An Interview with Tiffany Schultz: The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque

Nov 29, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Tiffany, please first tell us what grade level you teach and the kinds of pupils you have.

I teach, with the help of another teacher, 49 gifted students in grades Kindergarten through 3rd grade in a pullout classroom. These students have been indentified as gifted according to the New Mexico requirements. I teach students who are identified as profoundly gifted, students who are academically gifted as well as students who are creatively gifted. Each grade level is pulled out for a total of 3 hours per week.

We also took the 28 gifted students in 4th and 5th grade and their gifted teacher.

2) You recently did an entire research unit on dinosaurs- why do kids seem to be attracted to dinosaurs? What is it about them?

My students were very interested in learning about dinosaurs because there are so many facets of dinosaur research. We learned how fossils were made, why some regions of the world are not good for fossil hunting, and theories of why dinosaurs became extinct. We had long discussions about why we may never really know what dinosaurs looked like because all we have are their fossils. My students enjoyed learning everything they could about a particular dinosaur.

Dinosaurs are also very interesting because it is a somewhat abstract subject. We will never be able to see a dinosaur in their natural habitat like we would be able to view a giraffe or stingray where they live. Students can use their creative thinking to picture a particular dinosaur, as well as their habitat and enemies.

3) What kind of preparation did you do to get ready for this field trip?

The field trip preparation was a long process. The students were prepared by each choosing a dinosaur to research. We then spent a few weeks researching and learning everything we could about dinosaurs, fossils, and habitats. Each grade level had a different final project to complete using their research. In all grade levels, writing and illustrating a realistic habitat was an important portion of the assignment.

The week before the field trip, students were sent to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science website to explore and find exhibits they wanted to see on our trip. Although we were researching dinosaurs, the museum has many other types of exhibits and the students found several different highlights for their tour.

4) Now, please tell our readers about the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science- how large is it and what are they trying to accomplish there?

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) is a great museum for children as well as adults. We allotted approximately 2 hours for the self-guided tour as suggested by museum staff. However, the students could have spent several more hours exploring, learning and playing with the hands-on exhibits.

The museum was more than large enough to accommodate our group of 90 people. Many groups were able to view an exhibit without being crowded and the exhibits were laid out with plenty of room for exploration.

The NMMNHS is trying to deliver an exciting, hands-on experience for children and adults. Very few things in this museum were “off limits.” In fact, many exhibits had signs that informed students that they could touch objects and many exhibits were interactive. This museum was educational and entertaining for all of our students.

5) In your mind, why are field trips and museum education important for gifted students? And for average pupils?

As a teacher I understand that connecting learning is one of the most important skills we can teach our children. If students cannot connect new information they will likely forget it. This is true for gifted students; however, they are more likely to connect information on their own. Working on dinosaur research and then connecting that research with real life dinosaur fossils and hands on experience will likely lock the information they learned into their minds for a very long time.

Educational field trips are important for all students to understand that there is a large world outside their own small habitat. Many families cannot afford to travel or are unaware of the wonderful educational opportunities available to their children. Many gifted teachers hear that all students would benefit from what they do, and that is probably true in the instance of an educational field trip.

6) What seemed to attract the pupils the most? What were their most vivid memories?

Many of the students were in awe of the massive size of the dinosaurs. It is one thing to write about a dinosaur being thousands of feet tall, it is quite another to see how tall a brachiosaurus’ leg is when you are standing next to it. The exhibits where students could touch, play, and learn were very popular. Many students remember the Naturalist Center where they were allowed to pet or hold a snake, see many local animals in a natural habitat, and use scientific tools to learn.

7) Were there any sections that the pupils seemed to gravitate toward? Any hands on materials or activities?

The dinosaur portions of the museum were fascinating. The students enjoyed being able to touch actual fossils, see life size representations of dinosaurs they were researching, and see recreations of the dinosaur habitats. The dinosaurs represented specimens from different time periods and regions, although many were dinosaurs that would have been found in New Mexico.

The NMMNHS is not just a dinosaur museum. The other exhibits the students seemed to enjoy included the startup exhibit, and the Naturalist Center.

The Startup exhibit showed the beginning of the computer. It offered students perspective about how much money and space original computers used to occupy. Students were then challenged to write their own computer program to drive a virtual car to a pizza parlor and then to a party. Students had to program the car without making it crash or miss the party. Finally, in the Startup exhibit, students could record a video of themselves and watch it come up on a big movie screen. One group of young boys spent much of their time in this exhibit.

The Naturalist Center was a room where very little was off limits. Students were invited to touch, look, and discover many types of animals and their habitats. The museum staff had snakes and other reptiles out for students to handle and learn about. There were microscopes and magnifying devices for students to see specimens and cells up close. This room was occupied the entire time our group was at the museum. Some students spent most of their time in this room.

In addition to the wonderful educational exhibits, the museum has a DynaTheather (3-D IMAX) and a large planetarium. Our group was able to see a 3-D film about tornado alley. The film discussed the science behind storm chasing and how tornadoes form. Our planetarium show was about the search for extraterrestrial life. It offered students perspective on how far away extraterrestrial life would be and how long it would take to find them.

8) What have I neglected to ask?

I have to mention that the staff at the NMMNHS was absolutely amazing. We had about 90 people in our group with parent chaperones and students and the museum had no problem accommodating the large group. Additionally, the reservation process and the check-in procedure were easy and ran smoothly. Staff members were located throughout the museum and were always kind and welcoming to the students.

The museum required our group to be broken into smaller group of 5-6 students, each with one or more chaperones. This worked out perfectly. Our students were rarely lumped together in one single exhibit and each group was able to choose where they wanted to go first. We would not have been able to do this without the help of wonderful parent volunteers.

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