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A Hands-Down Winner in Hands-On Education

One thousand pound sea lions peer across the steps where a small group of grade schoolers sit in fidgety by expectation. Momentarily, a thousand and one questions erupt from Teresa the youngsters as the decent vies for their attention. “Are they real?” is Bullock usually the first and most often asked question. It is one that docents are accustomed to hearing regularly, and they respond with the usual answer. “Yes, they are real, mounted sea lions. They are not alive, but they are real.” (Sometimes a quick explanation of mounting versus “stuffing” follows.)

The students, here for a Desert Ecology Tour are usually third and fourth graders and have most likely just come from the Desert Diorama, the Desert Discovery Lab, or Reptile Hall. They’ve huddled at the exhibits behind glass with their docent who unites the tour around a theme such as conservation, adaptations, or predator—prey relationships. Now the eager youngsters are seated on the steps under the doleful gaze of the huge marine mammals. On their left is the Salt Marsh and behind them a lonely coyote looks out from a sandy beach. Close at hand is a little brown cart previously hidden away in the fake rock closet in the Desert Diorama section of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Oohs, aahs, wows, and “Can I hold it?” burst forth from young spectators as a heavy brown horn of the Desert Big Horn Sheep is taken out of the cart. “How would you like to carry something this heavy around in the hot desert all day long?” the docent asks.

Small hands try hoisting the curved horns up to their heads to give them a try. A bobcat hide and a huge, buff colored mountain lion pelt get delighted responses as the children (and their adult chaperones) stroke the soft fur and examine the predator teeth and claws. Weighing bones and guessing which belongs to a bird and which belongs to mammal allows the children to focus their attention on the differences. Sea shell fossils, rabbit and coyote skulls, rattlesnake skin, and a rock-shrouded mastodon tooth all allow the museum guests to touch and feel the desert. Even the partially mounted quail and set of glass eyes help the children understand mounting techniques and further answer their “is it real” question. Although the Anzo- Borrego Desert is only two hours drive away, a trip to the desert is impossible for many children. A trip to the museum, however, brings the desert to them.

Besides the treasures in the cart, children may spend time in the Desert Discovery Lab where numerous drawers of specimens can be seen up-close. Best of all, however, is the docent stationed here with a live snake for the children to touch and hold with care. Often times, children and adults have never touched a live snake. They have never looked at one’s eyes awaiting the lidless blink that never occurs. They have never felt the contracting muscles of the constrictor or seen the large belly scales that help the snake move along. Visitors of all ages are delighted to meet Smiley the king snake whose claim to fame is the smiley face pattern on his sleek, brown head, or watch Anza the boa wind her way into a docent’s sleeve. Even the youngest visitor learns that snakes are not slimy but, instead, are dry, smooth, and cool to the touch. Feeling the tightening muscles as the snake coils around the docent’s hand clearly demonstrates the term constrictor. A nearby drawer (one of many holding desert specimens) allows visitors to view the long, ribbed skeleton of a snake. Another drawer reveals an tiny bat skeleton, its five digit hand reinforcing similarities among mammals.

Other museum tours provide hands-on experiences, too, and docents may wear aprons with pockets containing a variety of specimens for any tour. For Wet and Wild, the docent might pass around a piece of baleen, sand dollars, a shark egg case, sea urchins, or a piece of sand-papery shark skin. Students can hear about the sea star’s unusual “stomach out ” eating method while holding one in their hands. As with a few other specimens, the “yuks” can be interpreted as new revelations, too. Similar to the desert cart, the seacoast cart houses an array of creatures that can be passed from student to student, bringing the ocean up for a closer look. Shark teeth and a tooth-filled shark jaw always get close inspection as do bottled specimens of octopus and other marine invertebrates. Holding a dolphin skull is a rare opportunity for just about everyone.

The Door to the Desert program is an in-museum, science classroom experience. Students get to play in the dirt to test soil percolation and erosion, test waxy and normal leaves for their transpiration tendencies, and study rock erosion and the creation of new land forms with the use of sandpaper and rock crushers. Heat lamps and burrow boxes illustrate desert temperature adaptations and cotton ball “clouds” placed in a sandy desert box illustrate the insulating effect of clouds. This in-museum program also allows children to visit a curator who usually has an array of holdable “in process” specimens for their inspection. Anything from dinosaur fossils to new botanical finds can be seen upstairs at the museum.

Besides guiding in-museum tours, the San Diego Natural History Museum docents also take a variety of hands-on programs into area schools. The blue van is loaded early the morning of outreach tours. Mounted specimens: skunk, opossum, gulls, gophers, and much more head up and down the freeways — peering through the windows at curious motorists. They are on their way to eager grade schoolers who will stroke, caress, pull, poke, and pet them until most of their questions have been answered and much of the critters’ hair or feathers are worn to a nub.

Roadrunners, for example, exposes children to five different habitats including seacoast, mountains, and the desert in eastern San Diego County. After learning about the food chain, predator-prey relationships, and mounting and freeze-drying techniques, the students are led from station to station where they may examine all the specimens and visit with live animals such as snakes, geckos, and tarantulas. (Harriet the tarantula has dazzled children and docents as well when a tickle of her spinnerets produces a long strand of silk for all to see.) Favorite mounts, noticeable by the wear and tear exacted on them, are the felines, the opossum with its mouthful of razor-sharp teeth and accommodating pouch, and a variety of owls. Owl wings can be examined for their soft edge feathers that provide for soundless flight. Not so favorite are the owl pellets that are often dropped quickly — perhaps too much “hands-on!”

Life in the Desert covers some of the same material as in-museum Desert Ecology and Door to the Desert, but instead of students coming to the museum to learn about the desert, the desert goes to them. This particular program includes a slide show as well as five stations arranged to allow students close-up inspection of a variety of plants, animals, and geology specimens. They learn about different areas of the desert such as rocky slopes, oasis, dry washes, badlands, and the low desert. Adaptations to such a varied environment are emphasized by using plants and seeds. Clam and oyster fossils remind the children that the desert was not always dry. Rock specimens introduce them to geological terms and they learn that metamorphic gneiss is really “nice. ” The pack rat’s habit of stealing shiny metal objects from backpacks and tents usually gets the kids’ attention, and the beautiful iridescent feathers of Costa’s Hummingbird delight them as they turn the tiny encased specimens to catch the light.

The Lizards and Like program also slithers along San Diego’s highways introducing grade schoolers to herpetology. They hold mounted specimens with legs, without legs, with scales, and without scales. Most important, docents take care to educate students on venomous and non-venomous reptiles found in our area. Amphibians — usually too scarce or too swift to be caught and/ or seen — can be viewed at leisure as the students pass from station to station. Lizards and Like and other outreach programs include live specimens for the children to see (and sometimes handle). Their excitement when they see live animals in their classroom and the letters sent after a visit indicate that the students thoroughly enjoy the museum’s traveling menagerie.

Nature’s Nightlife has its own “touchy-feely” experiments to illustrate how nocturnal animals have adapted. For instance:

Shut your eyes. Hold a tennis ball and then an orange. Like the raccoon, you can FEEL the difference in the dark. Which of the two would you eat?

Swoosh a piece of notebook paper, then a tissue above your head. Which is quieter? The owl’s specialized feathers allow for almost silent flight, and specimens of wings further illustrate the point.

Could you find dinner with just your nose? Maybe, maybe not — since humans have only 16 million sensory cells in their noses compared to the rabbit’s 100 million! Film canisters holding aromatic substances let students match smells and also express a few more “yuks.” Backyard Bugs, the newest addition to outreach tours, introduces K through second graders to the world of insects. Numerous cases of common and exotic insects as well as live specimens introduce children to the importance of insects in the environment. Little ones participate in building an insect or spider on a flannel board and learn the use of legs, wings, antennae, and mouth parts in locomotion, feeding, and sensory perception.

Want to see how a fly sees? Look through a large spoon with holes. Look at a sponge to see how a fly’s mouth works.

How does a butterfly drink? Toot on a curly birthday horn to see the butterfly’s coiled proboscis.

A toothpick or plastic needle is a mosquito mouth, and sideways pliers illustrate the chewing mouth of grasshoppers and beetles.

The San Diego Natural History Museum is a hands-down winner. Ramon, a second grader, sent docents a letter decorated with blue fish, green bugs, and orange worms. “Dear Backyard Docents,” he wrote, “thank you for teaching us about big backyard bugs! You guys are as smart as scientist (s). My favorite bug was the tarantula. Last but not least, it was fun.”

Teresa Bullock has been a docent at San Diego Natural History Museum, in San Diego, CA, for five years. After living in Colorado for 25years And finding herself in a new area, she felt volunteering at the museum would be the best way to learn about San Diego’s many habitats. The added benefit, however is the many new friends she has made who have a similar love of nature.

Bullock, Teresa. “A Hand-Down Winner in Hands-On Education,” The Docent Educator 8.2 (Winter 1998-99): 4-6.

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