The third-graders from Holy Family Catholic Elementary School leaned over the railing, watching Pebbles and Darius, the African spur-thighed tortoises at Sternberg Museum of Natural History, as they crawled about their pen looking for treats Wednesday morning.
And they peppered Ian Trevethan, Sternberg’s education and outreach coordinator, with questions.
Do they get anything special to eat when they’re good? How old are they? How long do they live? Is a year of their life equal to a certain number of human years, like one year for a dog is equal to seven of ours? Do they dress up for Halloween? And many more, both serious and fun.
And Trevethan was delighted.
“I was getting some really good questions. They were thinking, and the questions kept coming. I would love to spend all day with them, just going where they wanted to go,” he said after the students’ visit.
In a classroom on the third floor, another group of students met with zoological collections manager Curtis Schmidt, who set out a number of specimens on tables. The students examined each to determine if they were vertebrates or invertebrates and other aspects by observing, for example, if they had fur or feathers, scales or skin.
Trevethan and the Sternberg staff are used to visits from students, but the relationship they are building with Holy Family is new territory for both parties.
The Salina Catholic Diocese has taken an initiative this year in its schools to incorporate STREAM into their curriculum. Like STEAM, it focuses on integrating science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, but in the diocese, it also means including the “R” — religion.
The diocese is emphasizing community partnerships in the STREAM initiative, and Holy Family Principal Rachel Wentling said she immediately thought of Sternberg.
Through Wednesday for fall STREAM week, Holy Family classes will be visiting Sternberg, each focusing on a different area, and taking what they learn back to their classrooms.
Kindergartners will learn about how different animals’ teeth affects what they eat and how they survive. First graders will learn about habitats, and second-graders will learn about the life cycles of butterflies and moths, for example. The lessons will repeat each year, so by the time students move on from Holy Family, they will have learned just about every aspect of natural history, Wentling said.
Trevethan met with Holy Family teachers in two inservice days to brainstorm how to bring the program about. He said the teachers had just as many questions as their students.
“I was just throwing ideas at them. It’s been an experiment in how to organize and how to utilize something like a museum and its resources,” he said, especially for teachers who are used to being more compartmentalized with their classroom resources.
Trevethan has also visited with students at school and said he will be available to visit with them at school in the future, too.
It’s the first time the museum has worked with any school, private or public, on creating an annual program, he said.
“We do a lot of outreach programs within the community for the local schools, and they come and visit us a lot during the spring, but it’s not at the level where we’ve got the teachers coming and spending their inservice days here trying to figure out how to do programming around the museum resources,” he said.
“We would love to expand that to all the area Hays schools,” he said.
In the classrooms, Holy Family teachers will incorporate the information from Sternberg with the traditional STEAM lessons as well as their Catholic curriculum.
Third-grade teacher Paula Beck said her class will draw and write about what they’ve learned.
“We’re going to be doing an art project of creating a backbone, and then we’re also going to be doing some perimeter work in drawing an animal and find the perimeter around it, and then writing some stories,” she said.
For the religion aspect, they will look at animals from Bible stories, Beck said.
Life cycles of butterflies is about time, Wentling said, and that could be applied to the creation story. Predator-prey relationships could be illustrated by the story of Daniel and the lion.
“They will find scripture or other aspects of religion or virtue activities that tie into it,” she said.
Trevethan said that as a scientist, he appreciates the scholarly approach Catholicism takes to its faith and that it takes seriously the charge that man is a steward of the Earth. He called himself a “late-in-life” Catholic, having come to the faith after his daughter wanted to attend Holy Family.
What he would like the students to gain from the partnership is to develop their critical thinking skills.
“I want them to know that this stuff is accessible at any level and anyone can be a naturalist. They just have to practice the powers of observation,” he said.
“I’m telling all the teachers if there’s anything that both adults and kids walk out of here with it’s to observe, think critically and figure things out. And even if you don’t hit it exactly on the mark, you’re on the road to a really important set of skills,” he said.
Wentling said Holy Family will also have a spring STREAM week, perhaps with a social studies emphasis, and will be looking for another community partner for those activities.