Left: Even when it’s class period at the Kidzeum Museum exhibits are never far away from students, including this Feitshans Elementary second graders and their teacher.
Second graders in a flurry of excitement raced from place to place with tablets and notebooks as they explored, recorded their findings, measured, calculated, and even learned.
The location took place at that of the Kidzeum of Health and Science in downtown Springfield, and the students were part of the School District 186 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering Arts, Maths) Residence Program.
The recent school day in Springfield could be the perfect prototype for a cooperative form of education that combines education with hands-on experience at tourist attractions in the area.
“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.”
It is the STEAM Residency Program that began in the fall of last year and aims to see every second-grade student in District 186 stay for two weeks in the Kidzeum which is where students are provided with instruction in the classroom as well as hands-on in-person application of theories they’ve learned.
Three classrooms at Feitshans were taking turns at Kidzeum at the beginning of April. One class was using mathematics by measuring objects in the museum. A different student was planning a healthy lunch by using the museum’s interactive exhibits. A different group of students was learning about alternative energy sources sitting in front of 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 explained. “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 younger students were more enthusiastic about the STEAM Residence Program than their teachers.
“It makes me feel pretty good about second grade,” said Feitshans’s eighth-grader 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, spoke glowingly about her experience at Kidzeum.
“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 explained. “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.”
Feitshans Elementary second graders complete the hands-on portion of their assignment in the Kidzeum.
“We are bringing learning standards to life”
Executive Director Leah Wilson had always thought that the Kidzeum’s vibrant, entertaining and informative exhibits could make an excellent museum school. She was involved in preliminary discussions with District 18 regarding the possibility of a museum-based school however when the COVID-19 virus caused the Kidzeum to shut its doors to visitors and laid off employees, 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 explained. “There was an opportunity to think about another model where we bring students into a museum school Monday through Friday, and the museum would be open to the public on the weekends.”
Wilson switched to a United Kingdom program, My Primary School is at the Museum which is a program where children from schools are taken to various historical museums to experience a variety of learning experiences. The British model is a year-long affair, however, Wilson believed that a residency of two weeks at the Kidzeum was an ideal match 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 explained. “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 preparations for the STEAM Residency Program began in seriousness during the pandemic to ensure that the district and Kidzeum could be prepared to launch the program in the autumn of 2021. District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill set the goal of enrolling every second grader within the district in the program.
“The schools that did get to attend this year have had the full experience,” Gill stated. “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 stated. “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 an average STEAM Residency Program day, students and their teachers are split into groups, with some in the museum to work on projects that require hands-on work while others work on more traditional classroom-setting tasks. Kidzeum assisted teachers to develop programs that are linked to math, literacy, and science, as well as technology-related elements.
“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,” explained Rene Johnson, the Math Science, Instructional Technology and Math Coordinator 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 talks with every principal prior to the school’s STEAM Residency in order to discuss the experience that is coming up. The residency will benefit teachers and administrators of the school and 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 explained. “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.”
Feitshans Elementary second graders complete the hands-on portion of their task at the Kidzeum.
“They love school more”
The reaction towards this 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 stated. “The teachers have also told the principals and me that it was like a shot in the arm, something fun to look forward to.”
Gill stated that the schools that took part in the STEAM Residency have had very few behavioral issues, and the students who have attended have not been absent during the day of the residency due to being eager to go 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 stated. “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’s 2nd-grade teacher Jerome White, while keeping an eye on children who are active during an earlier STEAM Residency trip, was able to agree that the program was great for all those 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 stated. “They are happier because they must be disciplined to enjoy the activities they love.
“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 stated. “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 instructor Shari Kozar has said that the STEAM Residency offers an excellent educational opportunity for teachers as well as 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 stated. “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.”
The two-week sessions culminate with an exhibit that students create with the knowledge and skills they learned from their experiences. The exhibits are located inside the Kidzeum’s main lobby.
“That’s when the magic happens”
The Feitshans Elementary second grader searches for things during a science scavenger hunt at the Kidzeum. The District of Kidzeum 186 STEAM Residence Program, in the words of superintendent Gill, is “a great example of collaboration and forward thinking.”
Gill first appointed Cheree Morrison as the director of the district’s Secondary Schools and Programs, to the Kidzeum board. Following the time Morrison quit, Gill named Nicole Moody as the Assistant Superintendent of Teaching, Learning, and School Culture as a member of the board. First Student provides bus transportation between the school and the Kidzeum every day. The Kidzeum has also added additional staff to oversee the program on the spot.
Participants can also visit the nearby tourist destinations during their STEAM residency, with a group of second graders able to visit the State Capitol during the closing days of spring’s 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 stated. “It feels right to bring the Kidzeum into our curriculum.”
Its STEAM Residency has brought fresh life to the Kidzeum. District 186 is paying a fee per child, which provides the Kidzeum an additional source of income. The residency program also led the Kidzeum to tackle the two vacant storefronts that are adjacent to the museum’s current location, and the museum has been granted a grant of $355,400 from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to expand into those spaces and create a center that will provide education in STEAM.
“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 explained. “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 stated that the residency program exposes families and children to the Kidzeum which is an institution they may not have thought about visiting, or not able to go to.
“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 stated. “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 pledged to put 1000 second graders through The STEAM Residence Program. Teachers and students will continue to take part in the 2022-23 school year After which it will then be reviewed. Wilson believes of the fact that it will be continued.
“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 stated. “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 beginner beekeeper, and she has brought some of her items from the hobby to show STEAM Residency participants.
“The questions just pour out of them, and that for me is just so rewarding,” Wilson stated. “As young as your child is interested, that’s your opening. That’s when the magic occurs. This is the reason I go every day to work.
“It’s a dream come true,” Wilson declared. “I’m more excited and optimistic than I’ve been in a long time.”