Students get hooked on science at the Virginia Living Museum

08/09/2011  |  CHRISTINE LEWIS
museum destination

“Wow! That ancient shark must have been as big as school bus!” exclaimed an excited sixth grader as he held up a seven inch long, five million year old fossil shark tooth with serrated edges as sharp as a steak knife. On the table in front of him were the full upper and lower jaws of a modern bull shark whose teeth looked like miniatures by comparison.

Students thrive in an environment where their natural curiosity is stimulated and they have the opportunity to explore and experiment. In Virginia Living Museum (VLM) paleontology programs, the ancient past comes to life as students calculate the size and speed of a Virginia dinosaur based on measurements they take from a real fossilized dinosaur trackway; or examine and compare Ice Age mammoth teeth with teeth from a modern mammal to draw conclusions about the diets of prehistoric animals.

The VLM has long been recognized as the premier natural science education facility in Southeastern Virginia where students are encouraged to do real science. The museum specializes in developing hands-on, experiential programming that is inquiry based and stresses critical thinking skills.

The museum has a substantial investment in scientific equipment for use in our classrooms, lab and observatory, and in the field. In a freshwater ecology program, life science students use plankton tows to collect plankton then view water samples with rugged field microscopes. Having the opportunity to look at these living microscopic organisms at the pond site really brings home the importance of plankton in the pond’s food webs.

The goal is to make science both understandable and fun — and consequently memorable for students. This requires a group of creative professional science educators, a good measure of innovative thinking about science teaching and learning, and a lot of effort. VLM’s science instructors are scientists as well as science teachers. Students gain the advantage of working with a faculty that has years of classroom experience combined with a wide range of field research experience. The results are clearly worth it.

Unlike most museums where specimens are protected from visitors, the VLM’s non-live collections are used extensively in student programs. We make science meaningful with high interest real world applications. In a mineralogy lab students may be challenged to determine which diamond mine to “buy” by performing a series of laboratory tests to distinguish between real diamonds and clear quartz or topaz specimens. In other programs students examine ivory from endangered species, bird study skins, fossilized dinosaur bones, and other specimens that ordinarily only “real scientists” are ever allowed to touch.

VLM truly bring science to life. In addition to the many live animal species on exhibit, museum programs also incorporate a wide array of live program animals such as sea stars, bullfrogs, skunks, owls, and turtles that are reserved only for use in museum programs. Students who are studying predator-prey relationships have what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe the razor sharp talons of a live screech owl up close and even touch its soft feathers. We simply cannot over-emphasize the power of living animals to capture interest, stimulate curiosity and imagination, and cultivate a sense of environmental stewardship.

The museum’s exhibits were designed to target Virginia’s science Standards of Learning (SOLs) and reinforce concepts taught in museum programs. While exploring indoor and outdoor exhibits that focus on Virginia’s physiographic regions, students can observe animal adaptations for finding food and shelter, rearing young and avoiding predators; see live endangered and threatened species including red wolves, possibly the most endangered mammal in the U.S. Throughout the exhibits students encounter live native Virginia plants and animals in their natural habitats as they walk through mountain cove, limestone cave and cypress swamp habitats. In four hands-on Discovery Centers, students can pick up and investigate real specimens.

For over 40 years the Virginia Living Museum has been the natural science education leader in Southeastern Virginia. Each year more than 65,000 public and private school students in grades K-12 participate in grade-level targeted, SOL correlated science programs that take place on the museum campus, in school classrooms and at field study sites throughout Virginia. VLM’s science education programs have been recognized by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education and the Virginia Department of Education for providing outstanding science enrichment that cannot be duplicated in a school classroom.

For more information about museum programs, contact Dan Summers, VLM school education curator, at 757-595-1900 ext. 215. Information about school programs can be found in the “Teacher’s Corner” section of the Christine Lewis is education director at the Virginia Living Museum. For more information, please visit
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