Dead animals, birth canals, and beating hearts: Reflections on my first 27 years of informal science education

My first real introduction to what it means to be a museum educator was road kill. Like, an animal dead on the highway. Road kill.

As I remember, it was 1991, the summer before my senior year of high school and the second of three summers I spent working in the Invertebrate Paleontology department at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH). Joe Hannibal, the curator of invertebrate paleo, was leading a group to a limestone quarry in nearby Toledo, Ohio to collect Megalomoidea cadadensis, or “beef heart” fossils. Along the way, one of the museum’s Science Resource Center – I think it was Barbara Schwimmer – screamed for our van to stop.[1] She had seen road kill that, in her expert opinion, could potentially be worth collecting. The driver stopped, and to my delight and disgust, she got out, gathered the smushed remains of some animal, and hopped back in to trumpet her success. That animal was later taxidermied, and likely made its way to some classroom in the form of a traveling diorama. Little did I know, that moment was essentially the guidepost for the rest of my life. (Nancy Howell, Barbara Schwimmer, Robert Segedi, Bob Bartolotta)

Cleveland_Museum_Natural_History
I basically lived at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in high school. I can’t overstate how much it changed my life.

When I think back on my time at the CMNH the group of staff educators that I worked with and saw, including people like Barbara, Robert Segedi, Nancy Howell, and Bob Bartolotta, are remarkably important figures. Of course, no one looms larger than Joe Hannibal whose warmth, humor, and patience drew me back to the museum time and again. So too did the joy I got out of descending into the basement each day to wander through fossil collections, going to outcrops to search for samples, and just being at the museum. But there were so many amazing experiences that happened because of the museum’s educators. Like one day, the summer students like me were gathered into the Science Resource Center just because there was something fun to show, like a baby skunk. They taught us how to use the “Please Touch” carts that we wheeled out into the museum lobby to chat with visitors like this guy who came in with a bone he’d found in his back yard, hoping it was something cool (I think the Physical Anthropology department determined it was a cow bone, which can be cool depending on how you feel about cows). Plus, when Joe gave me writing assignments, like to describe Ohio’s major rock formations or the Silurian salt deposits below Lake Erie, one or more of the museum’s educators would ALWAYS read and comment on my drafts, and even shared their own work for me to read. I get emotional writing about that stuff because those respectful interactions meant so much to me, and it’s so sadly rare for a black kid to get that kind of respect.

Perhaps most importantly, my interactions with the CMNH’s many educators taught me how museums and their staff should make people feel. The respect I felt was museum-wide and it made the CMNH a home, and it is literally why I’ve spent the rest of my life in museums. Those educators gave me so many memorable experiences, and the admittedly embarrasing fact that they’ve coalesced in my memory into an amalgam of faces and fun makes me feel OK about all the experiences I’ve helped create for learners over the years; experiences likely only attributed to “that guy at the museum” or “the guy leading that hike.” Those educators are why in every place I’ve worked, I’ve tried to be helpful and open and willing to do whatever it took to make visitors and colleagues feel valued; to make sure they knew that I was invested in them as people. Helping them learn and/or do their work is only a part of that investment. Seeing that educator get out of a van and walk out on an active roadway also showed me that I had to be resourceful to find creative ways to make a program work. I can’t say I’ve always succeeded, but I’ve always tried, even when the result was a pretty solid failure.

Below are some highlights of my journey as a science museum educator (with some extras sprinkled in) so far. Some of the gaps in time were when I was doing educational hip-hop performances, summer arts camps, and even teacher professional development programs with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the Cleveland-based Progressive Arts Alliance. But, in a refrain that will become common over the life of this blog, those are posts for another day.

 

Summer 1992, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, OH: How can a kid teach teachers? 

My last summer at the CMNH may have been the most important for my career. Right after I graduated from high school, I co-led my first professional development program for teachers, along with Joe Hannibal. I remember standing in front of these teachers and wondering to myself, “what qualifies me to teach these teachers?” I’ve spent the rest of my career both directly and indirectly trying to answer that question in regard to museum educators overall, and in the process, I’ve become a historian and kind of ostracized myself from the work I love the most. Hopefully this blog bridges that gap.

 

Summer 1997, Newport News Park System, Newport News, VA: Be honest, make ’em smile, and listen more than you speak.

I didn’t do much in the way of education during my time at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia where I got a degree in Marine and Environmental Science, but when I was done I took a job as a Ranger Technician (RT) in the nearby Newport News Park System. Included among my surprisingly broad duties (wildlife rehab, anyone?) was leading night-time nature hikes in the main park. I don’t know if you’ve ever led a night-hike, but they are tailor made for fails. It is dark and even once your eyes have adjusted it is still hard for a new hiker to see anything, much less elusive crepuscular/nocturnal animals. So, for example, we almost never saw owls on the Owl Hike (except for my first one which ruined any shot I had at reasonable expectations) and never saw a single cool animal on Swamp Hikes.

swampbridge
The Swamp Bridge at Newport News Park in Newport News, VA. We hiked, we heard, we saw almost nothing.

Luckily there was a golf course in the park where deer would graze in the evening, so we’d swing by there and gawk before the short stroll back to the Park’s Interpretive Center. I was also supposed to help develop programs and exhibits for the new interpretive center at a beach front park adjacent to low-income housing. I spent all my time with the kids, partly because I was scared and didn’t know how to make an exhibit, and partly because they were kids who always wanted to talk. That may have been the most important duty of all; certainly, more relevant than eating expired pastries while taking trailer and tent site reservations in the campsite office. I got pretty fat.

 

Spring 1998, The Great Lakes Science Center, Cleveland, OH: Be on point and be accountable. Students and teachers are counting on you.

I moved home to Cleveland and got a full-time job at the Great Lakes Science Center, starting off as the specialist for the Environment floor.[2] The core of my job was leading school group tours where I guided their exhibit exploration and then walked them to their electricity show, IMAX, and lunch. Each morning we’d get a stack of colored papers for each of the schools we were guiding, and we’d meet them at the bus in a lab coat. Because, well, science. It seems mundane, and in a way, it was. But it taught me about how important timeliness and support are to a good museum experience for school groups. Shows need to start on time or be flexible if scheduled for a particular group. Unsupported (read: confused) teachers and chaperones can get flustered and poison every interaction from that point on. I also got to see the difference in student learning when teachers and chaperones joined in the fun, compared to the aimlessness and periodic wildness that would take place when the adults drifted off to have coffee and…do whatever people did before smart phones. I also wrote a few programs, helped with some teacher PD projects, and worked on the summer camp. It was a great experience, but it was a short one. Oh, the things I’d tell 24-year-old D.O. Alas…

sickearth
The Great Lakes Science Center used to have an Environment Floor, with stuff like a “Sick Earth” exhibit. Might be nice to have now, hunh?

 

Summer 1999, The Health Museum of Cleveland, Cleveland, OH: The honesty thing never fails, you can’t teach without listening, and there is joy in self-discovery.

Once the Great Lakes Science Center thing ran its course I landed on my feet at the now defunct Health Museum of Cleveland. It was, without a doubt, the most insane, awesome, ridiculous, satisfying, mystifying job ever. I had two main tasks: First, I was the coordinator for the traveling Healthy Acts Theatre program that featured scripted shows with puppets (!!!) and live performances by our professional and student actors. Second, I taught school package programs, which included three classes in the specially designed, themed classrooms. Healthy Acts was a mixed bag. I sucked as a coordinator, but the actors were so special, and the puppets were surreal. The student-actors were especially great, and I think about them often.

But nothing I’ve ever experienced as an educator was like those classrooms in the Health Museum of Cleveland. I was quickly one of the go-to-educators for the middle school packages, that usually included some combination of childbirth, puberty, heredity, and sexually transmitted diseases. It. was. incredible. The childbirth, or Wonder of New Life room featured a wall with models of the female reproductive organs, fetal development, and the birthing process. As I taught I would slowly migrate across the wall discussing ovaries, sperm and egg cells, blastocysts, embryonic development, and internal views of the baby progressing down the birth canal. The show ended with a video of a live birth. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen 12- and 13-year old’s watch a baby crowning.

wondernewlife_wall2
The Health Museum of Cleveland kept it really real.

The puberty room had a demonstration wall divided into two sections – you guessed it – male and female! We added different things to each body as they progressed through puberty. For the puberty class I came up with one of my proudest creations as an educator: the soup speech. In short, I explained that even though puberty transitions your body into childbearing, most of us aren’t ready to be parents. This is similar to soup: you put all the ingredients into the pot, but it has to cook for a while. All the parts are there, but it’s not ready. The teachers and parents would nod with thankful, impressed smiles.

wall1
Oh, the laughs I had in this room. Middle school students are the best.

Teaching STD’s was less fun, because it was mostly just showing pictures of infected penises and vulvas. I’m happy to say I never could extract a good time out of that. There were other classrooms covering the food pyramid, exercise, drugs and alcohol, bacteria and infections, etc., and almost all of them were fun to teach. STD’s basically dragged everything down, which seems totally appropriate.

More than anything, at the Health Museum I learned how important it is to listen and connect with your audience. Once I was teaching a heredity class, and about one-third through I’d finally made eye contact with every student in the room, which I thought was key to making everybody feel engaged. At that point it hit me – and I even said it out loud – that the group I was teaching was all girls. I smiled, said that it was awesome, and proceeded to urge anyone interested to become a genetic scientist because there’s a lot of stuff we need to figure out. At the end of the presentation, a school administrator that was on the tour offered me a job. I like to think it was because she recognized that I made it a priority to notice each student individually. Connecting is key to good teaching.

Another day, a father brought his son into the museum for an individualized “scared straight” session after he was caught smoking after school. I brought out the models of tarred lungs and rattled off lung cancer statistics. The kid couldn’t have cared less, and his dad seemed more worried than before. At the time I was a smoker, and I pushed all the models and charts aside and explained that I had an addiction; that I woke up and reached for cigarettes because I had no choice; that I knew I was killing myself but I didn’t know how or if I could stop; that if I could choose again I’d never have started and that he should save himself. The kid was visibly shaken, and the father was deeply thankful. It would take me a few more years – and a lung that was literally leaking air into my chest making me neck crinkle like bubble-wrap – to quit smoking. But I’ve never forgotten the power of sharing your story, and how honesty and transparency can build bridges to learning.

Sadly, the Health Museum and its unwelcoming, window-less post-Riot building are gone. The museum was rebuilt as Healthspace Cleveland in 2003 and closed soon after in 2006, with its building absorbed into the ever-growing corpus of the Cleveland Clinic; many of its exhibits sold off to other museums. What remained became a traveling program at the CMNH. A weird ending for a weird and wonderful place.

 

Fall 2005, The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA: People will tell you what they need and want to learn, if you listen.

It only took 15 years to have a professional experience as important as my first, but it came when I was hired as an Interpreter at the Franklin Institute (TFI). I guess I was (and those who hold the job now still are) supposed to be “interpreting” science for the public as though it’s some kind of foreign language, which would make sense given how much time we spend trying to make people “literate” in science. But, as we all know, science isn’t a language because new research isn’t a trite add-on like including slang or colloquial terms like “jiggy” or “GIF” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Plus, people interact with science all the time in every aspect of their lives, so “translating” it isn’t as important as helping people identify science at work and helping them make sensible, responsible decisions about its use based on thoughtful consideration of the complex issues that impact how science is deployed in society. Wait, where was I? Sorry, I got distracted by a rant.

As Interpreter, I was asked to perform in a way that was totally different than in any other museum. It was a revelation. In the mid 00s at TFI, the Interpreter’s job was to perform public science shows, staff the many activity carts scattered around the museum, train volunteers and staff on those carts, and do assigned “duties” to maintain the carts and show supplies. No part of the job included school-specific programming, and at the time of my hire, TFI didn’t offer any package tours for school groups. As a result, I spent my time interacting with public visitors and informally with school groups. At the carts, I didn’t have a strict script that I had to stick with. I could just…talk. There was a fluidity that turned out to be one of my biggest learning experiences as a museum educator.

The best example was the Heart Bar, the cart dedicated to heart and circulatory system physiology, pathology, and treatments, which included various models of hearts and blood vessels, preserved animal hearts, and real stents and pacemakers. Many of these were things familiar to people dealing with heart issues and treatments – either personally or within their families – but had never seen them up close. I can’t tell you how many times someone would say, “my uncle has a stent – is this what it looks like?” Or, “I used to have this pacemaker! They’ve upgraded since this one.” Or, “so this is what they did to my mom…” It felt so important to help people understand their bodies and their lives in ways that I would have assumed would happen with their doctor. Sadly,  I learned how little medical professionals actually teachI when my father suffered an aortic aneurysm a few years later. My time at the Heart Bar helped me understand what happened to my dad, and how amazing it was that the Cleveland Clinic doctors and staff were able to save his life. In a perfect world doctors and nurses could educate while healing, but it probably isn’t practical. It’s hard to teach someone who is actively being fleeced by a morally bankrupt medical system, even when you are a well-meaning health care provider.

Most importantly, being an Interpreter was fun, which allowed me to build my career in some unexpected ways. I actually felt refreshed after a day of teaching and doing shows, so going to grad school in the evenings wasn’t hard at all. Somehow I allowed myself to get talked into being promoted to a coordinator, which was idiotic, but I was rescued by being named an IPSE (Internship in Public Science Education) Intern and working with materials scientists from Penn State University and the incomparable Jayatri Das, now TFI’s lead bioscientist, to create nanotechnology demos for carts. I was also mentored by the brilliant Beth Tinker, who was then a museum exhibit designer and program developer, and should be running a museum by now if she isn’t already.

After getting my Masters from the University of Pennsylvania, I’ve continued my education at Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Along the way I became a historian and returned to Philadelphia in 2012 to do research on TFI, which quickly grew to include about 267 other museums (rough estimate). I see science education and museums differently now. I have become more critical and somewhat radical in my thoughts about how museums can and should contribute to society. But those stories – you guessed it! – are blogs for other days.

So there you have it: a brief look into the professional museum/informal education experiences of D.O… so far. I’ll probably be expanding on many of these stories as I continue blogging, and adding in some more. For example, I can’t wait to tell you about how and why I found myself launching frogs across a stage with an oversized slingshot. More importantly as you read on, and hopefully take issue with some of my arguments, I encourage you to keep my background in mind. Even though I am a historian now, I still think of myself as a museum educator and want everything I do to be of value to museum educators. I’ve had a wildly diverse career, too. I’ve done everything from nature hikes to outreach to teacher professional development to public shows. Those experiences have taught me that every aspect of museum work – from research to concessions to janitorial work to fundraising – is in service of the visitor. My historical research should be no different. Otherwise, my work won’t be as valuable as viable roadkill.

 

 

[1] It’s funny, but before I wrote this blog, I’d never really connected my career with the people who taught me how to be a museum educator. It says so much about how inglorious museum education can be, and how deep of an impact it can have.

[2] I was promoted to something like School Programs Manager or something, which I absolutely sucked at because I’m not a good coordinator and there was no one to manage; there might have been one floor specialist left. I burned myself out. I was so clueless back then.

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