School comes to Kidzeum

Partnering with District 186 for STEAM education

click to enlarge School comes to Kidzeum
Photos by David Blanchette
Left: Even during classroom time at the Kidzeum, the museum's displays are never far from the students, like these Feitshans Elementary second graders and their teacher.

Groups of excited second graders dashed from area to area, clutching notebooks and tablet computers as they explored, documented, measured, calculated and learned.

The scene was the Kidzeum of Health and Science in downtown Springfield, and the students were part of the School District 186 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics) Residency Program.

This recent school day in Springfield may be the model for a collaborative form of education that marries learning with hands-on experiences at local visitor attractions.

"They love coming," said Feitshans Elementary School teacher Ashley Lamantia. "Every day they get excited to get on the bus, look forward to the bus ride, are excited to see downtown, and when they get here they don't even know where to start."

The STEAM Residency Program, which began last fall, aims to have every District 186 second grader spend two weeks at the Kidzeum, where the students receive a combination of classroom instruction and the practical, first-person application of the principles they have learned.

Three Feitshans classrooms were taking their turn at the Kidzeum during early April. One classroom was applying mathematics by measuring items in the museum. Another class was planning a healthy meal using the museum's hands-on exhibits, while another set of students was learning about alternative energy sources while seated next to a solar panel.

"It's nice for the kids to get out. They really don't get to do a lot of science and hands-on activities in the classroom because there is a lot of required literacy and math time," Lamantia said. "This allows them to get out and do some things that maybe they couldn't do in the classroom. A lot of them haven't been here before with their families so it gives them a new place to go."

The young students were even more enthusiastic about the STEAM Residency Program than their teachers.

"It makes me feel pretty good about second grade," said eight-year-old Feitshans student Dominic Rhodes. "I have been measuring things like posters and a circle. I will tell my parents that I did some cool things and I want to come again!"

Destiny Evans, another eight-year-old student, gushed about her Kidzeum experience.

"I made a food plate, I helped dogs to get healthy in the vet's office, and I learned a lot of other stuff today," Evans said. "I had a lot of fun with my study partner. I will tell my parents that I learned a lot and had a lot of fun and that I would love to go here again."

click to enlarge School comes to Kidzeum
Feitshans Elementary second graders complete the hands-on portion of their class assignment at the Kidzeum.

"We are bringing learning standards to life"
Executive Director Leah Wilson had always thought the Kidzeum's colorful, engaging and informative exhibits would make a great museum school. She was part of the initial discussions with District 186 about the museum school possibility, but when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Kidzeum to close to the public and lay off staff, Wilson saw an opportunity.

"We probably were not going to be able to reopen six days a week as pandemic restrictions eased because we would not have had enough people coming to sustain our staff," Wilson said. "There was an opportunity to think about another model where we bring students in to a museum school Monday through Friday, and the museum would be open to the public on the weekends."

Wilson turned to a United Kingdom program, My Primary School is at the Museum, where school children are brought to different museums and historic sites to have a learning experience. The British model is year-long but Wilson thought a two-week residency at the Kidzeum would be a good fit for District 186.

"We put a lot of emphasis on these STEAM topics in middle school, but sometimes by that point kids are already tuning out and they haven't developed a love for those subjects," Wilson said. "The hope is that by starting earlier we are getting kids interested in these topics, so by the time they reach middle school they already have this foundation and inquisitiveness."

The planning for the STEAM Residency Program began in earnest during the pandemic so the district and the Kidzeum would be ready to hit the ground running in the fall of 2021. District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill set the goal of putting every second grader in the district through the program.

"The schools that did get to attend this year have had the full experience," Gill said. "This fall we are going to have a rigorous schedule and start with the schools that did not get to go this year."

"We are bringing learning standards to life, kids are solving problems and going on scavenger hunts and exploring the different parts of the health curriculum," Gill said. "They are still teaching literacy and mathematics and the standards for science and social studies, but they are able to do so in a museum environment while having some regular classroom time during the day."

On a typical STEAM Residency Program day, students and their teachers are divided into groups with some out in the museum working on hands-on activities while others are doing more traditional classroom-setting work. Kidzeum helped the teachers to design the activities that always connect back to literacy, mathematics and science with technology components.

"It's great from the STEAM standpoint because it's a little bit hard to get science in the elementary school setting because of the other requirements for literacy and math and all of the other things that they have to do," said Rene Johnson, the Math, Science and Instructional Technology Coordinator for District 186. "So for the two weeks that these second graders are here they are getting it the whole time, and that's been great."

Johnson meets with each principal prior to that school's STEAM Residency to go over the upcoming experience. She said the residency benefits the school administration and teachers as well as the students.

"It's neat when the principal gets the opportunity to come with the students, and the students see their principal outside of a school setting," Johnson said. "That's not a common thing, so they're very excited to be able to experience their principal and teachers outside of a school setting."

"They love school more"

The response to the STEAM Residency Program has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Superintendent Gill.

"The parents I've spoken to are ecstatic, kids are coming home at night talking to their families about their experiences and what they got to do that day at school," Gill said. "The teachers have also told the principals and myself that it was like a shot in the arm, something fun to look forward to."

Gill said the schools that have participated in the STEAM Residency have experienced very few behavioral problems, and few students have been absent on residency days because they are excited to come to school.

"I visited for a very long time one day and the students had their iPads out, they were doing the scavenger hunt, they were moving throughout the building, you could just see a lot of enjoyment," Gill said. "The kids that were working on the water table had their sleeves rolled up. It was great to see them learning and having fun."

Feitshans Elementary School second grade teacher Jerome White, while keeping an eye on energetic kids during a recent STEAM Residency visit, agreed that the program is great for all involved.

"I like it because it actually gets the kids out and it makes learning fun for them. Kids who have fun learn more, participate more, and they love school more," White said. "They are more well-behaved because they have to be well-behaved to do the fun stuff.

"I wish they had offered this when I was a kid because I would have learned a lot more, like healthy eating habits and the kinds of things we are working on now," White said. "I know those things now, but it took me until a lot later in life because we didn't get to do these fun kinds of things when we were in school."

Fellow Feitshans teacher Shari Kozar said the STEAM Residency is an unusually good educational opportunity for both teachers and students.

"Last year because of the pandemic we were stuck on Zoom, but here we have hands-on learning and teaching, and they are interested because they can actually do something," Kozar said. "It's a great way for them to learn more about math and science in a way that we may not get to in the classroom. They know that it's something special."

Each two-week residency session culminates in an exhibit that the students put together using the skills and knowledge they gained from the experience. Those exhibits are displayed just inside the main Kidzeum lobby.

"That's when the magic happens"

click to enlarge School comes to Kidzeum
A Feitshans Elementary second grader searches for items during a science scavenger hunt at the Kidzeum.

The Kidzeum-District 186 STEAM Residency Program is, in the words of Superintendent Gill, "a great example of collaboration and forward thinking."

Gill initially named Cheree Morrison, the district's Director of Secondary Schools and Programs, to the Kidzeum board. After Morrison retired, Gill named Nicole Moody, the Assistant Superintendent of Teaching, Learning and School Culture, to serve on the board. First Student provides bus transportation between the school and Kidzeum each day. The Kidzeum has added extra staff to coordinate the program on-site.

Participants also tour nearby tourist attractions during their STEAM Residency, with one group of second graders getting to visit the State Capitol during the closing days of the spring legislative session.

"We have always celebrated the history and the things that Springfield has to offer, and now that we have the Kidzeum, it brings more of a health and wellness focus," Gill said. "It feels right to bring the Kidzeum into our curriculum."

The STEAM Residency has breathed new life into the Kidzeum. District 186 pays a fee per child, which gives the Kidzeum a new revenue stream. The residency program has also prompted the Kidzeum to work on the two empty storefronts adjacent to the current museum, and the museum has received a $355,400 grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to help expand into those spaces to create a center for STEAM education.

"We will be able to put more items in those spaces that help educate kids in science, technology, engineering, art and math," Executive Director Wilson said. "We want this to be a comprehensive, capstone experience. They are not just learning math in one session and science in another, we are putting it all together."

Wilson said the residency program introduces children and families to the Kidzeum, an institution that they might not have previously considered visiting, or were not able to visit.

"Parking is a big challenge. Most children's museums have dedicated parking right next to the museum so it's easy for parents to get in and out of the museum with their children," Wilson said. "And just getting people from other parts of Springfield to even come downtown can be a challenge. This program gets many more people through our doors."

District 186 has committed to put 1,000 second graders through the STEAM Residency Program. Students and their teachers will continue to participate during the 2022-2023 school year, after which the program will be reassessed. Wilson is confident that the program will continue.

"As a museum professional, I know that a museum is a special place for learning and has assets that schools just can't have," Wilson said. "Museums have these tangible objects that are so amazing for learning and they have immersive environments that re-create a certain time or experiences that people lived through. In our case, we re-create the world for children in a more simplified way to help them understand how the world works and their place in it."

Wilson is a novice beekeeper and has brought her own items from that hobby to show the STEAM Residency participants.

"The questions just pour out of them, and that for me is just so rewarding," Wilson said. "As soon as a kid is curious, that's your opening, that's when the magic happens. That's why I come to work every day.

"It's a dream come true," Wilson said. "I'm more excited and optimistic than I've been in a long time."

About The Author

David Blanchette

David Blanchette has been involved in journalism since 1979, first as an award-winning broadcaster, then a state government spokesperson, and now as a freelance writer and photographer. He was involved in the development of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and more recently the Jacksonville...

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