In 2020 with the words: “There’s no bad weather, just the wrong clothes!” the Liepāja City Education Department Science and Education Innovation Center (ZIIC) opened the Nature House. This positive attitude continues to motivate the ZIIC team. The European Economic Area and Norway Grants (EEA/NO) programme’s “Research and Education” project “Development of the Innovation Center in the City of Liepaja” is going through the process of approving educational programmes “Environmental Management” and “Environmental Management II”. The first semester passed when students from different regions of Latvia attended both programmes.
“The most challenging thing is to design the content in such a way as to keep the pupils’ attention and ensure that even a pupil who sits at the last step and believes that the subject is not for him or her will reflect on his or her future career choices or at least be inspired in some way,” tells Laura Grundmane, the head of the Liepāja City Education Board’s ZIIC project “Development of the Innovation Center in Liepāja”. The ZIIC team set itself the goal of creating educational content that allows children to see what is impossible to see with the naked eye, to think beyond borders, and learn about the importance of biomimicry in design thinking. As well as to promote the development of knowledge and career choice of students in the field of STEM and environmental sciences by establishing an innovation center in Liepaja in cooperation with Latvian and Norwegian cooperation partners.
For almost two years, the ZIIC team has gradually developed five educational curricula, various classes, and activities that take place in the technology co-creation room at 4/6 Autoru Street and in the Nature House on Lake Liepāja, Zirgu Island. The main emphasis is on the ability of students to practice, study and learn about STEM and the environmental sciences with enthusiasm, thus ensuring the combination of theoretical knowledge with practice-based activities. Interest and interactive action can be achieved by involving different technologies and installations in the learning process.
“It’s important for us that the child and the young person can see the connections with their daily lives. Innovative and sustainable thinking cannot be learned in one lesson, it can only be cultivated and gradually discovered. All living nature is a system, so the task of ZIIC is to teach to think systematically, to look for connections, creating an understanding of an individual’s impact on the environment,” says Justine Rusakova, ZIIC’s education methodologist.
At the Nature House, children between the ages of five and 10 can take part in the “Environmental Management” programme. Thanks to it, they can become bird and ant researchers, young geographers, botanists, and eco-technologists and get to know protected areas, as well as learn more about water quality.
The programme “Environmental Management II” has been created for young people aged 11 to 18, which consists of four innovative lessons “Human Internal Organs”, “Biotechnology”, “Exploration of the Earth’s Layers”, and “Zoology under the Magnifying Glass”. Classes use a variety of installations and interactive methods, creating an understanding of life, ecosystems, and natural processes, and studying them both practically and theoretically. For example, in the lesson “Human Internal Organs”, students can perform an organ section themselves, thus gaining a better understanding of body function.
The lessons are developed by the ZIIC team in close cooperation with experts from the University of Latvia, Faculty of Natural and Engineering Sciences, as well as Norwegian partners from the Jaermuseet Regional Museum who participated in the analysis of the lessons.
“Experience exchange trips to Norway have been one of the most valuable and rich in experience because the specialists working on the theoretical and practical development of science centers are enthusiastic and inspiring,” says L. Grundmane. On their way to the Jaermuseet Regional Museum, the center’s team took part in partner-organized classes for pupils. The colleagues of the museum presented the course and topics of their classes. The examination of the cow’s eye and the cornea was one of the most exciting, so inspired by colleagues, the ZIIC team created the program “Human Internal Organs”. To improve the content of both interest education and non-formal teacher education programmes, the ZIIC team participated in brainstorming workshops.
In the spring of 2022, cooperation with partners from the Trondheim Science Center ended. During two business trips abroad, ZIIC employees have mastered the elements of design thinking, for which they have also obtained diplomas. In the first time in Trondheim, team practiced practical methods for getting to know and understand the target audience of the science center and how their wishes were met, while in the second time, they obtained the skills in creating prototypes of installations, defining goals and testing were improved. During the exchange trip, the emphasis was on design thinking and how, using some methods, it is possible to create a well-thought-out and sufficiently interactive exhibition.
It’s planned to create 15 installations in the Nature House, but in the Technology Co-creation Room, students will have access to nine workstations with various equipment, which will be included in the curricula. Currently, three installations have been fully installed in the Nature House, while the rest are under development or have been partially installed, as the process of purchasing materials during the Covid-19 emergency was more than challenging. The biggest challenges have been bureaucratic twists, constraints on the state of emergency, and soaring inflation, which has introduced adjustments to the budgetary plans. Due to the unstable market situation and unpredictable supplies of materials, various equipment purchase risks have occurred, but by structuring and re-planning together, the team has found solutions and the materials required for the exhibition have been successfully procured. The full establishment of the exposition is planned for the end of this year.
The project plans to carry out various communication activities, such as discussions, living library events, and interviews with specialists in various fields, to organize outdoor events for young people in the fields of STEM and environmental science. In addition, work is continuing the improvement of both co-production spaces, looking for the best solutions for equipping and supplementing the Environmental Sciences Laboratory with materials used in natural and engineering fields.
Thanks to the project “Development of the Innovation Center in the City of Liepaja”, ZIIC experts have been provided with opportunities for professional development, for example, ZIIC expert has mastered the FabLab concept at Aalto University in Finland, and the staff of the Nature House has gained experience trips, providing a professional approach to the creation of educational content.
Within the framework of the project, ZIIC will continue to implement approbation classes, in the summer additional time will be devoted to families with children, who will develop knowledge in the fields of STEM and environmental sciences by learning the operation of installations and practically working in co-working spaces.
The project “Development of the Innovation Centre in Liepaja City” is planned to be implemented by 2023 and the total amount of funding is EUR 986 049, including Norway grants financing or EUR 754 327.40, State budget financing EUR 133 116.60 and Liepaja City Government financing in the amount of EUR 98 605.
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