‘Discovery Room’ Promotes ‘Hands-On’ Learning

Some recent changes at the Suter Science Center at EMU are aimed at heightening educational and entertainment benefits to many area students and families.

Museum of Natural History
The Kodiak bear is one of many exhibits that draw in hundreds of area elementary students each year.

The M.T. Brackbill Planetarium, a 40-year mainstay at the Science Center, gave its final public programs during the spring of 2007. The main reasons – the nearly-prohibitive cost of replacing the worn-out Spitz planetarium projector and the difficulty of keeping the program going with the retirement a year ago of John L. Horst, the last faculty member with expertise and keen interest in astronomy.

Planetarium Becomes Workshop

But rather than boarding up the facility, Dr. James M. (Jim) Yoder, associate professor of biology and current curator of the adjacent D.R. Hostetter Museum of Natural History, floated an idea – why not convert the space into an exciting circular classroom with educational displays and hands-on workshops, while also keeping the museum and the animal head room open.

Which is exactly what’s happened. Over the past year and a half Dr. Yoder worked with museum education director Christine Hill, former curator Dr. Clair Mellinger and EMU biology students to renovate the planetarium, overhaul the museum education program and update the museum displays and marketing materials.

The refurbished planetarium space became the “Discovery Room,” a classroom for conducting workshops and a display area for larger specimens such as the giant Kodiak brown bear that stands upright in its center. EMU art professor Dr. Cindy Gusler also contributed to the renovation by painting a 100-foot mural depicting endangered birds and plants on the interior wall of the room.

More Space, More Exhibits

Museum of Natural History
Jim Yoder, museum curator and associate professor of biology at EMU, involves a visiting class of students in a nature exhibit.

Many remarkable fossil and minerals specimens from the late biology professor D. Ralph Hostetter’s collection had been in storage because of lack of space in the museum. These specimens, along with other newly acquired large mammals like a black bear, American bison and Rocky Mountain goat, have also found new homes in the expanded museum.

The Discovery Room, which opened in September, also features centers for children to actually touch and experience rocks and minerals, marine creatures, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.

Workshops are offered that meet specific requirements for Standards of Learning (SOL’s) in Virginia and West Virginia. They include Getting to Know Rocks and Minerals, Amazing Animal Adaptations, Discovering Owls and Exploring the World Around You. There are also stations that allow kids to handle fossils and bird study skins, make animal track prints and hold live starfish and sea urchins.

“We hope to add more workshop possibilities in the future, like a focus on the Chesapeake Bay, for example,” Dr. Yoder said. “The Discovery Room helps reinforce what is being taught in the classroom. It also provides a fun way to learn and get students excited about science,” he added.

EMU Students Practice Teaching

Not only does the Discovery Room benefit student groups, but it also gives EMU biology and education major students an opportunity to practice their teaching skills, set up lessons and apply what they are learning in classes.

Ethan Zook, a junior biology and education major who works in the Discovery Room, said that “seeing the kids get excited about what they learning, and about science” is his favorite part of working in the Discovery Room. Zook hopes “more education classes and faculty will be able to get involved.”

The Discovery Room and the D. Ralph Hostetter Museum of Natural History are open to the public to visit 2-4 p.m. Sundays when EMU is in session.

School groups (maximum of 75 students), church groups, community organizations or clubs wanting to visit should call Cheryl Doss at 540-432-4400 or e-mail: dossc@emu.edu.

Aubrey Bauman is a senior digital media major at EMU from Mechanicsburg, Pa.