Rafael Rosa, the new director of education at The Notebaert Nature Museum near Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and a Forest Park resident, still remembers when one teacher visited the museum’s famed Judy Istock Butterfly Haven.
She had her hoodie pulled tight and cringed away from the colorful flying critters. Every time one came near her, she ducked.
“There are a lot of people who are afraid of nature,” Rosa says. That teacher, who had to teach her kids about science and nature, is only one example.
But eventually, “even she loosened up,” under the spell of fluttering butterflies and tropical heat, Rosa says.
Showing adults like that science teacher how to appreciate science is a mission for Rosa, who has been at the Notebaert Nature Museum for 14 years but only recently ascended to the top educational position. In his new position, he supervises about a third of the Notebaert’s 75 employees.
The museum helps out more than 200 Chicago elementary teachers each year through a long-standing program called Science on the Go. The Notebaert gives teachers materials and training to teach 15 science lessons-10 taught by the teachers and 5 taught by Notebaert educators.
“If we can reach the teachers, they will reach the students,” Rosa says.
Making it easy for teachers to teach science is important in these times, according to Rosa, since the federal No Child Left Behind mandates and the Illinois State Board of Education are putting increased emphasis on reading and math scores. This makes it harder for teachers to give sufficient planning and classroom time to science. The fact that many elementary teachers did not major in science just adds to the problem.
Besides sending the Science on the Go materials, Rosa and his colleagues encourage teachers to integrate science with reading and math. For example, teachers can have their kids read a book about the natural world during reading or teach kids how to analyze scientific graphs during math time.
Finding nature in Forest Park
Rosa moved to Forest Park in 2000 and has been active in the community since. He lives with his wife and his two sons, Ethan, 10 and Lucas, 7.
“It’s so cheesy [to say], but it has smalltown charm and big city access,” Rosa says. As for recent village politics, “There’s too much going on to fully understand it,” he added.
Rosa’s background endeared him to the science program in his sons’ school, Garfield. He started an annual program called Science Night, with science fair-like projects and demonstrations.
Rosa has worked on many science fairs through Notebaert Museum programs and counts them as important teaching tools. “They can be pretty daunting,” he admits. But the payoff is great: “The thing I really love is to see their faces light up when they learn something. A lot of the things kids may consider magic tricks and never thought before what might be causing it.”
It’s important that kids actually experiment at science fairs, not just demonstrate something from a book, Rosa says. When the museum works with kids preparing for fairs, they encourage them to ask questions about the natural world and find their own answers through experimentation.
Another way kids (and adults) can learn about nature is simply walking around their neighborhood and looking for it. “There are lots of critters out there,” Rosa says. “You’ll be surprised by what you find.”
Rosa and his family have spied creatures ranging from raccoons, squirrels and rabbits to the truly hard-to-find praying mantises and walking sticks. “It’s just being alert to what’s around and really listening,” Rosa says. “No iPods, no cellphones.” He recommends early evening since the air is still and nocturnal creatures have begun to emerge.
“Show them there is nature all around them in the city,” Rosa says. When it comes to the area around Forest Park, nature preserves such as Thatcher Woods, Miller Meadow and anywhere near the Des Plaines River are ideal.
Helping the environment
A tip Rosa gives to both parents and teachers is to accept that no one knows all the answers when it comes to nature. Even he says, “I don’t know” from time to time. It’s a great way to teach kids how to find the answer themselves.
The Notebaert Nature Museum has several exhibits that encourage hands-on learning. For example, there are two big tanks of fish near the water tables. One is full of hardy catfish and minnows-fish that can survive anything, even large amounts of pollution. The other is populated with the more particular fish-the ones that will die if there are things in the water. If a part of a lake or river is full of the catfish and the other hardy fish, scientists can tell that the water quality is going downhill.
Even exhibits like old-fashioned dioramas and stuffed animals have their uses. Many important scientific discoveries are made with these kinds of museum relics, Rosa says. Scientists, for instance, found that the pesticide DDT was harming bird eggshells when they measured the thickness of eggshells in museum collections over time.
“Science is really a way of understanding the world around you,” Rosa says. An understanding of the science behind hot issues such as global warming and stem cell research can help adults make better decisions, too, he adds.
Notebaert sets itself apart from the bigger zoos and aquariums in the area through its emphasis on education, conservation and learning. But it’s also possible to walk through the place without reading a single sign. When it comes to little kids or even some adults, just get them excited about nature and worry about the problems later, he says.
“People want to make an impact,” says Rosa. “They want to know there is something small they can do to make a change. Sometimes it feels like an overwhelming problem. But if every person does something little, that can make a difference.”