Thursday, December 13, 2012

Twinkling Stars, American Museum of Natural History

I attended a workshop at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) with LC, because she loves nature. It was part of the Adventures in Science series. The class was called Twinkling Stars - Gods and Heroes and it was 1 1/2 hours once a week for two consecutive weeks.

Was it worth one hundred dollars for three hours total? To find out (it's a long review!)...

Well, I felt like I learned a lot! Sadly, there was very little time dedicated to astronomy when I attended public school. The honors science classes consisted of biology, chemistry and physics. The areas that interested me the most, astronomy (I guess in this particular class we covered the branch called astrophysics), geology and zoology (a branch of biology) were barely covered in the curriculum of public schools.

The young teacher at AMNH was very intelligent and caring and his two assistants were helpful. It was obvious a lot of thought went into the lesson plans to cover the material in a logical manner. I have one criticism, though, and it's the same problem with all standardized education. One just needs to read books like John Holt's How Children Learn to understand that children are not passive receptacles to keep filling up with knowledge, requiring them to sit still in classrooms for long periods of time.

A few of the parents were putting so much pressure on their 4 and 5 year olds to process the material quickly and answer questions that were asked by the teacher correctly, I felt quite a lot of empathy for the children. I suppose in New York City everything is competitive, but I feel it's especially cruel to push young kids to learn in a way that doesn't allow them to explore and make mistakes (without the embarrassment of having a large group stare at them). Teachers directing kids to come up with the one right answer when they ask them a question...this method doesn't allow kids to be independent thinkers.

I don't blame AMNH for teaching 4 and 5 year olds the way one might teach 7 year olds, because that's what these parents want...kids to be taught in a classroom, with a projector and a board, long vocabulary words used in the lecture and kids being quizzed constantly on the information that must be memorized. The young kids are bursting with imagination, creativity and energy...and the parents are pushing to extinguish that as soon as possible. I kept hearing the overbearing parents tell their kids "I am so disappointed in your behavior" and "raise your hand, don't you know the answer!" These kids simply wanted to play wrestle (mostly the boys) or take longer with the bit of hands-on activity provided (mostly the girls).

Yes, there were parts of the class tailored for 4 and 5 year olds, and for those portions their eyes lit up...they were joyful. Learning should be joyful, not feel like drudgery. I wouldn't say the class needs to be dumbed down...these fifteen children were bright...but clearly, so much of the material went over their heads because it was presented in a way that was appropriate for kids who are older. One of the things I don't like about the gifted & talented classes in public schools, for example, is that they often just give bright kids the lessons that teachers normally would give to the next grade level, with very little tweaking.

Anyway, after this workshop...I don't think I will ever forget #1) An asterism is a pattern of stars and a constellation is a region of sky, which contains stars, #2) there are 88 constellations, #3) a red star is colder than a white star, which is cooler than a blue star and #4) having a good understanding of the balancing points of binary stars (based on their weight and distance) when discussing their orbit around the center of mass. It was drummed into my head. Will the 4 and 5 year olds remember? I don't think so. They might remember that stars are balls of gas...and that the closest star to us is our Sun. But expecting young kids to remember how far the Sun is from the Earth...light years and all that...and actual names of constellations...and quizzing them about it constantly, what's the point? Isn't learning meant to be fun...or are we just stuffing their little brains with information and making them feel anxious if they get something wrong. I do appreciate, since the teacher was aware that LC was not attending school (and she is just getting the hang of even raising her hand...something she was admonished for not doing during a live show last year), she is not quizzed constantly...so he went easy on her in terms of the questions he asked her point blank in front of everyone in the classroom. LC was so excited that she pleased everyone by stating the right answers. (Not quite what I think a young child should be trained to do.)

I enjoyed hearing about the Greek mythology and guessing about the shapes formed by the constellations. But seriously, how many of the kids will remember that Cassiopeia is the Queen of Ethiopia and the constellation looks like the letter W. I admire the way the teacher was using some memory tricks (like rhyming and patterns) to force-feed information...kind of reminded me of test prep drilling. Sadly, kids are being put through test prep and interviews for kindergarten and first grade admissions in NYC, so this is exactly what most of these parents were hoping for in terms of a science class.

The kids seemed to really enjoy the 25 minutes each week we stepped into the Hayden Planetarium to observe the stars and "fly" around the sky and see the planet Earth. Though this class was so late in the day and that portion was the last part of the class. Most of the 4 and 5 year olds were in Pre-K/K programs that day prior to attending this enriching academic experience...so those kids totally lost control and started acting out (during probably the most interesting portion of this class) because they were tired. I felt awful for those kids who endured a full day of formal learning and then they were being coerced to learn more in a structured fashion when all they wanted to do was play or nap.

The American Museum of Natural History is so famous (a popular tourist spot); it makes sense that many New Yorkers are proud to raise kids in a city where we can bring them to museums of this caliber. I've noticed parents take special pride in saying their young kids are fascinated by the exhibits and bring them often (and brag about it, like the kids will become scientists for sure)...but honestly I've noticed a lot of bored children being dragged around the museum (squirming, wriggling, begging to go outside). Sure, if a child develops a true interest in science...this is an awesome museum for them when they are at least seven years old. One can believe that exposing the child at a younger age will allow them to absorb a ton of information like a little computer...but who knows if that will backfire...leading to disinterest or depression by middle school. Though the hands-on Discovery Room, for example, is listed for kids ages 5-12, parents are bringing in tots...and let's be honest, even five year olds need assistance from parents to explore the area. I shelled out good money for a special exhibit at the AMNH a while ago that I thought would be fascinating for my four year old, based on a review I read, but it wasn't presented in an accessible manner to young children; the staff were surprised that young kids were coming to the exhibit, they said it wasn't intended as a hands-on exhibit, it was very dry and academic.

LC's favorite parts of the Twinkling Stars class included lifting balls to see the weight difference ("one of the balls did not feel heavy and the other one was heavy"), looking up at the stars and planets in the planetarium, and the below two projects:


She made her own constellation and created the story behind it. "This is a magical goat that turns into a unicorn. He can run so fast away from something if he has to...and he has a magical horn that lights up," said LC. One of the teaching assistants snapped photographs of each child's work and she uploaded the digital photos to the laptop. The teacher asked for each image to be projected to the pull down screen and then the kids enjoyed guessing what the constellations represented. LC was very proud of her work receiving attention. The parents helped tell the stories to the group, since some of the kids became shy about being put on the spot to remember what they dictated earlier. The young teacher did a fine job engaging the kids in terms of these types of hands-on activities and there could have been more time devoted to such projects.

The second week, the kids were given Styrofoam balls, straws, Crayola Model Magic (as I've written in the past, I love the stuff) and beads (I don't know where they got the beads, I should have asked one of the assistants, it was an awesome assortment). The kids created their own binary star (a system of two stars orbiting around a common center of mass). Then they were asked to show the balancing point, which they had to figure out based on the weight of each star. LC really didn't want to release her fingers in a way to allow the straw to balance in the palm of her hand, she was gripping it tightly. I convinced her to let go, so I could show that the straw was balanced by putting it on a couple of fingers positioned near the heavier ball - the one with decorations on it and several layers of modeling compound...just so they could move on to the next kid. LC would have preferred to keep decorating the star.


So, was the two day workshop worth $100? YES. The teacher is stellar and the assistants are first rate. The facilities are fabulous. LC loves anything having to do with outer space. One of LC's favorite books last year was Me and My Place in Space; I read it to her so many times, to this day she remembers that our solar system's galaxy is called the Milky Way (and no, she isn't aware of the existence of the candy bar). In fact, in the planetarium, when we left our solar system for a little bit, she looked at the spiral shape of the galaxy in the distance and said "that's the Milky Way." But I think the workshops are better suited for older children.