Yale Bulletin and Calendar

November 22-December 6, 1999Volume 28, Number 14

Third-grade students Emmanuel Fernandez and Larry Boomer check out the details of a blue jay's anatomy during a visit by the Peabody Museum's BioAction Laboratory to New Haven's Timothy Dwight Elementary School. The mobile laboratory was designed to interest young children in science through studies on the theme of biodiversity. This year, eight New Haven schools are involved in the Peabody Museum's science literacy program.

Peabody's mobile BioAction Lab inspires young 'scientists'

As they donned white laboratory coats and took their seats, the students in Jeanine Arlotta's third-grade class at Timothy Dwight Elementary School joked that they felt like scientists.

Soon, they were as excited as kids at a costume party. "Look at that owl!" exclaimed one student to his classmate, who looked back in amazement and yelled, "You have got to see this: This bat looks so real!"

The students had been transformed into true scientists, delighting in the throes of discovery, as they celebrated the earth's biodiversity through a science education program being offered in the New Haven public schools by the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

This is the second year that the museum is both educating and fascinating Elm City schoolchildren with its BioAction Lab, a mobile "wagon train" of carts filled with objects and specimens from the natural world that the youngsters can hold and examine up close. The laboratory-on-wheels is part of an initiative -- centered on the theme of biodiversity -- to increase science literacy in New Haven schools.

The program gives the students the opportunity to connect personally with the wide array of life that surrounds them in the natural world.

"The BioAction Lab is designed to offer the children a completely hands-on educational experience," says Laura Fawcett, science education coordinator at the Peabody Museum, who directs the program. "The children can explore with all of their senses things found in both local and exotic habitats, which is a wonderful way to learn about science."

At the Timothy Dwight School, the third-graders could barely contain their awe as they opened the drawers of the laboratory's bright green and orange carts, which are painted with a leaf motif. The youngsters rubbed their hands against the soft fur of a deer or the tail of a fox; inspected the stuffed bodies of a pigeon and a robin; examined specimens of a tarantula, dragonfly and ladybug; studied the skeletons of a beaver, bat and snake; and gently handled bird eggs and the quills of a porcupine.

Using a Mantis microscope, which shows the objects being magnified on a wide-view screen, the students also observed with ease the fine details of leaves, grasses and other organisms. With the lab's computer, they discovered, to their amazement, that a barred owl can make sounds that are hard to distinguish from the barks of a dog.

The Peabody Museum established the BioAction Lab with a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Fawcett and other Peabody staff and volunteers worked closely with New Haven elementary and middle school teachers and with Marc Blosveren, the K-12 science education supervisor in the New Haven public schools, to tailor the four-year pilot program to the schools' goals and needs.

Last spring, the traveling laboratory visited four elementary schools -- Helene Grant, Timothy Dwight, Clinton Avenue and Isadore Wexler -- spending three weeks at each site. This academic year, students at four more schools -- the Vincent Mauro and Lincoln-Bassett elementary schools, Worthington Hooker Elementary and Middle School, and Jackie Robinson Middle School -- are being introduced to the program. By the end of the program's fourth year, the BioAction Lab will have traveled to 16 New Haven schools.

In addition, 9- to 11-year-olds in New Haven's Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership (L.E.A.P.) program, an after-school and summer enrichment program for urban youths, also took part in BioAction Lab activities this past summer through a L.E.A.P. pilot program aimed at incorporating science education into its curriculum.

Taking a leadership role in educating students about biodiversity is a natural one for the Peabody Museum, according to Fawcett.

"As we talked to teachers about the kinds of classroom aids they need to teach about scientific topics, they all said that they lack objects to use to bring science alive in the classroom," says Fawcett. "One of the ways we can be the most helpful is in making available objects from our extensive collections. In addition, our collections managers and curators are experts in their fields, whether they study invertebrate zoology or botany or entomology, to name just a few. They, too, can be a wonderful resource for the schools."

Designed mainly for fourth-through sixth-grade students, the BioAction Lab program can also be adapted for younger or older children.

Generally, at each of her school presentations, BioAction Lab educator Melissa Gibbons begins by talking to students about biodiversity, which she describes as "the amazing variety of plant and animal life forms we have on earth." Her presentation covers such subjects as how forms of life become extinct and how to protect the environment.

"A primary focus is to inspire children to care about biodiversity," explains Gibbons. "In the classroom, we might raise questions like 'Why do we care what happens to the rain forest?' or 'Why does it matter if a certain butterfly species disappears?' Through the kinds of conversations that follow, we've heightened their awareness about the world around them and the interconnectedness of their own lives and nature."

Before students begin exploring the carts by themselves, Gibbons draws out samples from each one and talks briefly about them. From the "Meadow" cart, for example, she may pull out various species of birds (all of which died of natural causes and were stuffed so children could handle them); from the "Forest" cart, she can bring forth a grizzly bear claw or plastic casts of animal excrement (which, like their tracks, helps in the identification of animals).

Gibbons also uses the Mantis microscope and computer, which were donated to the Peabody Museum by the Chase Manhattan Foundation to help the young students learn how to conduct research, as well as the lab's folding environmental panels, which feature local habitats. Yale students -- including several from the School of For-estry & Environmental Studies -- and Peabody Museum volunteers assist Gibbons during the school presentations.

During a BioAction Lab visit to the Helene Grant Elementary School last spring, the students reacted to the mobile laboratory "the way young children re-spond to a candy jar," says Eleanor Willis, the school's library media specialist.

"As soon as they've seen and learned a little, they want to see more, do more and ask more questions," Willis says. "And that's the key to being scientists: asking questions."

Helene Grant teacher Margaret Andrews, who was recently named New Haven's Teacher of the Year, said the BioAction Lab is as much fun for her third-grade students as a visit to the Peabody Museum -- but with one major advantage.

"In the museum setting, kids are always hearing adults say 'Don't touch,'" she explains. "With the BioAction Lab, they can and are encouraged to touch everything. The children just love that."

In conjunction with the BioAction Lab, the Peabody Museum is also collaborating with New Haven public school educators to foster an ongoing study of the Earth's diverse plant and animal life.

Through the museum's Biodiversity Institute, a 40-week training program launched in the summer of 1998, educators can learn about the many Peabody collections that are available to help teach youngsters about the natural world. In addition, teachers get advice on and support for developing curricula on the theme of biodiversity.

The program features seminars and workshops on such topics as birds, fossils and watersheds, which are led by the museum's collections managers, public education staff and curators, as well as Yale faculty members.

As part of their training, the New Haven teachers also take a field trip to the Peabody Museum's field research station in Guilford, where they conduct hands-on research and experiments in such diverse habitats as a salt marsh, uplands woods and a tidal pool. Thus far, about 30 New Haven educators have attended the institute.

The educators -- who are called Peabody Fellows -- get four continuing education unit credits for participating in the Biodiversity Institute and receive a stipend to create a curriculum unit on a topic related to biodiversity.

Pedro Mendia, who teaches science to bilingual elementary schoolchildren at the Clinton Avenue School, says he began to "look at the environment in a whole new light" while attending the Biodiversity Institute two summers ago.

"I've been a science teacher for many years now but don't think I would have been able to teach on the subject of biodiversity had I not taken part in the institute," he says. "It gave me the context and content I needed to teach about the subject, and the hands-on experience I had there gave me background knowledge I was lacking before."

With the support of Peabody staff, Mendia developed a curriculum unit that allowed him to accomplish one of his major goals: educating children about science in a way that also increases their fluency in Spanish and English. In the unit, called "Biodiversity in the Kitchen," his second-grade students talk and write about foods used by various cultures as they learn about the food chain.

Willis says her experience in the Peabody training program made her realize that the theme of biodiversity can be incorporated into almost any subject students study in her school. With another Peabody Fellow, she collaborated on a project to teach fifth-graders how to identify, press and mount flowers in connection with an assignment about literature.

"In the New Haven schools, we are now undergoing a major curriculum revision in science, and we fully expect that the units that our teachers develop through the Biodiversity Institute will be incorporated into our new offerings," says Blosveren, who has also been a Peabody Fellow.

Former Peabody Fellow Margaret Andrews has continued to keep in touch with the Yale scientists she met through the Biodiversity Institute.

"As a teacher, I am often faced with questions that I don't always have the answer to," says Andrews. "Now I am comfortable turning to Yale scientists -- the real experts -- for help."

As a special bonus, all of the students who have participated in the BioAction Lab program, as well as their family members and teachers, receive free passes to the Peabody Museum.

"Through the BioAction Lab program and the Biodiversity Institute, we've developed a special relationship with the New Haven schools we visit and their students," says Fawcett. "One of the ways we maintain that relationship is to invite the children and teachers to the museum, where they can continue to explore and be fascinated by the Earth's amazing biodiversity."

The Peabody Museum seeks volunteers to help with its BioAction Lab science education program in the New Haven schools. Contact Sally Lanzi at (203) 432-3731.

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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