Friday, March 16, 2018

Spring MuseumMobile

Three times a year I get to spend a few days at the elementary school in Drummond, Wisconsin, teaching kids my favorite nature facts using my favorite nature props. Once each season, in Fall, Winter, and Spring, I load seven plastic tubs filled with skulls, furs, graduated cylinders, strips of birch bark, and other oddities into the Museum’s mini-van for a visit to each classroom in grades pre-k through six.

Even though we still have deep drifts of snow and below-zero temperatures at dawn, I recently completed my “spring” lessons. The only times when the topics felt out of step with the weather were in the pre-K and kindergarten circles. Keeping the focus on our five senses, I filled the smell and hearing cups and the touch-bags with new items. Sunflower seeds rattled, a cluster of fake flowers gave its best impression of the smell of lilacs, pine cones prickled and, and a plastic grasshopper got lots of attention. Once I revealed each item, our discussion of seeds growing into sunflowers and lilacs blooming (soon!?) felt like a bit of a stretch.

I transitioned to our next activity by asking how a grasshopper starts its life. Does it begin as a seed? No! It begins as an egg. Reading through the book Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones, gave us plenty of opportunities to discuss what types of animals lay eggs. When the book mentioned dinosaurs, I even passed around a replica of a dinosaur egg fossil.

The page about snakes is my favorite. The text reads that “most snakes lay eggs,” which is true in many parts of the world. In cold climates, though, you often find snakes that are ovoviviparous. In this strategy, the female is internally fertilized, and the young are born alive. In contrast to mammals, the young are nourished by an egg yolk instead of a placental connection. The main benefit, and the thing I focus on with the kindergarteners, is that keeping her babies with her allows the mother snake to move them into warmer places so that they can develop faster. Snake eggs laid in the cold ground risk not developing fast enough to hatch before winter. Garter snakes and northern redbelly snakes are two of our neighbors who use this strategy.

First graders also started their lesson with some talk about eggs, since their lesson focused on frogs. After we acted out the life cycle of a frog (scrunch yourself into an egg, hatch and wiggle with a tail, grow hind legs and then front legs, and finally jump out of the pond and back to your desk), we performed a frog concert. Before the eggs can be laid, the frogs must sing.

We all practiced quacking like wood frogs, peeping like spring peepers, snoring like leopard frogs, and humming like bullfrogs. Then I divided the classroom into four groups and conducted their entrances and exits based on the frogs’ spring phenology. Wood frogs wake up first, and spring peepers follow closely. Just as the leopard frogs begin, the first two go silent. Our bullfrogs carry the late summer tune, and the peepers chime back in when the shortening days of fall confuse them into thinking it just might be spring.

The one MuseumMobile lesson about plants includes second graders transforming their class into a working model of a tree. From the inside out and the bottom up, we imitated all of trees’ most important parts. Our heartwood stood tall and strong, roots made slurping noises as they got water from the ground. “WooooOOOOP!” said the ring of xylem cells as they brought the water up. Now that the leaves had the water they needed, we all chanted “pho-to-synthesis” to help them manufacture sugar. The ring of phloem cells “WOOOoooped” the sugar down to the roots. A line of tough-looking kids with their arms crossed growled “we protect” as they played the role of bark. Finally, the whole tree dissolved into giggles.

Third graders became bears and struggled to collect enough “food” that I had scattered around the room. The average bear needs to eat about 80 pounds of food every 10 days. Not all of the third-grade bears survived, so we talked about the components of habitat and the concept of carrying capacity. During our second round, I held back a third of the food and most of the water to simulate a drought. This caused much distress among the bears, but also drove home the importance of a healthy habitat.

Fourth graders rounded out their year of learning about birds by focusing on nests. I’m always amazed at how well a few photos can capture their attention. We compare the wildly different nests of eagles, goldfinches, loons, and orioles, and then attempt to create our own nests using a core of air-dry clay, and tiny strips of birch bark, pine needles, dried grass, and even flakes of paper from the nest of a bald-faced hornet. It was humbling to compare their ramshackle creations to the precisely constructed nest of a red-eyed vireo.

Red-eyed Vireo Nest. Photo by Vernon R. Martin

In a natural transition from energy conservation, fifth graders switched to water conservation this season. We laughed at the absurdity of my one-liter bottle representing all the water on Earth, but as I poured out 30 milliliters to represent the tiny fraction that is fresh water, they became more thoughtful. Six milliliters of that 30 is all we have for fresh water that isn’t frozen. And finally, to represent the 0.003% of water on Earth that is fresh, non-frozen, and above-ground, I let a single drop fall into the bottom of a tin cup. For once, they were quiet enough that even the back of the room could hear the soft “plink.”

My spring visit to the sixth graders is always a little bittersweet, because our MuseumMobile visits don’t follow them into seventh grade. It’s exciting to share bar graphs of the data they collected about goldenrod galls, and to reinforce the notion that they are young scientists. Now that I’ve been at the Museum for seven years, my history with these kids goes all the way back to kindergarten. We started out together by exploring nature with our five senses, and we culminated by using tools and collecting data. After seven years, they are just as curious and excited about nature as they ever were. While their chorus of “thank you!” followed me out the door, I hoped that never changes.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” opens on May 1, 2018.

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