Nature in the Classroom was created by museum 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 museum, 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 museum 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 museum last fall. “A lot of times this is their first real experience with something like this.” The museum’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 museum. Through a variety of programs, including the popular “Night at the Museum” open houses, the museum now reaches more than 15,000 people a year—more than any other Puget Sound program, except for athletics.