Visitors to the grand opening of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center examine an oversized Winogradsky column, a model pond cross-section designed to show how soil and bacteria interact. (Courtesy of Chris Adamczyk)
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ new Nature Research Center (NRC) “has amazing resources—both virtual and real—for educators,” says Meg Lowman, the NRC’s director. This $54 million, four-story building is located across the street from the Raleigh, North Carolina, museum. Its centerpiece is the Daily Planet Multimedia Theater, a large three-story globe-like structure attached to the northeast corner of the building.
“Short, visually engaging, science-inspired clips wrap entirely around the theater, with audiences viewing from seats on the first floor or balconies on the second and third floors,” explains Liz Baird, the museum’s director of education. Daily presentations feature “the latest cutting-edge science and can be streamed out to audiences around the world or include live feeds from remote locations. This summer, a group of educators linked back from their institute in Yellowstone National Park, and other live links are being planned for the rest of the year,” she reports.
“The theater can connect to nearly all classrooms in the state, allowing students to attend local and global remote field trips and talk directly to scientists about their research,” adds Lowman. Daily Planet live shows feature “four daily presentations by scientists about their research and how they work as scientists” and “any classes or teachers can attend these free [of charge] as a drop-in,” she points out.
The theater’s programs also will eventually be available online, enabling students everywhere to participate in Q&A sessions. “Teachers inside and outside of North Carolina can arrange to have their classes participate in videoconference opportunities with the museum, as well as download free multimedia materials available on both the museum’s website and [its] iTunes University site,” says Baird.
“Students can participate in citizen science virtually and log into research activities that contribute to research that will be published and help solve global challenges,” Lowman explains. “These are not just classroom exercises, but real-world issues,” she contends.
“I have had contacts from Florida and California and Kansas and other states, requesting connectivity to the programs for next fall. And we have also had great enthusiasm from our university partners and their undergraduate students, many who wish to volunteer,” Lowman relates.
“Science Cafés…have been held in [the] new Daily Planet café and also can be attended by local educators and students, as well as linked online,” she adds. “Our teen board of advisors…[has] held a first-ever teen science café at the museum and are working on a lively program for [the] fall.”
Classes also “can call ahead and ‘Meet a Scientist’ and get a real sense of how we know what we know about the world of science,” she notes. “Many classes and schools have contacted the museum for tours and specific behind-the-scenes visits to labs that relate to school activities.”
Observing Scientists at Work
Interacting with scientists has become an everyday activity for the NRC’s visitors. “[It] has brought the process of science research out of the lab and into the open, where students, teachers, and the general public can observe and participate in the work,” says Baird. Each NRC Research Lab (Genomics, Biodiversity, Geology and Paleontology, and Astronomy) “is led by a scientist who is passionate about his or her research and willing to share information with the visitors,” she explains.
“For example, Dr. Julie Horvath studies primates and is currently studying the genes in the gray mouse lemur, and the microorganisms that live on humans and our close primate relatives. She can frequently be found talking with the public in front of her lab, using primate skulls to explain the complex relationships in which she is interested,” says Baird.
Students, families, and teachers also can explore the NRC’s Investigate Labs, where they can “use some of the same skills and techniques as the research staff to answer their own questions,” she notes. They can do activities ranging “from short experiences, such as watching mosquito larvae behavior, to longer curriculum-correlated PCR ( Polymerase Chain Reaction)labs specifically for students. Visitor questions lead to new activities and are frequently featured on the museum’s blog,” she reports.
Future veterinarians and those studying animals will appreciate the Window on Animal Health, “where the museum veterinarian and his staff perform daily exams, and sometimes minor surgeries, on the myriad of animals in the museum’s collection,” Baird points out. “Wearing microphones and using a handheld camera, the staff members explain the procedures and answer questions from the visitors. [Recently,] visitors were mesmerized by the process of implanting a tracking device in a snake,” she observes.
The NRC “engages students and teachers at many levels. We like to believe that we have something for everyone, from easy hands-on opportunities such as micro-pipetting for people who have never been in a lab, to longer-term, more intensive experiences such as internships with the researchers for students who have a passion for science,” Baird maintains.
“We arranged to do hands-on experiments in the museum’s microbiology Investigate Lab,” says Andrea Wallenbeck, a sixth-grade teacher at Exploris Middle School in Raleigh. “All 64 of our students were able to do a microscope lab and a photosynthesis lab. [NRC staff] had all the equipment set up for us and ran a very thorough program. As a teacher, it was great because they did all the prep,” she notes.
“Staff had students form their own hypotheses and put them in charge of doing science,” says Wallenbeck. “And the students were really engaged. Our school does not have formal lab facilities, and the students were really excited to be in a ‘real’ laboratory.”
Afterward, “we did follow-up labs in our classroom based on what we did at the NRC. It was great because students were able to build on what they had learned during our visit,” she reports.
Connie Johnson, who teaches at Northern Vance High School in Henderson, North Carolina, says that because her students “are from a low-socioeconomic, high-unemployment area” and her school “lacks access to the latest technology,” having her students experience “the technology and research available to them in their future was an overwhelming success, far beyond what I had predicted” before their NRC visit. “This access to the museum and the new research wing excited many of my students to want to further their study of science-related careers in college. This research center is a fabulous opportunity for many economically deprived communities in North Carolina to enrich the education of our students,” she maintains, adding, “The parents who attended with their students were equally impressed.”
Exhibits and More
The NRC’s exhibits “highlight the process of and need for science research,” notes Baird. One example is “the large skeleton of ‘Stumpy,’ a Right Whale, [that] hangs in the first-floor exhibit space. Visitors immediately see a series of holes that have been drilled out of Stumpy’s jaw, and soon learn that after years of tracking her migration, Stumpy was found dead off the coast of North Carolina. During the necropsy, it was determined that she had suffered a fractured skull.”
The researchers wanted “to determine the force needed to break a whale jaw,” so they “took sample pieces and tested them under a variety of impacts,” says Baird. “The results indicated that simply lowering the speed of ships in the migratory route of whales would decrease the number of whale deaths by ship strikes, and a new policy was put in place,” she notes.
For those interested in exploring the world outside the NRC, “many of the museum’s teacher treks provide field-based research experience, such as High Mountain Ecology at Grandfather Mountain, and Got Elk, an ongoing program with Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” says Baird.
“I just returned from the Amazon, where I took 28 citizen scientists to do real research that we will publish, to uncover the secrets of the forest canopy,” says Lowman. “We had teachers, students, and community leaders all working together in this field course.”