Exploration Place reaches out

Written by Joe Stumpe | Photography by Tobie Andrews Photography

Jan Luth sees Exploration Place as more than a place where people come to experience great exhibits.

“That is important but not the only role that a science center has in a community,” said Luth, EP’s executive director. “We are also a real partner in helping educate our community.”

Increasingly, that means sending its educators out into schools, rather than waiting for students to come to the museum and science center on the Arkansas river.

EP employs six full-time and two part-time educators who work in elementary and middle schools. Last year, its educational programming reached more than 32,000 area schoolchildren.

“We had no outreach nine years ago,” said Traci Kallhoff, the museum’s education manager. “It really just started five or six years ago. Just like a snowball, it’s really built up.”

One afternoon last month, one of those educators, Justin Stiles, dived into a “messy” lesson with students in an english-as-second language classroom at Park Elementary.

“They are students new to the English language, but we want to make sure they have a good science background,” he said. “We were doing an oil spill activity where students took various materials and cleaned up feathers after an oil spill.”

Educators like Stiles know the value of hands-on activities for keeping kids’ attention.

“We get elbow deep in our science activities. I get hands on and messy with it. The kids, even the teachers, it becomes a whole class experience.”

Most of the educators do three to five programs a day in schools, in addition to their work at Exploration Place. They’re currently visiting every grade in five schools in USD 259 once a month, each time bringing a different science lesson designed to fit into the students’ curriculum. The plan is not just to teach students science, but to help their regular teachers do that as well.

The growth of EP’s outreach program has been fueled in part by federal STEM (Science, Technology, engineering and Math) grants, and partly by private funds. In Sumner County, for instance, EP’s science programming has been expanded to all of the county’s 26 elementary schools thanks to money from a non- profit foundation funded by the Kansas Star Casino.

In Mulvane, EP educators see every third- and fourth-grade class one a week. “We have these experts coming in and modeling for the teachers hands-on science, the way it’s supposed to be taught,” said Joyce Harting, curriculum director for Mulvane schools. “Not only are students receiving this wonderful experience, but the teachers are getting it, too.”

Exploration Place’s focus on outreach comes at a time when schools have seen budgets cut for activities such as student field trips to Exploration Place. “It’s more financially feasible to bring us in, than to bring them out,” Kahllhoff said.

In addition to public schools, Exploration Place also partners with the Independent School, home-school parents, the YMCA, Wichita public libraries, Boy and Girl Scouts and Wichita State’s preschool program.

And there’s still plenty of education programming going on at the museum itself, including:

• Summer camps, which last year drew nearly 600 campers for an in-depth, weeklong experience.
• EdVentures, all-day programming offered when kids are off from schools.
• Birthday parties and other private events where “the kids are having a ball, but they’re still learning,” as Luth put it.

And don’t worry, those field trips to exploration Place haven’t stopped. Last year, over 18,000 kids visited on group trips.

If you look closely, you’ll see that Exploration Place’s emphasis is on reaching the youngest students.

“You can’t start in high school and middle school,” Luth said. “You have to start in elementary school and even earlier. You have to get them liking it, thinking it’s fun, thinking it’s cool. That’s a huge overarching goal of Exploration Place in our community. This isn’t the end — it’s only the beginning.”

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