Building Trust in Science via ‘Cultural Brokers’

The leaders of the New York Hall of Science adapt its hands-on museum approach to serve its largely immigrant community.

“I once worked with a fabulous educator who said, ‘We believe in giving our children early experiences of success, rather than repeated experiences of failure,’” says Margaret Honey. “We like to say: Nobody ever fails in a science center.”

Honey should know: As president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), she presides over NYSCI Neighbors, an ambitious program to position the 53-year-old museum as a learning and engagement hub for the Corona neighborhood of Queens, where the museum is based. Extending the curiosity-driven, hands-on philosophy that drives NYSCI’s exhibits and programming — an approach that Honey refers to as “design, make, play” — NYSCI Neighbors is a constellation of educational and community outreach programs designed to connect with the immigrant families who make up the majority of Corona’s residents.  This design-make-play approach includes a STEM literacy program — a one-hour daily session that introduces children to math and science concepts through storytelling and gives parents and caregivers the tools to do the same at home.

Science Ambassadors program at New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York City, U.S., March 1, 2017. Photo by Andrew Kelly for New York Hall of Science
NYSCI connects with the children of Corona, Queens, and their families, with a curiosity-driven approach. Image Credit: NYSCI

There’s also a homework help program. Several parents in the community face language barriers when trying to assist their children with after-school assignments — the NYSCI Neighbors initiative offers a network of high-performing local high school tutors to provide assistance. NYSCI staff members train tutors, who prepare students for in-classroom learning across several subject areas. They also help students develop time-management and organizational skills.

Honey’s long-term goal is to turn NYSCI into “a career and academic pipeline for young people in this community, to show them that they can think broadly about science, technology, engineering and math opportunities as being viable for themselves.”

But in the short term? Honey and Tania Tiburcio, NYSCI’s director of external affairs and community engagement, just want to build trust. The following is an edited transcript of an interview with both women.

Leveraging ‘Cultural Brokers’, as told by Margaret Honey and Tania Tiburcio

HONEY: One of my colleagues pointed out that if you’re an undocumented resident of Corona, you may look across the street and see the giant Gemini-Titan and Mercury-Atlas spacecraft [displayed in NYSCI’s outdoor Rocket Park] and think: Government agency, I should probably stay away from that place at all costs. So it’s really about this slow and steady process of demonstrating to the community that we are a place they can trust, we are a place that welcomes their children — and welcomes them.

Ours is a Spanish-speaking community, the largest Ecuadorian population outside of Ecuador. Our families really trust schools and value their child’s experience in school, so working through the schools was an important part of the trust-building process. If we were really going to signal to our families that NYSCI is a place that wants to help them meet their kids’ needs, we needed to establish a homework help program — because in lots of communities where English is not the dominant language, homework is a huge challenge. And indeed that worked — it was absolutely the key calling card that got people through the door and into the building.

TIBURCIO: One day, two dads came in, and they didn’t know each other. But because they both had a child coming in for homework help, they had an opportunity to sit down and chat. One dad works the night shift, so he picks up his child from school, brings him to homework help, brings him back home, and then goes off to put in a full day’s work. The other father said, “Oh, I have the opposite work shift. I’m up very early in the morning, so I get out of work just in time to pick up my children from school and bring them here to do homework help. Then we go home together and have dinner, and that’s the first break I get in my day.” The level of commitment, the sacrifices that parents are willing to make to ensure success for their children, is just phenomenal to see.

HONEY: We signed up 1,200 kids during our first week. It was kind of an all-hands-on-deck situation. There were kids reading their English assignment in Spanish so that their parents could understand it, and their mothers would be typing the Spanish into Google Translate and then translating back into English for the kids. It was painstaking and slow, and unbelievably dedicated.

TIBURCIO: It’s about reaching out, not assuming that people are going to find you, and leveraging what I call the ‘cultural brokers’ of the community: people who are already well-known and respected and trusted. You find these brokers in places like schools, but also senior centers, churches and the local health center. That’s where all our families congregate, where they share with each other what their needs are and what’s going on.

That’s where I meet people like Aleja, a grandmother who is very active in her church. She learned about NYSCI through our outreach and was so excited by what she saw. She kept bringing her grandchildren whenever they visited from Florida, and when she goes to her senior center, she tells the other seniors, “Hey, this place is great, you should go there.” When she went to church she even invited the priest.

There’s a story she likes to tell us. She and her grandkids came to one of our workshops, where one of the projects was to learn how to wire a home. They had these little LED lights built into little houses that they had made out of cardboard, and they wired them so that the light switches worked. Aleja’s grandkids were really, really proud of the house they worked on — so proud that they said, “We need to take this back to Florida to show everybody what we did this summer.”

But at the airport, they got held up at security because of all the wiring. The kids were like, “No, this is our project from NYSCI. We need to carry this on the plane!” The TSA agents tried to confiscate it, but the kids wouldn’t let go of it. That’s the kind of excitement we’re able to generate — that’s the value of having advocates in the community speaking and working on our behalf.

Stories of Impact highlight the real-world influences of Science Sandbox projects through personal narratives, videos and interviews. Discover more stories here.


Hero image: Dancers celebrate in front of the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI). Credit: NYSCI

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