Field Trip in a Box: How Slater Museum Brings Science to Kids

When one raised hand doesn’t do the trick, try the other one. This was Matthew’s strategy, as the fourth-grader tried desperately to be picked to answer the question, “What is cool about birds?”

The visitor at Jennie Reed Elementary School in Tacoma turned to someone else and moved on. Then another chance came. “If there are 175 birds in this area year-round, and there are an additional 75 migrating ones, how many birds can you guys see total?”

Matthew caught her eye. “Two hundred and fifty,” he murmured, suddenly shy. 

“Here’s someone who knows his math. Very good,” she praised. It was a good day for the young scientist.

Matthew and the other students were taking part in Nature in the Classroom, an initiative of Puget Sound’s Slater Museum of Natural History. Though this lesson was about birds, the program puts a variety of animal specimens in kids’ hands.

Slater Museum Americorps member Sarah Hurt passes out bird information to students at Jennie Reed Elementary School.
Slater Museum Americorps member Sarah Hurt passes out bird information to students at Jennie Reed Elementary School.

Sarah Hurt, an Americorps member working at the Slater as an education and outreach coordinator, visits area classrooms and guides kids through activities to develop skills in analysis and judgment, and generating scientific hypotheses. The program has been running for eight years, and it reached more than 2,700 fourth- and fifth-grade students in 32 public schools last year alone.

“I just wish they could be like this all the time,” whispered Jennie Reed teacher Russell Jones as his class examined the beautifully feathered birds on sticks handed out to each student. “They’re engaged and thinking. Not everything is so hands-on.”

Seated next to Matthew at a table of four was Daveon, who had been absorbed by his own scientific inquiry. While Sarah chatted for 20 minutes at the beginning of class, he slumped in his seat and fiddled with a stiff plastic handout of bird information, trying to see if its sharp edge could slice a hole in the table.

All that changed dramatically when a shiny coal-black bird as big as his arm was handed to him on a stick. Suddenly animated, Daveon sat upright and carefully began to run the back of two fingers over the bird’s soft feathers as instructed. Beside him, Matthew stared with awe at a giant hook-billed brown bird in his own hand. For the next two hours, their table was as lively as a nest full of cuckoos.

But this wasn’t all play. It was hard work. The students, each holding a bird of an unknown species, were told to compare their birds’ beaks and claws to the drawings on the plastic handouts that described the functions of different-shaped beaks and feet. Carefully (and incredibly, it seemed, in that chaotic space of chatter and inter-table consultations), the children took measurements and made drawings of bodies, claws, and beaks. Then they were told to come up with hypotheses about their birds’ habitats and what they ate.

“Mine is 52 centimeters,” concluded Matthew midway through the class, putting down a ruler and magnifying glass to record his finding. “I got the biggest one,” he proclaimed. Daveon, by his side, stayed nose down, studying his chart.

The number of children who haven't been to a museum is often surprising. A lot of times this is their first real experience with something like this."

– Sarah Hunt

Nature in the Classroom was created by Slater director and biology professor Peter Wimberger following a 2006 review of the museum’s future by college administrators. Across the country, small museums in small colleges were being dismantled and their collections scattered because of financial pressures. The Slater, with its 150-year-old collection of more than 85,000 specimens, was safe, but Peter was urged to find a way to lift the museum’s profile and better engage students and the community.

He created this “field trip in a box” using museum specimens, and applied for funding to help support school visits. It was an unusual and ambitious venture for a small college, but it caught on quickly with local teachers who were facing cuts in funding for school outings.

In partnership with Tacoma Public Schools, the Slater developed four curricula: Wild Things! Bird Diversity! Tooth Sleuth, and Leaves of Change. The large portable boxes include specimens such as Douglas fir cones, sea stars, great horned owl vertebrae, mountain beaver skulls, and coyote jaws, as well as the dazzling collection of birds on sticks.

“The number of children who haven’t been to a museum is often surprising,” says Sarah, an Idaho-born former outdoor guide who joined the Slater last fall. “A lot of times this is their first real experience with something like this.” The Slater’s own research shows that about half of the students who participate in the program are from low-income families.

“It was a need articulated by teachers,” Peter says. “We filled that need.” He adds that Puget Sound students also are winners. They pick up new skills by helping to teach the school classes and by serving as docents when schoolchildren visit the Slater. Through a variety of programs, including the popular “Night at the Museum” open houses, the Slater now reaches more than 15,000 people a year—more than any other Puget Sound program, except for athletics.

Back at Jennie Reed, the clock was running out, and it was time for the birds’ identities to be revealed. Cards naming each specimen were handed out, face down. “No peeking!” warned Sarah. Then came the big reveal.

“I got a red-tailed hawk!” exclaimed Matthew. “I got an American crow!” cried Daveon. Excited students ran around showing off their birds and clustered around the spookiest and prettiest ones, learning their names. Sarah told them that these birds are flying all around the areas where they live. “So keep your eyes out!”

As for Peter, it’s clear that he, in his modest way, is proud of creating these mini maelstroms of naturalist inquiry in schools across the region. The feedback from teachers is excellent, he says. One teacher, who taught outside the served area, drove all the way from Salem, Ore., to pick up a kit and then back again to return it. “I don’t know of anything else quite like it,” Peter says.


By Shirley Skeel
Published April 25, 2018
Photos by Ross Mulhausen