Local programs offer experiences that go beyond the classroom to let kids explore.
By Elena Epstein
Sarah-michelle Eversaul’s affinity for all creatures that crawl, fly, swim, hop or slither is palpable. “I love them all,” says the 12-year-old from Irvine. “Every animal has its own personality, and I want to be able to work with them and help them in any way I can.”
For this aspiring veterinarian (or possibly marine biologist), the Job Shadow program at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach (www.aquariumofpacific.org) was an amazing opportunity, and she’s ready to do it all again. “I’ve already asked my mom to repeat the program,” says Eversaul. “It was great.”
Working Like a Scientist
The aquarium is one of many museums and other venues across Southern California that offer programs designed to spark and nurture children’s interest in science and exploration. These programs allow kids to learn while having fun.
The Job Shadow series at Aquarium of the Pacific offers four unique three-hour programs, each with sessions twice a month. Each program is designed to give young scientists in grades 7-12 an insider’s view of life as a marine biologist, mammalogist, penguin and lorikeet biologist, or veterinarian.
In the Marine Biologist program, participants prepare food for and feed the creatures in the aquarium’s largest exhibit, the 35,000-gallon tropical reef habitat. They also feed the rays and do exhibit maintenance on the ray pool, meet the aquarist who cares for the Giant Pacific Octopus and observe a feed, and watch as a staff member cuts a window in a shark egg.
Children shadowing penguin and lorikeet biologists spend their time observing bird behavior, preparing food for the penguins and observing a feeding session, while learning about critical conservation issues. Those in the veterinarians’ group go on morning or afternoon rounds to check animals under the veterinarians’ care, observe the staff veterinarian performing a procedure on an animal, and discover the tricks they use to deliver medicine. Mammalogist job-shadowers have the opportunity to feed sea otters, learn hand signals used for training, and prepare food for seals and sea lions.
The aquarium also offers a two-hour Junior Biologist program once a month for children ages 7-12. Each of the eight sessions focuses on a different species and features some type of animal encounter, such as feeding baby sharks and sea otters or measuring the shell of a sea turtle.
“We want every student to feel like an explorer,” says Alie LeBeau, education programs manager. “We give them a journal to take notes, make observations, do a drawing, come up with a hypothesis. Being a scientist means you’re curious and you’re excited about learning something new. We really want to inspire that sense of wonder and awe.”
These programs often pick up where science classes in schools leave off. “Sometimes, science taught in schools can be outdated and boring,” says Gary Tuch, who started the Professor Egghead Science Academy (www.professoregghead.com/LosAngeles) with his brother in 2007. They now have after-school enrichment programs in more than 45 elementary schools. “But science can be really fun and cool. You have to allow kids to make things pop and explode.”
Innovative programs at local museums or zoos allow kids to do things they typically can’t do in school, such as measuring the speed of a roller coaster, feeding sea jellies or launching rockets.
During the newly redesigned Science Saturday programs at the California Science Center (www.californiasciencecenter.org), families can explore a variety of topics in the Big Lab, the center’s 32,000-square-foot laboratory.
“These programs are really about giving kids the tools and an environment where they can problem-solve, explore and discover,” says Gretchen Bazela, director of public and community programs.
The Natural History Museum (www.nhm.org) offers a monthly Junior Scientist program for ages 6 to 9 from September through June. Each month, the young scientists, with field notebooks in hand, explore a different topic such as traveling the silk road, marine animals, artifact preservation, dinosaurs or insect habitats.
“We design the programs to give the kids an understanding of how scientists know what they know,” says Laurel Robinson, manager of public programs. “They learn about making an observation, experiments, information gathering, asking questions. A lot of our kids come back month after month.”
This year, the museum launched a new monthly program, Nature Navigators, for ages 10 to 12. During the Saturday sessions, students will take part in biodiversity citizen project studies that the museum is currently working on to better understand Los Angeles’ urban habitats and wildlife. Current studies include lizard, butterfly and ladybug surveys.
“Our goal is to inspire the students to begin their own citizen project,” says Robinson. “We want our young students to realize they can be real scientists and begin to contribute in a real way.”
The Santa Barbara Zoo (www.sbzoo.org) will have the grand opening of its new Discovery Pavilion March 22. The zoo will offer a wide variety of educational programs in the indoor facility, which will also house its new animal kitchen, with large viewing windows to allow visitors to observe food preparation.
The zoo also offers evening and overnight safaris, where participants can get a behind-the-scenes look at nocturnal animals, the veterinary clinic, and experience an animal encounter. “This is a really exciting time for us,” says Aaron Marshall, director of education. “We are going to have a lot of new programs that blend science, conservation and leadership skills.”
Elena Epstein is Director of Content at L.A. Parent.