Museum to reach out to students with interactive classes

By Wayne Bryan Published June 26, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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James Joslin

Dorian Dillion-Lee, 6, of Evansville, Ind., uses a hand-crank generator to make a light bulb glow during a visit to the Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs. When the museum is closed later this year for renovations, educational specialists from the museum will take science classes to nine schools in southern Arkansas. The instructors will also provide materials for teachers to have their own interactive science classes.

Dorian Dillion-Lee was having fun sitting next to his dad making a light bulb glow, then shine. Dorian was also learning something.

Dorian, 6, and his father, Tanner Lee, were exploring the Mid-America Science Museum during their visit to Hot Springs from Evansville, Indiana. The boy’s baseball cap bobbed up and down after Dorian turned the handle of a tiny generator that provided the electricity to the light on the circuit table in the museum’s upper floor.

As he smiled when the bulb glowed brightly, he was learning that electric light needs power, and for the moment, he was providing that power by hand.

Making science fun is the main objective of the museum, which opened in 1979.

“The whole thing is to get excited about science,” said Shena Ball, director of education at MASM.

It seems the museum in the Spa City has been visited over the years by most of the school children in Arkansas and many from surrounding states. But no students will be coming to the museum starting the second week of August, said Diana LaFollette, executive director of the museum.

“Our last day to be open will be Aug. 10, and the renovations and additions for the museum will begin as soon as we close,” she said. “We plan on opening in the first week of March. We don’t have an exact day set yet.”

During the renovations, when students will not be able to make their trips to the museum to see lightning jump from the Tesla coil or how the sand pendulum outlines patterns that can be explained by trigonometry, the educators at the museum will go to the students, Ball said.

“We have long had a desire to reach out to the community and bring what the museum has to the classroom,” she said.

The museum received a $30,000 grant from the Carl B. & Florence E. King Foundation of Dallas to implement a new program, called Science Matters, for elementary-school students and teachers.

The program includes five hands-on lessons developed by Ball and the other museum educators, working with the Arkansas Department of Education Science Frameworks. The lessons touch on STEM subjects and are directed to fourth-graders.

Ball said the five-class program will go to nine schools in Hempstead, Little River, Ouachita and Nevada counties.

“We will have two of our educators at the school — one with the students and one with teachers who may not be as comfortable with science as they are with other classes,” she said. “As the program progresses at the school, the teacher becomes more active in the class. When it is over, we will leave a kit of materials for the teachers to use the whole year. The materials will allow the students to do experiments and will be very interactive.”

The five programs are Chemical Changes; States of Matter; Force, Direction and Mass; Temperature; and Conductors, Insulators and Circuits.

“The classes will include a lot of activities,” said Ball, who is an educator with a background in corporate training. “In States of Matter, the students will make a cloud in a jar and will learn that gases are still matter and have mass. In the class about temperature, they will learn about convection currents.”

The classes, like the purpose of the museum, are geared to make science fun and interesting.

“The classes have potential to get kids excited about science,” Ball said. “We hope they can inspire some of them to pick science for a career. We also think the classes and the help we give teachers will help improve science scores when the students are tested in the fifth grade.”

The fourth grade is considered by many experts to be the optimum time for hands-on learning experiences and ideal for securing long-term interest in the sciences, according to the announcement of the grant by MASM and the King Foundation.

Ball said both the students and their teachers will be asked to keep a journal about the classes and what they have learned. The journals will be part of the assessment process in evaluating the value and effectiveness of the classes, Ball said.

Ball said another grant of $1,000 has been presented for the museum to also visit schools in Garland County.

Ball said she has been with the museum for two years, first working as the operator of the Tesla Theater. She said the theater, with its dramatic lightning displays created by the coil, is a great setting for teaching and creating interest in science.

She said that while it will “feel odd” for the museum to be closed, it will give the education staff an opportunity to move into the schools with the five classes.

When the museum renovations are finished and it reopens, a goal for the educational programs will be to provide resources for teachers to help students take more out of a field trip to the museum. Ball said there will be more opportunities for teaching science to visitors of all ages, and to direct the learning to better match and enhance school science curriculum.

The executive director of the museum said that when its doors open again in March 2015, the museum will be almost all new.

“Of course, we will have the Tesla Theater. That is one of the most popular and iconic features of the museum,” LaFollette said. “We will open up the front area so that people will walk into a big exhibition gallery. There will be a 180-degree digital dome that will offer a very new experience. One of my favorites will be what I call the interactive sand box. It is very cool. Almost everything inside [the museum] will be completely different.”

Also new when the museum opens again will be the long-planned Science Skywalk that will lead off from the upper floor of the existing building. The Skywalk, a 4,000-square-foot platform placed 25 to 30 feet off the ground and extending into the forest canopy behind the museum, will bring visitors up from the ground to view their surroundings from a different perspective.

“There will be multi-levels, with a rope bridge and a pavilion that will reach into the woods,” LaFollette said. “That will let people walk among treetops and learn more about the natural forest we have in Arkansas.”

The museum received a $7.8 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation in 2011 for the Skywalk addition and the renovations of the entire museum.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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