4 Vermont museums, including the Montshire and VINS, team up to offer lessons for kids

  • A baby cardinal is rehabilitating at Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vt., after it was attacked by a cat. (Vermont Institute of Natural Science photograph) Vermont Institute of Natural Science

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/2/2020 9:49:05 PM
Modified: 5/2/2020 9:49:03 PM

NORWICH — Springtime is usually a busy time for four Vermont science museums with school field trips, family visitors and preparations for summer programs.

But this year due to the pandemic, the museums — the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich; the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee; ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington; and Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury — have closed the doors of their physical locations to visitors.

Exactly when and how they will be able to reopen remains uncertain. When they do, social distancing will be required, and schools may be hesitant to send students on field trips.

“It just will not be the same,” said Marcos Stafne, executive director of the Montshire.

To support teachers and families as they navigate learning remotely, the museums last week announced a new collaboration, FourScienceVermont, through which they’re offering their digital content to families and teachers for free on one website. It’s aimed at addressing a disparity in access to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in Vermont communities during the pandemic and beyond.

“The great thing about this is that each organization has its own type of content,” said VINS Executive Director Charlie Rattigan. “I think from a parent/teacher’s perspective, it gives them a great range of resources in this really difficult time.”

The site, foursciencevt.org, provides links to the museums’ online offerings such as writing prompts, scavenger hunts, videos and activities that can be completed using materials families are likely to have at home. The activities are geared for a range of ages and focus on various science-related topics.

Dr. Christina DiNicola, of Randolph, got an email from VINS announcing the project late last week and was looking forward to doing some of the activities with her daughters, 7-year-old Bella and 4-year-old Sophia. While the work provided by the Randolph Elementary School has been good, DiNicola said, it’s been a bit “light on the science.”

“Suddenly I get this email,” she said. “This is great.”

DiNicola, whose daughters and husband were out collecting materials for a fairy condo as she spoke by phone on Saturday, said the range of activities will allow the family to pick and choose lessons based on the weather, the children’s ages and their interests.

The Montshire has developed weekly themes such as eggs, seeds, and bubbles and soap. There are videos, recipes and experiments, as well as downloadable guides for teachers.

The VINS activities focus primarily on environmental education, with many of the activities encouraging kids to get outside and explore. A color scavenger hunt geared to preschoolers asks them to find natural objects of different hues in the outdoors. A video for middle school and high school students offers a tour of the night sky and the link includes a downloadable worksheet inviting students to create their own constellations.

The Fairbanks Museum’s options include a wildflower gallery and a Saturday story time, as well as online classes on topics such as forests and meteorology. ECHO’s offerings include engineering design challenges, coloring sheets and live feeds of the animals that live there.

Like many businesses and organizations around the country, the museums are feeling the pinch of the pandemic. They’ve lost revenue from visitors. The Montshire’s big annual fundraiser that was scheduled for Friday had to be canceled. The Montshire and VINS have so far been able to plug some holes in their budgets and keep staff employed using loans through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. The Montshire has created a resilience and recovery fund to support the museum.

But “how we operate out into the future (is) all yet to be determined,” Stafne said.

For now, staff members are largely working from home on efforts such as online programs, but some do go in to the museum to tend to the fish, turtles, bees and ants. The buildings themselves also need upkeep, Stafne said.

The Montshire also is hosting virtual community meetings. On Thursday, it is scheduled to co-host a Health Research Live Zoom session in conjunction with Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Norris Cotton Cancer Center on research in the Upper Valley related to COVID-19, and the museum is working with the Hanover Garden Club to host a club meeting.

The Montshire is “normally a hub for the community,” Stafne said. “We want to make sure that we continue to be so.”

For their part, VINS staff members are ramping up their digital efforts and continuing to rehabilitate wild birds. The first songbird of the season, a baby cardinal who was attacked by a cat, arrived on Wednesday. As more songbirds arrive, VINS will have to determine how to manage the volunteers who usually help out, Rattigan said.

By the end of June, VINS hopes to be able to reopen to visitors in some way, Rattigan said.

“We’re all anxious to get back in business,” he said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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