A portable science kit launched during the early pandemic is rapidly expanding its distribution from an Ohio county to London, Paris and Dubai.
NASA, the Office of Vice President Kamala Harris and government entities across the country are funding “Learning Lunchboxes,” first conceived by an Ohio science museum just two years ago as they sought to help their community. One of the latest funding increases came from OVP in September to support World Space Week.
“The most important thing we do is give people a hands-on experience,” said Frederic Bertley, president and CEO of Columbus’ Center of Science and Industry (COSI), which seeks to serve students from elementary through high school. with interactive activities. .
With the museum closed for pandemic-related safety reasons for much of 2020, officials realized “we can’t make COSI come to people,” Bertley said. “Instead, we’re going to put COSI in a box.”
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The pandemic has put a particular strain on communities like Columbus, where nearly 20 percent of the population lives in poverty and about half identify as a minority (such as Black, Asian or Latino), according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. (opens in new tab) from 2020-21.
Declining employment, skyrocketing health care costs, increasing health risks from front-line jobs, and other complications created intersecting problems for the community. To address these issues, COSI and its partners took a creative approach.
“Our first partnership was with food pantries, because the two major things that underserved populations had were food insecurity and an education crisis,” Bertley said, pointing specifically to families who didn’t have access to the Internet or ways to access remote education during school closures.
The program debuted when COSI delivered 500 Learning Lunchboxes per week to local food pantries to target “underserved” zip codes in the Columbus area. In light of this food and fuel approach, the program found its motto: “Feeding hungry lives and hungry minds.”
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Each kit includes a packet with a specific topic linked to the science curriculum standards – including space (opens in new tab). (While the kit-and-lunch deal is quickly expanding for free to US communities that need them, a version is also available for purchase online (opens in new tab) for families or educational institutions who can afford it.)
“This device has democratized access,” Bertley said of the kit, which (depending on the program) has been funded by public dollars at the local, state or federal level as distribution expands. About 30 states have already signed on, and COSI plans to bring the kit to the entire country (and its territories) if it can.
On Space.com’s camera, Bertley opened one of the space kit to show what’s inside: an illustrated guide and a set of simple experiments, estimated to contain around 10 hours of student content.
QR codes complement the guide to bring teachers and older students to experiment with how-to videos if they have access to mobile devices. (One of the space videos is a conversation with Jill Tarter, the public face of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, about the prospect of extraterrestrial life.)
There are also links in the guide to COSI’s two Emmy Award-winning short series: YouTube’s “Dr. B in 3” (opens in new tab)” and PBS’s “QED with Dr. B (opens in new tab)”, covering topics ranging from climate, immunity and diversity.
The guide is available in different English language levels to meet the literacy needs of different students. An effort is being made to translate the instructions into various languages, including Arabic, Spanish, and perhaps Korean.
Every aspect of the design is designed to be attractive, from the easy-to-open flap to the way everything is laid out on the top of the box, inviting kids to grab what they can see. The team drew inspiration from Apple and other companies leading the “unboxing” trend in formulating the design.
“I know people keep the iPhone cases. It’s just a beautiful thing,” Bertley said. “Think about it: Especially for kids, you want them excited. You want them to have pride in their box.”
In the two years since local food pantries began distributing the box, the program has quickly grown into several top-shelf offerings in entertainment, science and politics.
Miss America 2020 (aka Camille Schrier of Virginia) is finishing her Ph.D. degree in pharmacology and advertised the lunchbox. During the same period, the kit quickly expanded to all 88 Ohio counties and began migrating to Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan and other states. (Florida is overwhelmed by NASA, which is now offering kits to educational entities affiliated with its 10 U.S. research centers.)
It was through partnerships with U.S. federal departments that the kits really began to differentiate, Bertley said. Examples include the US Department of Energy supporting an energy-focused kit, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ enhanced water kit, Honda supporting a mechanical lunch box, and Virgin sponsoring a “Hyperloopkit (refers to high-speed tunnel service first speculated by SpaceX‘small Elon Musk.)
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But the coolest kits, in Bertley’s mind, are the four space kits: three with NASA and one in partnership with Vice President Harris’ office, since Harris is the chairman of the National Space Council. The quartet includes a “generic” rocket launch kit, a kit for NASA rockets Artemis moon programa kit for James Webb Space Telescope and one space themed board game (opens in new tab) revealed with the National Space Council.
Learning Lunchboxes is also beginning to make its international debut after COSI was invited by the US State Department and NASA to participate in the closing ceremony of the 2021-2022 World Expo in Dubai, which in part prompted the Arabic translation effort. (COSI also landed in London on the way home to promote the Hyperloop kit, along with Virgin.) Next stops included Paris and a pilot program in Barbados.
Bertley emphasized that the goal of the program is for students to gain confidence in numbers and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills, along with reading and writing.
“My goal is to be a part of the community and try to make people see that this is cool,” he said. “Are you becoming a scientist? That’s not the point. [The point is] you’ll be better off if you have some understanding of how the physical universe works.”
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) the Facebook (opens in new tab).