While preparing for an annual church conference out of state, I scheduled a day for our family to go to the zoo. However, when I presented this information to our three sons, they only groaned, "Do we have to go to another zoo?"
While searching the book shelves for a study on gratefulness, I realized that their disinterest in zoos had more to do with how I planned the outings than their character. Essentially my planning consisted of driving to the zoo, having enough money to pay the admission, and walking around looking at animals. Children can only do that so many times before boredom sets in. Several years later, I uncovered the key to museums and zoos.
My First Clue
When Sea World of Ohio offered educational days prior to opening to the general public, I jumped at the chance to arrange a trip for our homeschool group. While making the reservation, the representative offered to send an educational packet. How could a homeschooler refuse? What we received astounded me. There were fact sheets on everything from Pacific walruses to training marine mammals. There were poetry, math, science and drawing activities. They even included a sign language chart! Activities were divided into pre-visit and post-visit sections. We were able to do a complete unit study prior to our visit. I have since learned that educational teacher packets are often available. You usually just have to ask.
Examine The Scene
A Dayton-area arboretum offered our homeschool teachers a pre-tour as well as an educator's packet. We were given a guided tour of the grounds, complete with teaching suggestions. We were able to make more thorough preparation for our trip as a result. Many museums offer similar pre-tours, previews of exhibits, teacher workshops, and even teacher camp-ins. (Workshops and camp-ins usually involve a significant fee.)
Probe Beyond The Self-Guided Tour
You do not have to search long to find that there is more to museums than the self-guided trip. Our homeschool 4-H club took a group project on the great outdoors. We were able to tailor custom visits to a local nature preserve by submitting an objective list prior to our visit. We traipsed the trails four times that year, once each season.
Museums and parks will often design guided programs if you ask. Many large facilities, like Sea World, offer educational days that are only open to school children. Usually this includes special training sessions and a discounted admission. Sometimes state homeschool organizations arrange a homeschool day with the park where members get in at a discount. Inquire of both your state organization and the park or museum for school-day information.
Children's and science museums also offer camp-ins, where students come for an educational program and spend the night at the museum (or a facility near-by, provided by the museum). I was pleased to see that COSI (Ohio's Center of Science and Industry) offered a special camp-in program just for homeschoolers this year. Discovery Place in Charlotte, North Carolina, has a Challenger Learning Center where children are part of a space station crew who, during a two-hour special session, try to rendezvous with Halley's Comet. It is just one center of a network being established by Challenger Center for Space Science Education across the nation. Getting on the mailing list of your favorite museum is the best way to detect these offerings.
Return To The Scene
When you are aware of all the special programs your museum or park has to offer, you will probably want to go again and again. Consider a family membership. Or, better yet, get an ASTC (Association of Science and Technology Centers) membership through your local museum. With the ASTC membership, you will be allowed unlimited entrance not just to that museum, but to over 100 others around the nation, and several out of the country, for a full year. With our ASTC cards we visited museums in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Columbus, Canton, and Cleveland. Benefits usually include periodic newsletters, special previews of new exhibits and activity schedules. Museums offer a wide range of educational workshops and classes to fit nearly every interest.
Let The Scene Come To You
Large organizations will come to you with extensive educational programs. The fees are usually significant, but possible for a large support group. Many have video libraries available to educators for postage and a nominal fee. NASA Centers around the country will allow you to come in and copy videos onto your own tapes free of charge. Many videos come with a resource guide.
Cracking The Case of the Young Volunteers
Usually a parent approaches the information desk with the question, "Shouldn't that young man helping with the science demonstration be in school?" Soon that parent (usually an attentive, homeschool mom) is calling Jan Davison Morgan, Administrator of Volunteer Programs at COSI, to find out how her child can enroll in the volunteer program. Mrs. Morgan pioneered the homeschool volunteer program at COSI. She began designing it five years ago to meet the needs of homeschooled volunteers. Over 70 children are currently in the program and provide thousands of volunteer hours every year.
Though administered by a science-based museum, the volunteer program is service-oriented. Children have the opportunity to gain experience in a variety of areas. While a science wiz might work in the chemistry exhibits, someone interested in child care will volunteer at Kids' Space, an area for pre-schoolers with lots of hands-on activities. Some get experience in carpentry by mending exhibits, while others do clerical work in the offices. Those who have served at the gift store are often hired by businesses at higher starting salaries because of their experience.
Mrs. Morgan has seen their visitor hosting program improve. Often, during weekdays, visitors had few volunteers to rely on for questions, spontaneous pocket-science presentations, and help with exhibits. Homeschoolers have filled the gap. For older students, apprenticeship programs are also often available. Discovery Place and Nature Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, offers Sci-teens. Students interested in exploring science and math careers are given experiential learning opportunities.
Volunteer benefits generally include free family membership, a gift shop discount, free parking, letters of reference or recommendations, training, and ASTC reciprocal membership. Contact the educational services department of the museum or park that interests you.
Wrapping Up The Investigation
Clues to getting all you can out of your museum experience are not as elusive as you once may have thought. Before beginning your next trip, collect the facts about the many programs and educational materials offered to educators.
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