Collaborative Program “Inspires” Love of Science

Thirty-some second-graders from Harvey Rice Elementary School are buzzing with excitement as they hang up their jackets and file into a classroom at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Science is about to come alive for them in the best possible way: up close and hands on.

This visit is not a typical hour-plus tour through the museum, hitting the highlights before boarding the bus back to school. These students will have an immersive experience that is nearly four hours long, with plenty of time to wonder, touch, explore and even have lunch at the museum.

In fact, these kids will soon be able to add “paleontologist,” “detective” and “snake handler” to their resumes thanks to Inspire: Reach Every Child, a collaborative program between the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

This morning, museum educator Chris Pfeil starts by welcoming the students and patiently answers a few questions they are bursting to ask. “Is that a real skeleton hanging over there?” one asks. She assures them it is just a plaster model, not someone’s loved one. Then she turns the tables on them.

“Who can name something you need to survive?” she quizzes them. Hands shoot up in the air as students tick off the answers: water, food, air, shelter. After a brief discussion about habitats – the theme for today’s visit – she draws their attention to a rolling cart with a tarp over it, which conceals several mystery guests.

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Snake handling at CMNH

The kids squeal with delight as Harvey hops out onto the table. After some ooh-ing and aah-ing, Pfeil asks them to classify the bunny into one of four categories: reptile, bird, mammal or fish. The answer comes easily to them, as they have been studying this at school.

There is squealing of a different nature when the next guest scuttles out: Lilac, the skunk. Though the students are somewhat repulsed by her snack of live mealworms, they gradually warm up to her when they find out that her scent gland has been removed.

“We always start with the live animal demonstration, because it’s the perfect hook for the kids,” says the museum’s education director, Carin Miller. “Many of these animals are in their backyards, but they may never have seen them up close like this.”

By the end of the live animal session the students have also met a majestic barn owl, two different kinds of turtles, and a colorful corn snake – which they bravely “pet” on the way out the door to their next session.

“I touched his neck,” boasts one boy. “It’s cold and smooth!” says one of the girls. Another pipes up, “I love science – I want to be a science teacher when I grow up!”

Next, the class splits into two smaller groups. One group heads off to investigate fossils and dinosaurs in the exhibit halls, while the other group examines animal skulls to try to figure out whether each animal was an herbivore, carnivore or omnivore. After a lunch break, the students will encounter more live animals in the museum’s outdoor Perkins Wildlife Center & Woods Garden, which includes river otters, bald eagles, bobcats, raccoons and deer.

The Inspire program came into being when museum staff members approached Cleveland Schools’ CEO Eric Gordon in January of 2012 with a bold idea. Says Miller, “We wanted to create a more substantial relationship with CMSD students. Our idea was to reach every single student in one grade level, with a focus on science.”

After discussion with the district’s science content experts, they settled on second grade. Those standards involve habitats of animals, both living and extinct, and how animals adapt for their own survival – a perfect fit for the museum’s resources. Once they had approval for the idea, the museum mobilized to put funding into place for the next school year.

The program was an instant success and was aptly named. Not only did it inspire the students who came to the museum – it also inspired other local cultural organizations to step up in a similar way. The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes now serves all CMSD students in Pre-K and grade one; Cleveland Botanical Gardens developed programming for all students in grade three; the Cleveland Aquarium serves students in grade four; and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo serves all CMSD fifth-graders.

“The positive impact on the students – and their teachers and families – has been even more than we hoped for,” said Dr. Evalyn Gates, executive director and CEO of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “Inspire gives every second-grade student in CMSD opportunities to experience real science – to explore, question, imagine and analyze – in a way that opens a whole new world for them. Their visit to the museum builds upon and enhances their classroom science curriculum and makes it come alive.”

Since 2008, the museum has received General Operating Support funding each year from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, the public funder for arts and culture in Cuyahoga County. The unrestricted funds allow the museum the flexibility to develop new programs such as Inspire.

“We’re very grateful for the funding from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture that supports the development of educational programs like Inspire – enabling us to invite so many Cuyahoga County families to share in the adventure of science,” Dr. Gates said.

Why the emphasis on science? Says Miller, “I believe all human beings are born as scientists. We come into the world wanting to explore the world around us, and wanting to ask questions. It’s so important to keep that sense of inquiry alive for kids. That’s what we are trying to do with the Inspire program: to encourage kids to ask questions and to try to find the answers for themselves.”

The Inspire program pays dividends well beyond the day of the classroom visit. In May, all of the students who have visited throughout the year are invited back with their families at no charge for a full day of exploration.

Says Miller, “It’s so wonderful to see the kids come back through the door and remember the staff members who taught them. They really take ownership of the museum as they teach their parents and grandparents what they learned. They just have a great day together.”

by: Jennifer Proe