I was teaching a 4th grade science lesson in the heart of Tacoma the first time a student told me they had never seen the Puget Sound. In spite of being one of the largest cities in Washington, every corner of Tacoma is always within a few miles of the ocean. To hear a child say that they had never actually seen that ocean was baffling. For two years, I worked with the Slater Museum of Natural History to design and implement science curricula designed to mitigate this striking “nature-deficit” that is endemic to so many students stranded in these urban environments. These free interdisciplinary science lessons were a “field trip in a box,” providing 4th and 5th graders with engaging, inquiry-based hands-on learning experiences that many Tacoma schools simply lacked the funding to support. In my work with these students and educators, I learned not only how to craft effective, objective-oriented curricula, but also how to inspire young minds to crave the joy of discovery and how to cultivate the curiosity innate in us all.

Recently, as I have begun evaluating my future career goals as a scientist and an educator, I have realized that I find immense joy in moments of discovery – whether it’s discovering and photographing a new plant or animal for the first time while hiking around town, or seeing a student’s face light-up as they discover a new concept or make new connections in the classroom. As an educator, this has reinforced my understanding and appreciation of effective learning experiences that are discovery-driven. When I am not in the classroom, these same principles motivate my personal research goals as a functional morphologist and experimental biologist, and even drive my hobbies as a master naturalist and photographer. Curiosity and the intrinsic drive to discover are extremely powerful forces in the classroom and in life beyond it.

Nature in the Classroom

// Slater Museum // hands-on // inquiry-based learning

Robert and Bret team-teach a comparative vertebrate anatomy course with ten students every spring. The laboratory components of the course emphasize learning by doing, and each student participates in small group research projects, learning how to think like a scientist.

Museum collections are particularly well suited to engage students. The ability to touch a real artifact can turn a lesson into an active learning experience.

Above: a skeleton of a Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera).    Even simple photographs or scientific images such as this scan of a Sword-billed Hummingbird can become teaching tools that engage curious minds through various internet resources and social media.

Museum specimens can be both priceless research artifacts and unique teaching tools. When utilized properly, they can inspire new generations of scientists to ask new questions, promoting the long-term utility and value of the collection.

Museums are not oversized curiosity cabinets. When we connect students to these specimens and to the living creatures and habitats they came from, we make tangible connections to nature and the environment.

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© 2020 Robert Niese