Bell Museum helps create international, innovative science curriculum

In June, a team including Bell Museum staff received a $75,000 grant to develop “Stories from the Home Planet.”

by Haley Hansen

A group of St. Paul K-12 students will soon trek to Como Park Elementary School to make use of NASA satellite footage and the school’s onsite 60-seat planetarium — to learn Spanish.

“Stories from the Home Planet,” a program developed in part by the University’s Bell Museum of Natural History, aims to help the young students explore the global impacts of climate change in their own backyards and across hemispheres, in Medellín, Colombia.

John Iverson, Como Planetarium’s director, said the museum’s new concept is a novel approach to classroom learning.

“Planetariums aren’t just for astronomy anymore by any means,” he said. “There’s just a lot of other content areas that we can explore.”

When the bilingual class launches by the end of the year, Iverson said, the St. Paul class will collaborate with students from Colombia at the Planetario de Medellín on conversations about energy consumption, deforestation, biodiversity, and air and water quality.

Through software similar to Skype, Colombian and American students will share their experience with the local environment across thousands of miles, said Susan Weller, director of the Bell Museum. The curriculum will also incorporate cultural aspects of environmental issues in both Medellín and Minnesota.

The team hopes to incorporate real-time footage from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites and have students collect data like water samples to share and compare with their international peers.

In June, the team of Bell Museum and Como Planetarium staff, along with about a half-dozen teachers, received a yearlong $75,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Museums Connect initiative to develop “Stories from the Home Planet.”

Modeled after the Fulbright fellowship program, the grant will cover the cost of sending a small group of teachers abroad to establish the bilingual curriculum.

The lessons will be appropriate for either Spanish immersion classrooms in St. Paul or English immersion classrooms in Medellín, Weller said.

Though the primary aim of the class is to delve into environmental issues across countries and cultures, its secondary goal is to improve students’ foreign language skills.

Betty Tapias-Heinrich, a dual Colombian-U.S. citizen and translation and interpreting instructor at the University, stressed the importance of cultural
immersion in that bilingual education.

“If you want to learn a language, you really do need to be exposed to a culture that speaks that language,” said Tapias-Heinrich.

Weller said the Bell Museum hopes to use the bilingual aspect of “Stories from the Home Planet” — along with its Colombian partners — to connect with the Twin Cities’ diverse Hispanic population.

She said her colleagues hope that the program will eventually become a valuable tool for Minnesotan Spanish immersion programs as well as the state’s most recent immigrants.

Once the curriculum is developed, Weller said the project would be accessible to educators for free.

“The lessons we create can be shared across the planet,” she said.