effect throughout the greater Corona neighborhood in terms of breaking down the walls to science and technology learning.
“I wasn’t expecting such a visceral feeling, but the way that it connects the neighborhood with the museum was kind of startling to me,” NYSCI Chief Advancement Officer Kiryn Hoffman told QNS. “The museum has always been set back from 111th Street so you could walk past and not even know it was there and the school has done a beautiful job of just opening up our work to the community in a very literal way. I think that we can engage much more deeply with our community because they really see us as a resource now.”
There are currently 200 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in the new school and it will add another 100 seats next year. The youngsters look out the classroom windows and see NYSCI’s Rocket Park which displays authentic rockets and engines donated by NASA to inspire future space scientists and explorers.
“The children in the school are participating in a STEM-themed curriculum that we helped design in collaboration with their teachers, and we also provide teacher coaching and support and the use of the museum as part of their classrooms,” Hoffman said. “They actually come over here on a regular basis, utilize our exhibits, and then go back to the classroom and incorporate it into their learning day.”
Every child in the school receives a free, family membership to NYSCI, and they are encouraged to visit after school and on the weekends. When the Pre-K Center opened in September, NYSCI president and CEO Margaret Honey explained the relationship.
“This unique partnership between a preschool and a science center is an opportunity to showcase the ways in which science can be a powerful tool for all children — supporting the Corona community, enhancing the park and leveraging New York City’s only hands-on science museum in the process,” Honey said. “Collectively, the partners in this project are inspiring and preparing the future generation of problem solvers to tackle climate change, accelerate space exploration and cure diseases.”
Last month, Honey took part in a White House summit on STEM equity and excellence just as NYSCI received a $750.000 federal grant secured by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to support a curriculum and activities around space science for early childhood learning.
“So we’re actually developing programs and working with the teachers so that they can think about space exploration as part of their curriculum,” Hoffman explained. “And with the funding from the federal government we’re thinking about what more we can do with the Rocket Park so that the NASA rockets from the 1960s are not just artifacts but tools that can inspire the children to be the next astronauts and the next engineers and leaders of space exploration.”
With NYSCI support, young learners can investigate phenomena that are fundamental to space science.
“We know more now about early childhood learning than we did a decade or two ago and we know that very young children are capable of pretty sophisticated scientific reasoning and thinking,” Hoffman said. “And so this school provides us with an opportunity to really infuse science and technology in a way that hasn’t really been done before anyway, and anywhere. So, it’s really a national model. It’s a model for national early childhood learning.”
NASA astronaut and scientist Dr. Jeanette Epps joined Ocasio-Cortez and community leaders in October to celebrate the reopening of NYSCI following several difficult years. The museum was shut down for 16 months during the pandemic and reopened briefly in 2021 before it was forced to close again after the remnants of Hurricane Ida slammed into Queens, sending over a million gallons of water from sewage drains into the museum. NYSCI reopened to the public with a redefined mission.
“We made a commitment over a decade ago to really engage deeply with our community with its rich culture and customs and a lot of newcomers that we believe really enrich our city, but they come from backgrounds that aren’t traditionally represented in STEM science and technology fields,” Hoffman said. “So, our approach is a philosophy of Design-Make-Play approach that invites people in and makes everybody that comes through the museum feel confident and competent, and that allows them to fall in love with science and technology.”
She said the Pre-K Center is the start of a more ambitious pathway forward for the entire community.
“We made a commitment that now that we have the school, now we have a whole trajectory of programs from pre-K through college,” Hoffman said. “We’re going to make a commitment through our work and through the engagement with our community members that 80% of the young people that come through our school and come up through our programs are going to go into science and technology careers and we’re going to prepare them for that future.”