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Weekend edition January 20, 2023 | Shannon Smith

Innovation starts young at Muse Knoxville

The next generation of world changers is now learning younger and younger the impact of a STEM education, all through the power of play at Muse Knoxville.

When you were in elementary school, did you know what an engineer was?

Many people would answer no.

“Here you have pre-K kiddos who will actively say ‘I want to be an engineer when I grew up because,’ and they have a really solid reason,” said Allison Comer, Executive Director of Muse Knoxville.

Now, kids as young as 6 months old are learning to think like engineers as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) take the forefront of education. At Muse Knoxville, a children’s museum and learning center in East Knoxville, they make sure it’s fun.

“I feel like Muse just has the best parts of teaching,” said Comer. “We measure our success based on how well families are playing, how engaging things are, those “aha” moments, kids feeling inspired. All of that kind of stuff is hard to quantify in the classroom.”

Comer came to Muse Knoxville after 10 years in the classroom as an art teacher. She wanted to continue working with children in a new way.

“I just love seeing children be creative. I love seeing children be problem solvers. I love to see them play,” she said.

Muse Knoxville is celebrating its 10th year as a premier educational center for kids. What they see as a fun place to play, Comer sees as an opportunity to teach them new ways of thinking.

“Everything we do is play-based, it’s hands-on, it’s inquiry-based, it’s interactive,” said Comer. “But we’re really increasing intentional vocabulary around the play, and sometimes that’s for the caregivers or the educators more so even for the children.”

In making an activity more STEM-focused, she gives the example of a take-home kit the Muse sent home with kids during the pandemic. Each kit had an assortment of little items like paperclips, solo cups, and binder clips.

“And instead of just saying, ‘hey, have fun with this,’ we said ‘I challenge you to make it into a bridge. I challenge you to make it into a playground using only the materials you have in front of you, and then explain it to me,'” said Comer. “Taking those play-based experiences to the next level with some intention, but still letting the children guide their own learning. That’s where you get those beautiful chef’s kiss “aha” moments that we love to see.”

Comer said as the Knoxville area works to become more of an innovation hub, the Muse has a role in that goal. It starts with inspiring and training the future workforce needed to advance the technology being discovered in our area.

“I think STEM is a focus in education because collectively, people are realizing just how vital that is to the workforce,” she said. “We are seeing the ramifications of not focusing on it, as it relates to employment and workforce skills.”

The play-based STEM education at Muse Knoxville is working.

Comer gives the example of Green Magnet Academy, a STEM-designated elementary school in East Knoxville. Muse is partnered with the school, offering free field trips and in-class outreach lessons several times a year. On top of that partnership, the school does STEM-focused projects daily in each grade level.

“When they come to Muse Knoxville, their children dive right into the activity,” said Comer. “They are growth-minded, they are not afraid to take risks, they are creative, and they work as a team really well, because that has been normalized in the way that they received their education.”

When other schools come to visit that don’t yet have a STEM-minded curriculum, Comer said the difference is noticeable.

“Their children are less likely to take risks, they’re more reserved, they might not work as well as a team, they may not suggest creative solutions to problems that we challenge them with,” she said. “I think normalizing at the youngest age possible that creative problem solving and critical thinking is encouraged and taking that fear of making a mistake totally out of it and celebrating that with children, it changes the way they learn forever.”

That’s what Muse Knoxville does. Families can come for a day, buy a membership, or participate in day camps or off-campus outreach events. In a five-month window since August of 2022, visitors have come to the museum from 37 states and 470 zip codes. They try to be accessible by offering some programs free of charge, as well as affordable childcare on weekdays when Knox County Schools are closed.

“The Muse is so important for our area because children and families need these museum play-based settings,” said Comer. “It is such an important part of learning, such an important cultural experience for them. It leads to lifelong learning.”

That doesn’t always mean the kids become scientists. For example, one Muse exhibit is an electric harp with invisible strings that kids can play. Comer said a former student reached out to let the Muse team know she’s now a harpist for a youth symphony orchestra because she was so inspired by that exhibit as a kid, and wants to volunteer at the museum.

Comer and her team are also hoping their methods can help diversify the local pool of engineers, encouraging more students of diverse backgrounds to enter the STEM world. Muse Knoxville has individualized programs for students in special education all the way through college. They also have an apprenticeship workforce development program for students at Fulton High School and Austin-East High schools, which neighbor the Muse.

“We can be a really good facilitator for developing leaders and connecting them to careers,” said Comer. “That’s been really great to see. It’s nice to feel like even as a children’s museum, we’re spanning past that fifth-grade age.”

Because at the end of the day, you’re never too old to stop learning.

You can visit Muse Knoxville from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, and follow them on social media for news about special events.