Lessons at the Museum

By Sean Cavanagh — June 06, 2008 12 min read
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The crowd squeezes in front of her. Shouts and squeals echo all around. There’s little light, so she works by the faint glow of a cellphone.

Elena Petrovska will not be deterred.

She is shadowing the queen angelfish.

The 12-year-old and her class partner are facing a massive fish tank, a replica of a Central American reef located within a darkened wing of the New York Aquarium. Their task, and that of their classmates gathered here today, is one of the most fundamental in science: conducting a field study. The two-person teams are tracking the movements of fish through different sections of the tank, recording data, and drawing conclusions, based on the behavior they observe. The goal is to design a tank of their own suitable to the fish’s natural habitat.

This is no easy task. The tank’s occupants flit across the watery screen in reds, oranges, and jades. The angelfish, a yellow-tailed comet named for the crown-like streaks of blue above its eyes, makes another pass.

“Now,” Elena’s partner says, reading a timer-watch by the light of the phone.

“Out of zone,” Elena responds, recording an O-Z in her journal.

Museums and cultural institutions like the aquarium have long provided a crucial resource for students and teachers in science classes. Many of those institutions, in fact, consider working with schools to be a core part of their missions. These students, from Russell Sage Junior High School in Queens, are taking part in one of the largest and most coordinated such programs in the country. Known as Urban Advantage, it goes further than most museum-to-school outreach efforts in connecting students’ trips to science centers directly to school curriculum—in this case, that of the New York City schools. The program also provides teachers with extensive, ongoing training in how to use those institutions’ resources wisely.

An estimated 27,000 students from 156 middle schools take part in the 4-year-old program, which is managed today by the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan. A core piece of Urban Advantage is that it allows students to use exhibits and resources at the city’s science institutions to work on science exit projects, which all 8th graders within the 1.1-million student New York City system are expected to complete.

Participating schools establish lessons and institutional visits for students completing those projects. In addition, Urban Advantage gives students and their families “vouchers” for free access to eight city science institutions that take part in the program, including zoos, aquariums, and museums—visits they can use to conduct research, or simply for fun.

Elena’s teacher, Mitch Goodkin, has overseen hundreds of exit projects. Russell Sage Junior High exceeds the program’s requirements, asking students to complete its version of the projects, called long-term science investigations, each year in grades 7-9. Elena’s class of 7th graders has already finished that work, so Mr. Goodkin has assigned the students a “mini-project” on aquatic habitats.

Mr. Goodkin today serves as an Urban Advantage lead teacher, training fellow educators in how they can best use the institutions and answering their follow-up questions and concerns by phone, e-mail, and in person.

“Teachers sometimes come in and say, ‘Oh, I have to stop teaching’ ” during a typical field trip, Mr. Goodkin said. He tries to encourage them to see those facilities not as a “separate entity, but as an integrated entity” with their lessons.

“You’re going there with an objective,” Mr. Goodkin said he tells them. “This is not the old field trip you’re used to. This is research.”

“Seven-O-Four, Line up! You’re going on the bus!”

Mr. Goodkin, cellphone in hand, orange whistle dangling from his neck, is standing on the curb outside Russell Sage, in the Forest Hills section of Queens. He’s organizing 7th graders, including classes Nos. 704 and 724, for their trip to the aquarium, located in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, and coping with a few logistical setbacks along the way.

Two buses were supposed to pick them up that morning, but only one shows up. The problem seems to have been solved with a call to the district’s transportation office, but then the school stages a fire drill, so nobody’s going anywhere. Finally, a second bus appears, and Mr. Goodkin’s class is rolling.

Elena, a brown-haired girl in a pink polka-dot shirt and jeans skirt, takes a seat on the smaller of the two buses. Tucked under her arm is a journal, which Mr. Goodkin has all his students use to record data and make observations. Elena’s is full of notes from her exit project, a study of a rabbit’s eating habits. “Laying on belly,” one entry says. “Resting, ears up,” reads another.

Russell Sage Junior High School students relax during a bus ride to the New York Aquarium to gather material for a science project.

In the end, the rabbit she and her group studied over time ate much less than they hypothesized it would. They speculated it was a different age from rabbits they’d researched, with a different diet. She and her partners prepared a PowerPoint presentation for their class on their findings and wrote a final report.

On June 14, Urban Advantage officials plan to stage an expo at the American Museum of Natural History, showcasing more than 250 middle school exit projects produced by students across the city. Mr. Goodkin can proudly recall some of the best his students have produced in recent years: an architectural model that redesigned the Bronx Zoo’s langur monkey exhibit and a computer simulation of a revamped exhibit for the gelada baboon.

The students’ task at the New York Aquarium on this day is relatively basic. They will collect data from the facility’s re-creation of Glover’s Reef, a coral atoll and bountiful ecosystem located off the coast of Belize. Mr. Goodkin has tried to prepare his classes with lessons on the anatomy of fish and the behavior of different species. Is it a top fish, which hovers near the surface, or a bottom fish, which lurks on the ocean floor? How does it respond to plant life in the tank, and to coral, and to the tank’s topography?

It’s the sort of assignment that Mr. Goodkin had in mind when he decided to go into teaching eight years ago. A Long Island native, Mr. Goodkin left what he says was a more lucrative, though less satisfying, career as a chiropractor—his students still call him “Dr. G”—to become an educator. He has a side career as a magician, having written three books of tricks, and he performs at bar mitzvahs, weddings, and trade shows. While many new educators spurn middle school teaching, he chose that grade level. “You can’t be as silly with high school kids,” he explained.

He organizes his classroom to reflect that spirit. Mr. Goodkin calls it the “Astounding Hall of Scientific Wonders and Curiosities.” The room is home to two rabbits, 14 gerbils, two parakeets, a red-eared slider turtle, a quail, and numerous fish. There are reminders on the walls about students’ responsibility to care for and not mistreat the animals, as well as information about their natural habitats, such as whether they are nocturnal or diurnal. Descriptions of exit projects line one wall.

On his trip to the aquarium, Mr. Goodkin uses parent chaperones to help keep track of students and keep them on task. As a lead Urban Advantage teacher, he offers fellow educators advice on how to manage their out-of-school visits. He suggests setting clear expectations for students, reminding them that they are researchers and need to conduct themselves as scientists do.

Not that the trip isn’t fun. As the buses weave for 40 minutes through Queens, then south through the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Borough Park, Mr. Goodkin keeps up an easy banter with his students. On various trips back and forth, he jokes about his fear of subways (officially termed bathysiderodromophobia), and fields a steady flow of scientific and pseudoscientific questions. Why does your nose get red when you cry? Why does your voice change when you inhale from a helium balloon?

Improving the science skills of both teachers and students was the goal of New York City school and government leaders when they launched Urban Advantage four years ago. City officials had concluded the schools were not taking advantage of out-of-school resources in science education, said Hudson Roditi, the project director of Urban Advantage, who works out of the program’s headquarters at the American Museum of Natural History. The City Council, which provides UA with $2.5 million a year, the city’s department of education, and the member science institutions are partners in the program today.

Eight science and cultural institutions take part: the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, the Queens Botanical Garden, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, the New York Hall of Science in Queens, the Staten Island Zoological Society, and the Bronx Zoo, as well as the aquarium, and the natural history museum.

The program had to overcome numerous obstacles, such as coming up with vouchers to admit students to facilities with different fee structures, Mr. Roditi said. Accommodating large student groups is a challenge for some of the institutions, he said, so Urban Advantage teachers are asked to schedule their trips well in advance to ease that crunch.

The City Council, the school district, and eight science institutions make up Urban Advantage.

But those barriers hardly register when compared with the benefits, particularly the in-depth science understanding the program cultivates among students and teachers, he said.

Urban Advantage teachers “really know how to do research investigations and how to do them in interesting environments,” Mr. Roditi said. “It’s contributing to a much more meaningful research experience for kids.”

Officials in other cities have taken note. Last year, Urban Advantage began working with science institutions and school officials in Chicago, Denver, and Miami, who have been studying the feasibility of adopting a science-center model similar to New York’s.

Osborne, a sea lion, entertains New York City schoolchildren in the Aquatheater of the New York Aquarium.

Museums and science centers have long served as important resources for teachers of all subjects, but they are particularly important to many science educators, who structure lessons and field trips around displays and exhibits that cannot be replicated in the classroom. The bond between American schools and science institutions grew stronger in the 1960s, a number of observers said, with the United States’ increased emphasis on improved science skills and new federal investment in scientific research, following the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite.

Government officials and scientists also saw a need to improve students’ skills “beyond simple, textbook learning to more experimental science” requiring research and hands-on experimentation, recalled Robert Semper, the executive associate director of the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco. Museums, he said, could do that.

Ninety percent of zoos, aquariums, and science centers in the United States today offer at least one program for school science education, according to a 2004 survey by the Center for Informal Learning and Schools, a research center at the Exploratorium. More than half of those institutions provide some form of teacher professional development, a growing area of interest, said Mr. Semper, whose museum is heavily involved in that area.

Educational programs also give museums and science institutions a way to market themselves to new, young audiences who, they hope, will become loyal museum-goers, he noted.

Urban Advantage teachers take part in professional development over the summer and school year to prepare for the program. Mr. Goodkin has helped lead those workshops, most of them staged at the institutions themselves, working side by side with their staff members. He talks to teachers about developing “pacing calenders” to encourage students to work on exit projects in small, manageable steps, and about helping students develop sound hypotheses and research around their museum trips.

He also talks to teachers about working within the rules and constraints of the science centers they visit. Mr. Goodkin said he and the New York Aquarium staff discussed several possibilities on how students might monitor the patterns of fish moving through Glover’s Reef tank, all of which were deemed impractical. Finally, the teacher came up with a “zonal ethogram,” a sheet of paper and see-through plastic, about the width of a spiral notebook, which he distributes to students before their field study. (Scientists who study animal behavior often use ethograms in their work.)

When Elena Petrovska and her classmates set up alongside the Glover’s Reef tank, they peer through those clear plastic sheets, which are divided into six sections, recording the fish’s movements through each designated area.

As the 7th graders begin their study, Mr. Goodkin works the room, encouraging students to stay on task and calling out tips. “The farther back you are, the more you’ll see through the viewer,” he tells them. Elena’s partner and classmate, Katherine Maystrenko, holds the ethogram and counts off 15-second intervals, as Elena notes the queen angelfish’s movements.

These field conditions are admittedly not ideal. Students from other schools sweep in front of Elena, blocking her view. Some sit down in front of the two girls, until a museum employee asks the other children to stand up.

The tank offers colorful distractions of its own. A spotted eel lounges on a cluster of coral in the upper-left corner. Its much larger cousin, the moray eel, lurks somewhere below. Entire schools float by in slow, regular loops, hogging the spotlight.

A short time later, the students step outside into the sunlight. Though the school visit has been shortened somewhat because of the bus delays, Mr. Goodkin tries to take his students through some aquarium highlights. They sit through a sea lion show in an amphitheater packed with students from across the city. He later takes them through a shark exhibit, which also includes displays on how ancient and modern societies used sea creatures for medicinal purposes. The Japanese used shark cartilage to relieve arthritis, the students learn. The Romans and Greeks used the jolt from electric rays to treat medical problems.

Back on board the bus, Elena says she’s recorded enough data to draw some basic conclusions about the queen angelfish’s behavior. She speculates that it likes to follow large schools of other fish species, though she’ll need to do more research before she’s certain. Her goal in designing a tank for the fish is simple. “I want it to keep its normal lifestyle,” she says.

Since visiting the aquarium, she’s come to see aquatic life in a different way. “You don’t think, ‘Oh, that’s just a fish with a yellow tail,’ ” Elena says. “You know the name. ... You get to learn more about the world.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2008 edition of Education Week as Lessons At The Museum


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