Storefront Science Workshops Let Children Learn Through Exploration

By Nigel Chiwaya on December 7, 2012 7:49am 

HUDSON HEIGHTS — A year ago, Claudia Rogoff was walking down West 181st Street with her family when she noticed something gazing at them through the window of a storefront — chickens and tarantulas preserved in jars.

Her children, Maxim and Karina, quickly ran in the store to explore, Rogoff recalled.

"I thought, 'Wow!'" Rogoff, 35, added. "What place could this be, 'cause this is pretty cool."

Rogoff thought that she was entering a lab of some kind. As it turned out, she wasn't too far off — they had walked into uptown's only children-specific science workshop.

Storefront Science, located at 728 W. 181st St., is a workshop that gives children ages 2 to 13 the chance to learn about the world around them through exploration and experimentation.

The workshop is the brainchild of Leonisa Ardizzone, a Washington Heights resident who previously worked as an assistant professor at Adelphi and Fordham universities. Ardizzone, a doctor who has a 10-year-old daughter named Rafaella, founded Storefront Science last year after growing frustrated with the way science was being taught in public schools.

"There was almost no science in the school, and when it was done it was done poorly," said Ardizzone, 43, who has lived in the neighborhood for nine years.

After some introspection, she decided to create a space where children could learn about science through play, a place that was focused on science but without the stuffy decorum of a museum.

"I wanted it to be a place where kids can think scientifically, think like engineers and not worry about whether right or wrong matters," she said.

Despite the word "storefront," in the name, the shop functions more like a child's dream lab, with different corners dedicated to varying activities. The front of the store is home to the "critter corner," which features live rats, guinea pigs, worms, fish and a snake along with animals that have been preserved in jars.

There are also "marble racers," which lets children tack pegs and tracks onto a wall and race marbles down. The engineering corner in the back is popular with students, and features nine different building materials — no LEGOs, though — that children can use to design and build structures.

The left side of the room, where classes are held, is also home to rotating activities, which include magnets and electrical circuits that are extremely popular with children during the weekend free-play sessions.

On a recent evening, the class was working on "critters in a jar," a lesson that teaches them about the food chain and then sends them on a scavenger hunt through the storefront for animals and plants that make up a chain.

The children weren't afraid to take guesses and share their knowledge. Aiden, one of the students, surprised Dr. Ardizzone with his knowledge of the food chain.

After taking the students through microorganisms, plant and plant-eaters, Ardizzone asked the class: "Okay, so then we have meat eaters, and what comes next?"

"The apex predator," Aidan said.

Ardizzone was visibly impressed.

"Wow, how did you bust that out?" she asked. "Dude, you're skipping junior high; you're going straight to seventh grade."

The goal of the workshop is to keep children focused on science, even when they're getting off track. Later in the session, the students shifted from the food chain discussion to questions about a preserved scorpion that was on the table.

One student was sure it was poisonous, another wasn't sure.

Ardizzone is content to let these meandering adventures occur, because they show that the children are still thinking and are curious about the world around them.

"They know they have to come back," she said. "Because they have a little bit of freedom, it doesn't feel quite so oppressive."

Parents say that Storefront Science has been a great benefit to the neighborhood. Rogoff, whose husband is a scientist, said that it's wonderful to not have to venture down to the New York Hall of Science in Queens for a family excursion.

"It's a real gift in the neighborhood," Rogoff said.

Interested parents can bring their children to weekly open exploration and drop-off sessions, which cost between $10 and $15 per child. For more information on Storefront Science, visit their website at storefrontscience.com.

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