Cranbrook-Flint partnership makes science fun, educational

Like most of his friends in seventh grade at Flint’s Northwestern High School, Marquon Beards, 12, had never stepped inside a science museum and didn’t know what to expect.

But on his class’s first field trip to the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., soon after the start of school last fall, he was impressed. He loved it all — the lab experiment that simulated lightning, the biology lesson with turtle specimens, the African artifacts that he could touch.

“It’s exciting to see new things,” said Beards, who believes that when learning is made fun, it makes learning new things easier.

Beards is one of almost 800 seventh- and eighth-graders in the Flint Community Schools who will benefit from a Cranbrook-Flint partnership during the 2012–13 school year designed to help advance their science education. The partnership is funded with a one-year, $200,000 grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

“All of our programs were developed and aligned directly with the benchmarks for K–12 education for Michigan,” said Michael Stafford, the institute director. “So when the kids are here they’re getting an experience in the museum learning content they would need to master anyway, only they’re able to do it in an environment that is wonderfully aligned toward their success.”

Stafford said the partnership — modeled on Cranbrook initiatives with the Detroit and Pontiac school systems — is structured to encompass direct work with the students, their teachers and their families.

The students work hands-on with objects and artifacts at Cranbrook, which holds one of the nation’s top private natural history collections. Teachers receive professional development to hone skills that help with a seamless curriculum transition back to their classrooms and to pinpoint subject content in which students need the most help. Students and their families also have opportunities to attend free family days at Cranbrook during the year.

When Cranbrook first broached the partnership idea to then-Superintendent Linda Thompson a year ago, she saw immediately what a “tremendous opportunity” it presented for Flint students to get a taste of a world-class education and to expand their horizons.

“It’s difficult to get kids to want to dream or to think about or envision what they might want to do if they don’t have anything to attach that to,” said Thompson, who retired in January 2013. “For me, the (Cranbrook) experience is valuable in that alone.”

Like many urban schools plagued by budget constraints and falling enrollments, Flint has seen many of its students struggle academically. Nearly one in four of the city’s eighth-graders failed to meet basic competency levels in science on a recent statewide assessment test, while about one in three didn’t meet basic competency in math.

“This whole experience is making sure that there are some skill sets that they’re gaining while they’re having fun,” Thompson said.

While the partnership would be challenged to boost assessment scores quickly, those leading the initiative are hopeful that the enthusiasm of participating students and their families will translate into positive long-term effects.

“Can we say that we provide an experience that supports classroom curriculum? Absolutely,” said Nancy Swords, the head of visitor experience at the science institute. “There is an education gap that we’re trying to close for Flint students — and that’s the disparity in experiences that are afforded to all students.”

The two field trips each of the students will take to Cranbrook this school year will offer opportunities to help plug that education gap.

“Along with rich program content,” Swords said, “these kids are going behind the vaulted doors and getting the experience of seeing and touching and handling a world collection.”

Shamarion Grace, Flint’s director of curriculum and instruction, said the instructional content for the students focuses mostly on science and social studies with some literacy and math woven in as well.

Grace, who attended Flint’s first family fun day at Cranbrook in November, marveled at the excitement she saw parents and grandparents share with their youngsters as they toured the museum that day.

“Parents were helping to reinforce the learning for the children,” she said.

Marquon’s mother, Tamara Beards, 33, took her son and an 11-year-old nephew to the family fun day, traveling with other Flint families on school buses the 50 miles to the 317-acre Cranbrook campus.

Like her son, Beards had never before visited a science museum. And, like her son, she was impressed.

“When we came home, all I was talking about was that we need to go back there,” she said.

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