Museum aims to spark kids’ interest

by Tom Lopez

Elementary school students had the opportunity to meet fire fighters, meet Smokey the Bear and witness a live forest fire Thursday — all in the comfort of a University auditorium.
The Bell Museum of Natural History held its third-annual Bell Live! program for hundreds of students Thursday. This year’s theme, “Fire and the Forest,” focused on forestry, and fire’s natural role in the environment. Throughout the day, children learned about science, safety and forestry.
“Our goal is to get students comfortable with science, to make it accessible to them and to make it interesting,” said Scott Lanyon, the director of the museum.
Students in the auditorium sat in front of a large screen to watch a live presentation starring fire fighters, forestry students, and of course, the animal icon of fire safety awareness, Smokey.
The cast watched and commented as a controlled fire began to consume a cleared field of tree branches. Later, the broadcast featured a collection of animals and a discussion of how the critters avoid the flames.
As with any live broadcast, there were unexpected events, but Lanyon said that the unpredictable nature of the program interests the children more than polished nature shows. “This is a more hands-on approach to science,” he said.
The broadcast was, to some degree, interactive. Lanyon said the program was broadcast to a total of 90 schools and 600 children. It was featured across the United States and in Quebec, Canada. Students in auditoriums from as far as New Mexico could telephone or e-mail the hosts with questions.
Lanyon said this opportunity for direct participation is unique to the museum and encourages enthusiasm among students. “The museum is taking an initiative in the way science should be taught in this country,” he said.
Amy Theisen, the director of Distance Learning at the museum, worked at the Cloquet Forestry Center, the presentation’s broadcast site.
Theisen, who conceived the idea for this year’s presentation and coordinated the event, described this year’s program as a phenomenal success. “Through the e-mail and telephone questions, kids get a sense of individual attention and participation in the event,” she said.
She also said that she believed that the televised approach proved effective. “With the MTV stimulus, kids are used to TV,” she said, adding that the medium can be used effectively to pique students’ interest in science.
To help the students better understand the presentation, the museum sent out curriculum booklets to participating schools. These booklets contained exercises, activities and experiments to give the students some background information and to compliment the program.
After the broadcast, students could go outside to see a collection of “artifacts” provided by the Fire Fighters Memorial Museum. Students could try on helmets, raincoats and other modern and vintage fire-fighting gear. The fire engine that kids could climb on was the big hit.
Both Lanyon and Theisen hope the students leave the program with a greater understanding of the place of science in everyday life. “We want the students to understand that science is for everyone, from the age of eight to 81,” Theisen said. “By experiencing its effects first hand, we hope to inspire an appreciation not just of forestry but science in general.”