The University Record, January 31, 2000

Museum staff share tips for offering hands-on experiences for children

By Theresa Maddix

Two and a half-year-old Kara Compton solves a wood puzzle in the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum’s new Preschool Gallery. Conference participants looked to gain what Annemarie Palincsar, professor of education, called ‘an appreciation and understanding of what it means to engage in object-oriented inquiry.’
This past summer, Scott Paris, professor of psychology and of education, and Cynthia Yao, director of the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, put their heads together to write a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a conference on “Children’s Object-Centered Learning.” On Jan. 21–22, participants from around the University and from museums around the nation gathered in East Hall and in the Hands-On Museum’s new facilities to share their own experiences on the topic.

Conference participant Jack Hagan, director of the Center for Human Growth and Development, established a collaboration with the Hands-On Museum when it was just opening its doors during the U.N. International Year of the Child in 1979.

Hagan oversaw the contribution of $30,000 to the Hands-On Museum to help build its first exhibits.

“What’s unusual about this conference,” Hagan said, “is that it’s bringing university-based and museum-based people together to plan. The two different professional communities are beginning to work together in some new and different ways.

“It impresses me that the people here [at the conference] are interested in children’s learning across the lifespan, from preschoolers to adolescents.

“In 1979 people were just beginning to think it would be great to create hands-on experiences.”

The conference attracted more than 50 participants, representing a range of disciplines and organizations.

When asked about the participation of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, David Michener, assistant curator, said, “Our key phrase is people, plants and culture. We’re trying to tie this to different kinds of community education.” The Gardens is continually “offering special interactive programs for individuals and families,” he noted. “Out of Africa,” a program coming to the Gardens in February, is a prime example, Michener said. This year’s celebration will focus on the theme of quilt-making.

Lauren Talalay, associate curator of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and adjunct associate professor of classical studies, shared ways the Kelsey is focusing on object-centered learning by describing kits her museum sends out to schools. The Kelsey has 15 kits with reproductions of archaeological artifacts and activities designed to prepare students for a visit to the Museum. One activity involves turning eviserated Barbie dolls into mummies. The Museum also is beginning a program for children in Mott Hospital who can’t visit the Museum. They are learning about archeology through learning how to write their names in hieroglyphics.

Ruth Slavin, curator for education at the Museum of Art, shared a different perspective. “It’s interesting to think of what we have in common [as a museum],” she said, “and what’s different. We’re working to preserve a cultural heritage. Art objects are made objects. Some person made a series of choices in the act of creation. Art museums excel in presenting values and social issues, representations of people and of images. They are very rich in terms of value development of young people.”

Slavin described a burial figure that was buried in a tomb in preparation for another life. “You can actually see the fingerprints of the person who worked in the clay.” For Slavin, art museums can offer another dimension to object-oriented learning. She quoted the Hands-On Museum mission of “turning minds on” as appropriate for the Museum of Art.

Annemarie Palincsar, associate dean and professor of education, began Saturday’s session with a mini-presentation she usually does with children. “This morning,” she told conference participants, “we’re going to explore a new book together.” The end of the conference found participants wanting to share more with each other. Plans are in the works for the conference’s rich conversations to be turned into co-written articles by university and museum educators.