Portage’s Air Zoo invites people of all ages to marvel at its collection of remarkable flying machines.
But Director Troy Thrash says the museum also has a responsibility to teach the children who visit about math and science.
That’s why the Air Zoo is adding new field trips – and creating exhibits that teach scientific concepts. The museum also plans to celebrate its commitment to education at an awards ceremony this evening. Recipients will include local teachers, students and innovators.
Thrash says when it comes to the STEAM disciplines – science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics – the Air Zoo has something for all students, prekindergarten through high school.
But they’re most focused on the “critical” task of connecting with elementary students.
“It’s actually in third grade that kids turn onto or turn off of science and math,” Thrash says.
“That’s when they realize ‘hey, I can do it, it’s something I love,’ or the other way around, maybe this is too hard. And if they turn off at that point it’s really difficult to get them back into it.”
Thrash says kids who see those disciplines as more than just “two-dimensional” lessons in a textbook are more likely to stay interested. And to reach their imaginations, he says, you have to get them to use their hands.
“We want the kids to come here to the Air Zoo and come into one of our science labs and do real science, whether it’s making slime through chemistry or understanding the physics of roller coasters by actually manipulating a roller coaster and understanding potential and kinetic energy,” he says.
He adds that outside the lab, it’s important to encourage kids to never stop asking “why,” even if their endless inquisitiveness can sometimes exasperate adults.
“That’s where creativity comes from: the idea of being able to ask why a certain condition is the way it is,” he says.
“All of these airplanes came out of somebody asking ‘why.’ ‘Why can’t we fly higher? Why can’t we fly faster?’ And then coming up with the solution as to how to make that happen.”
Hands-on learning doesn’t replace formulas and problem sheets, Thrash says. It helps kids see why they should care about them, even when they're hard to master.