Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.

 

Keep Your Family Treasures Safe!

Maybe you have your grandmother’s wedding dress, your great-great grandfather’s pocket watch or a scrapbook of old family photographs. We all have family treasures, heirlooms and other objects we want to preserve for our children and grandchildren, but how do we do that?

Well, for the ethnology collection, we take several factors into account. Regardless of where they came from or how old they are, many objects are made from materials that are highly susceptible to deterioration from light, relative humidity, temperature, air pollution, microorganisms (like mold), insects and rodents. Our goal is to provide a stable and protective environment for these objects that will safeguard them from harmful forces.

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Quilt made by Julia Alexander in 1850

For example, this beautiful quilt was handmade by a Kentucky woman named Julia Alexander in 1850. Over 150 years, this quilt has not only seen a lot of history, but it has also experienced some damage. It has stains, tears and is fraying along a couple of edges. While we can’t turn back time and prevent this damage from occurring, we can help prevent it from getting any worse.

We have cushioned the quilt with acid-free tissue paper, and instead of folding it and putting it in a box, we have rolled it onto a long acid-free cardboard tube. Rolling large textiles like this quilt prevents creases from occurring and also prevents tears from getting any worse. We then sewed a cover for the quilt out of basic unbleached and un-dyed muslin fabric, which prevents dust and light from getting at the object. After carefully tying on the cover, we have stored the rolled-up quilt on a storage rack on the wall in a cool dry room.

Keeping the quilt off the floor prevents anyone from accidentally stepping on or tripping over the object but also helps keep damaging bugs away from the historic quilt. Keeping the storage room cool and dry prevents mold from growing and prevents any damage from heat (such as dye transfer). This quilt is only one of the thousands of incredible and fascinating objects the ethnology collection is responsible for preserving. For more information on preserving your family treasures, check out this Connecting to Collections Online Resource.   

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 Rolled textiles stored in the ethnology collection

A Few Fast Facts for Preserving Objects:

  1. Provide a protective enclosure. This can be a box, a well-sealed bag, a cover, a drawer, a cabinet or a combination of these.
  2. Keep objects off the ground. The closer objects are to the ground, the easier it is for bugs and rodents to destroy your objects. These critters can do a lot of damage, and they particularly like to eat and nest in organic objects such as clothing, papers and plant-based materials.
  3. Clean hands or wear gloves when handling objects. The oils and dirt particles on your hands can come off onto your objects if you aren’t careful, and they can cause damage to the surface of your objects. Simply washing and drying your hands before handling your objects can prevent this. Or, if your objects are very fragile, you might consider wearing cotton, latex (if you aren’t allergic to latex), or nitrile gloves when handling.

But wait, there’s more! Learn about other ways to preserve your family treasures at our upcoming adult workshop “Preserving Family Treasures” on November 1 from 10 a.m. to noon. Registration is required, and participants will not be able to register on-site for this program. To enroll, click here or call (405) 325-1008. Don’t let your family heirlooms suffer—sign up today!

RARE: Firing back against extinction!

Although many of the most popular endangered species roam the arctic poles or scour the savannah, vulnerable species can be found in the most ordinary places—even your own backyard. Meet the black-capped vireo, an endangered songbird that once whistled around Norman, Oklahoma. But don’t worry! Unlike so many conservation stories, the inspirational tale of the black-capped vireo will leave a smile on your face.

A black-capped vireo in the wild 

Here’s the situation. In the 1980s, this species suffered a major population decline due to habitat modification. Black-capped vireos rely on dry scrubland habitats, which often are maintained by fires. When these fires are suppressed, scrublands grow into extensive wooded areas and are no longer suitable to the black-capped vireo. Other threats include agricultural development and a parasitic enemy—the brown-headed cowbird.

A brown-headed cowbird

The female brown-headed cowbird notoriously lays her eggs in the nest of other birds, abandoning her young to foster parents. This comes at the expense of the host’s own chicks since the cowbirds hatch much earlier. At their peak, roughly 80 percent of black-capped vireo nests in Oklahoma and central Texas contained these parasitic eggs, radically limiting their reproductive success.

A black-capped vireo nest with vireo eggs (white) and a cowbird egg (brown)

 What’s a poor bird to do? In 1991, affiliated research associate Joe Grzybowski developed a black-capped vireo recovery plan for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. With strategies for prescribed burns by land managers, plus new cowbird-trapping techniques, the black-capped vireo population has grown from 50-70 pairs to 4,200 pairs in the Wichita Mountains. Bravo!

 

Joe Grzybowski doing a bit of field research

Despite this inspirational success, Grzybowski’s work is not done. He is currently serving as a co-principal investigator with colleagues from Texas A&M University on a grant from the Joint Fire Science Program of the Bureau of Land Management. Through this grant, scientists hope to develop models of habitat changes created by fires to maximize the effectiveness of fire management strategies. If these strategies are fruitful, it will mean greater reproductive success for the black-capped vireo and other similarly endangered bird species.

See this Norman native for yourself in RARE: Portrait’s of America’s Endangered Species, running through Jan.19. This exhibit features both famous and lesser-known endangered species of North America, including the black-capped vireo. Supplemented with museum specimens from five collections, this exhibit offers you a glimpse of this world’s rarest residents—both near and far.

Black-capped Vireo, Vireo atricapilla

Photographed at Fort Hood, Texas

c. Joel Sartore, RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species

RARE: California or Bust!

Sun, sand, and surf—what’s not to love? Southern California is an attractive place to live for many, including Dipodomys ingens. Commonly known as the giant kangaroo rat, this rodent species lives in complexes consisting of five to 50 burrows. But in the wake of urban and agricultural development, these high-speed hoppers have been forced to fight for a spot on the western coast.

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Dipodomys ingens, Giant kangaroo rat

“More widespread species do fine with humans because they have other places to go when parts of their ranges are taken over by human development,” explained Brandi Coyner, mammalogy associate curator. “This species doesn’t have anywhere else to go. 

Despite being popularized by the 1953 Disney film The Living Desert, the giant kangaroo rat was run out of town decades ago. The state of California and the federal government declared this species endangered in the 1980s, and today the giant kangaroo rat is restricted to just 2 percent of its original habitat range. That is roughly half the size of the city of Norman. This loss of habitat pushed these rodents towards the cliff of extinction.

The Living Desert, 1953

“The black hole of extinction is darker than death,” said museum director Michael Mares. “Death is the end of an individual, but their species may contain billions of other similar individuals. Extinction is the loss of all individuals of that species that ever lived. Their like will literally never be seen again, and their genetics that trace to the dawn of life itself are lost forever.”

But there is hope. Though small, these 62 miles are federally protected—and it’s made all the difference. According to Coyner, individuals who move outside of this land are unlikely to survive or add to population growth, so the best way to help the giant kangaroo rat is to continue protecting this stretch of land.

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Giant kangaroo rats inhabit a small area in western California

“Without those federal protections that are in place now, this species would have already gone extinct,” Coyner said. “This type of intervention is critical in keeping some species alive.”

As Coyner said, government regulation halted this species on its slippery path to extinction. Although it is unlikely that the giant kangaroo rat will ever see dramatic population growth in the future, stabilization is a very real possibility. The story of the giant kangaroo rat proves that some changes are certainly for the better.

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Giant kangaroo rat from our mammalogy collection

 To get an up-close view of the giant kangaroo rat, be sure to check out RARE: Portrait’s of America’s Endangered Species. This National Geographic exhibit features over sixty endangered and extinct species, including the giant kangaroo rat. This exhibit will be at the museum until Jan. 19, 2015. Until we see you, check out the BBC special Life of Mammals for more information about these golden sandbathers.

RARE: What the hellbender is a hellbender?

First things first. What on earth is a hellbender? Often called “snot otters” or “old lasagna sides”, the hellbender is a large salamander that can grow up to two and half feet long. Rivers throughout Missouri, Arkansas and much of the southeastern U.S. once supported up to 8,000 wild hellbenders, but today fewer than 600 exist because of habitat modification.

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“Most aquatic salamanders have gills, but these don’t,” herpetology collection manager Jessa Watters explained. “They have flaps running down the side of their bodies to take in more oxygen directly through their skin. If there is silting or pollution in the water, the hellbenders have more of their body to clog than other aquatic species.” 

Because of this unique anatomy, hellbenders require fast-flowing, unpolluted rivers. The silting Watters described can be a consequence of damming, which can stir up loose particles in the water and reduce water flow. Silting and other pollutants have caused a rapid decline in the hellbender population. In fact, current populations are only 30 percent of what they were in 1990.

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Siltation of a waterway

“We are now seeing species once reported to be healthy but with small recognized ranges becoming exceedingly threatened and rarely encountered in the wild,” said Cameron Siler, herpetology curator. “Recognizing these population trends early and acting immediately to identify critical habitat for protection is necessary for the survival of rare species on our planet.”

According to Watters, the most important thing is stabilizing the hellbender population by preventing further decline and fostering conservation research and initiatives. As an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) near-threatened species, the hellbender is protected at a federal level. However, populations will continue to decline unless governmental action also protects undammed rivers. In the meantime, zoos are stepping in to help save the hellbender.

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Hellbenders developing in eggs, photo via Saint Louis Zoo

In November of 2011, the Saint Louis Zoo celebrated the world’s first captive breeding of hellbenders. The decade-long effort yielded 63 hellbenders. Since then, the Saint Louis Zoo has successfully bred an additional three populations, introducing over 214 new hellbenders to the world. The Saint Louis Zoo’s breeding success is an example of effective and applied research. 

“The more we know about every endangered species, the more we understand what conservation methods work best,” Watters said. “The more examples of endangered species that we have, the more we can better protect them in the future.”

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A hellbender from our herpetology collection

 Want a closer look? The museum’s hellbender specimen will be on display beginning Sept. 13 as part of our newest exhibit, RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species. For more information, check out some documentaries like the one below about this curious creature.

RARE: The end of the monarch reign?

When you think of endangered animals, what are the first species that come to mind? You likely imagine mighty rhinos, herds of elephants or maybe a bale of sea turtles. Often when we consider conservation, we picture exotic fauna located thousands of miles away. But what about those threatened species living in our own backyards? 

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A monarch butterfly from the Sam Noble Museum entomology collection 

The monarch butterfly is a native species in Oklahoma and surrounding states. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it is also a near threatened species–but private collecting, museums and science field trips are not to blame. The biggest influence on the decline of monarchs is the loss of milkweed– a plant that monarch caterpillars feed upon as they grow. This is due to significant land development. Without milkweed, monarchs cannot complete their life cycle as they morph from a caterpillar into a butterfly.

Every winter, monarch butterflies migrate hundreds of miles. This migration, known as overwintering, is one of nature’s most intriguing phenomena. Monarchs use a magnetic understanding of Earth’s poles to guide them south to escape the cold northern winter. Millions of monarchs migrate from the northern U.S. plains and Canada to a few locations in either Mexico or California, and these butterflies return to the same sites each year. It takes several generations to complete a single migration, and in 1997, it was estimated that 1,200,000 butterflies landed per migration site!  

“They have a very strong geographic preference, and it’s not exactly known why,” explained Andy Boring, recent invertebrates collection manager. “During the overwintering period, you may have hundreds on one tree and none on a tree twenty feet away.”

In 1997, those million-plus monarchs settled at multiple locations covering nearly a mile each. Now a mere 200,000 monarchs are overwintering on less than 1/100 of a square mile per site. That’s barely larger than six neighborhood homes. Over the past two decades, the monarch population has experienced a 90 percent drop from roughly one billion individuals to just 33 million.

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Graph via www.xerces.com

Scientists like Boring track and monitor the populations of monarchs and other invertebrates, studying characteristics, habitats and breeding habits. In turn, they use this information to develop local and global conservation strategies. Occasionally, they even offer counsel on land management decisions that could impact threatened species.

 “I think this sort of action-driven research should become more common,” Boring said. “I think that it’s a local service that most people overlook.”

 But there is something you can do, too. By planting milkweed and other nectar-producing plants in your home garden, you can help foster a successful monarch migration. Milkweed typically blooms in Oklahoma during the month of May, as butterflies migrate through the sooner state throughout spring and summer. Milkweed seeds are inexpensive and can be purchased online or seasonally at your local gardening store.

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Butterfly gardens like the one at the museum help foster monarch migration

“If enough people planted milkweed in their gardens, it could make a substantial difference,” Boring said. “The key is to help this species complete their life cycle.”

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A full-grown monarch. Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Mares

 To help foster a monarch-friendly habitat, you can also refrain from using herbicides that may damage milkweed and other plants. You may also help track populations as a citizen scientist or support existing conservation efforts. To learn more about local conservation, be sure to visit our newest exhibit RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species–opening Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014.

Racing to End Stereotypes

If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Big Bang Theory, then you know that scientists aren’t usually known for their athleticism. Brains? Yes. Brawn? Not so much. But at the Sam Noble Museum, we’re all about busting stereotypes. Take Katrina Menard, for example. 

Menard is the invertebrate curator (a.k.a. bug chick) at the museum. She is also a competitive athlete and finalist in this year’s World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton, Canada. On Monday, Menard will face off against cyclists, swimmers and racers from across the globe for a two-hour demonstration of human strength. 

The ITU bike route 

So, what does an Olympic-distance triathlon look like? A 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run. All in all, that’s about two hours of non-stop adrenaline. To prepare, Menard spent anywhere from 7 to 11 hours in training per week during the winter. How does she find the time? 

“For ExplorOlogy, I had to take my bike with me to Black Mesa,” Menard answered. “I always have to take my running shoes to the field! I work for a place that is really constructive about my races, and that’s wonderful.”

 

Menard has trained in the field in countries like Africa and Australia

 Menard joined the triathlon scene three years ago after picking up cycling around Norman. Despite running track in college, Menard didn’t run her first triathlon until 2011. After her first race, the Red Man Spring Triathlon, she was hooked.

Menard means business on the track

But the transition from athlete to scientist hasn’t always been so smooth. In high school, Menard struggled with bridging the gap between jock and science-lover. Thanks to her supporting parents, Menard realized that having two passions was a blessing—not a curse.

 “You can be athletic and scientific,” Menard explained. “You can be successful at both, and it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a girl.” 

The women’s triathlon sport is gaining ground in Norman as the University of Oklahoma works to establish a team. Menard hopes to get even more involved in racing in the future as more women enter the sport. But for Menard, it’s not about soaking in the spotlight or becoming an inspiration. It’s for the love of the sport.

 

Menard and her fellow triathletes 

“You should race because you’re passionate about it,” Menard said. “I never did it to inspire other people. I did it because I cared, because I enjoyed the sport.”

 For updates about Menard’s upcoming race, keep an eye on the ITU website. Good luck, Katrina!

“It’s the closest thing possible to time travel.”

If you’re friends with us on Facebook or Twitter, you’re probably used to seeing unending streams of adorable children digging for fossils in the Discovery Room. But why should they have all the fun? Every year, the museum offers an adult-only fossil field trip for Paleozoic buffs, fossil collectors, paleontology enthusiasts and everyone in between. Cool, right? You can thank our sponsors—Arvest Bank, Republic Bank & Trust and Fowler Honda.

  

Here’s the 411: Your two-day journey begins at the Sam Noble Museum Friday, Sept. 19. Our invertebrate paleontology curator, Steve Westrop, will lead participants into Oklahoma’s Paleozoic past with a look at some of Oklahoma’s finest fossilized specimens. Then, on Saturday, we hit the field.

 

On Friday, see some of the museum’s finest specimens like this pentremites

“On this trip we’ll go back to the Devonian Period, about 400 million years ago, when Oklahoma was covered by a shallow sea,” Westrop explained. “We’ll collect the shells of extinct animals that lived on a muddy sea bottom.”

Even though this event is adults-only, finder’s keepers trumps all. Whatever you find on the dig, you get to take home. Talk about a conversation piece! How often do you get the chance to hold millions of years between your fingers?

A specimen collected on a previous Fossil Field Trip

“It’s the closest thing possible to time travel,” Westrop said. “We can’t actually go to the past but if you know where to look, evidence of the past is all around us.”

 So, what should you bring for the big trip? Comfortable shoes, casual clothes, a sack lunch, snacks, plenty of water and—of course—your sense of adventure. We will leave the museum at 9 a.m. and return around 4 p.m., so brace yourself for a day of nonstop discovery.

 

Past participants dig up prehistoric sea life

According to Westrop, participants will leave the trip with several interesting fossils and an appreciation of how life and environments change over time. But wait, there’s more! Don’t forget the wealth of memories and insanely cool story you’ll have to share over your new conversational piece. Are you ready for a little time travel? Enroll today!

The Art of Philanthropy

If you’ve been around our staff for even a minute, then you know we’ve got talent! Olympic-level racers, canine rescue trainers, singers and musicians, romance novelists…we’ve got it all! Impressive? Absolutely. But what’s even more impressive is how these individuals use their gifts to better local, state and even global communities. Take Coral, for example.

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Coral McCallister

McCallister began working as a custodian at the museum in March of 2014. As lifelong artist, her eyes are always open for inspiration. Before long she found Bom Bom, a live-mounted Western lowland gorilla acquired from the Oklahoma City Zoo.

 “I saw Bom Bom many times in various enclosures at the zoo, and like most of us, I was in awe of him and the wildness he represented to me,” McCallister recalled.

 She began sketching after her shifts while mammalogy collections manager Brandi Coyner gathered donations for one of the Oklahoma City Zoo’s annual philanthropic events. As soon as Brandi saw Coral’s work, she saw a perfect fit.

 “Teresa Randall is a friend of mine and asked if the museum could donate a family membership to one of their philanthropic events,” Coyner said. “When I saw Coral’s sketch, I called her back immediately and told her I had something even better.”

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McCallister’s portrait of Bom Bom

 McCallister’s 19-inch by 24-inch pastel creation took nearly 15 hours to complete. Still, she had no reservations about donating her work to Zoobilation, a ZooFriends annual gala and fundraiser for the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital. 

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Conceptualized Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital, OKC Zoo 

Coral made sure that her portrait really captured the essence of Bom Bom, down to the reddish tuft of hair on his head. Perhaps no one appreciates these fine details more than current owner, OKC Zoo head veterinarian Jennifer D’Agostino. D’Agostino was determined to win the piece at the Zoobilation silent auction. 

“There were several other people bidding on it but none that knew Bom Bom,” D’Agostino said. “Once, at the end of a medical procedure, he crashed and almost died. I did CPR on him, and he didn’t wake up for about 13 hours. I stayed with him trying to keep him alive. Because of that, I really had a strong connection with him.” 

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Bom Bom—OKC Zoo, Photo by Gillian Lang 

D’Agostino plans to hang the picture inside her new office at the hospital, as a reminder of Bom Bom’s role as a conservation ambassador for others of this critically endangered species in the wild. 

“We’re here to get people to see and care about these animals,” D’Agostino said. “Conservation is a global effort, but everything we do has an impact on conservation. We can all make a difference, even in Oklahoma.”

Of course, Coral is as humble as can be about all of her philanthropic efforts, including those with the Norman Chocolate Festival and Nature Conservancy. For her, art is a connection—both human and animalistic. In this way, McCallister hopes to continue using her art to engage with others.

 “I like feeling tied into everyone else,” McCallister said. “Art has gotten me through some of the hardest times of my life, and it makes life worthwhile. Giving back creates a kind of oneness, and it’s really a beautiful thing.”

Forensic Files Series Leads OU Student to Museum

“It all started with a Forensic Files episode. They used diatoms to link the assailants and the crime scene, and I just thought they were so beautiful. I love how something so small can have such large applications.”

 Shelly Wu’s fascination with diatoms began her sophomore year at Loyola University New Orleans. As a biology major, Wu knew she wanted to pursue a life of science, though lacked a specific focus. One evening at home, Wu stumbled upon the NBC series that would lead her to specialize in diatoms.

Video, Diatoms in Action

Diatoms are a major group of algae that appear in nearly every major body of water. Though small in size, these microorganisms have big applications – like forensics, water quality, even filtering beer. Diatoms often attach to turtle shells and establish themselves as part of a microhabitat, which is of particular interest to scientists.

 Currently, only two papers have been published on turtle shell diatoms – both on Amazonian species. But Wu hopes to change that. Thanks to a prestigious summer internship funded by the National Science Foundation, Wu was awarded $4,000 to research diatoms on Oklahoma turtle shells beneath Sam Noble Museum herpetology curator Cameron Siler. 

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Wu in the field

 “During such a difficult time to educate younger generations of researchers about the importance and incredibly broad utility of these collections, it is always exciting to see students develop novel approaches to working in natural history museums,” said Siler.

 Through her research, which began in March, Wu hopes to answer three major questions. Do different turtle species support different species of diatoms? Are diatom species on a turtle host selective for particular microhabitats on the turtle’s shell? How do diatom communities on the common snapping turtle and red-eared slider vary across different regions of the US? To answer these questions, Wu is sampling, analyzing and comparing the microhabitats of five Oklahoma turtle species. 

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Wu studies Oklahoma’s common snapping turtle

 “I sample six specific areas of the shell using a brush and circular plastic tube,” Wu explained. “I place the tube over the area, circle the brush 10 times and move to the next spot. Then I use a light microscope to examine the sample.”

In order to access the needed research material, Wu works closely with Liz Bergey from the Oklahoma Biological Survey and museum herpetology collection manager Jessa Watters. As a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, Wu’s work will also help to develop her master’s thesis on the possible relationship between diatoms, algae dispersion and turtle migration.

“Down the road it would be nice to know which diatoms are on live turtles,” said Wu. “It could help us better understand the relationship between algae dispersion and turtle migration.”

Education 101

You’ve got a lot of choices when it comes to your child’s education – especially in the summer. It’s important for parents to do their homework before enrolling in educational programming, so grab your pencil! Class is now in session.

 Lesson 1 – Not all Education is Equal

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Unlike many educational programs outside of school, our curriculum is developed by trained educators to complement the statewide plan. Additionally, our educators strive to go above and beyond the Oklahoma Science Standards, providing additional science education to students who may lack opportunities and resources.

 “We provide out of school opportunities for students to engage in science and explore the world that they can’t access in their schools,” said Jes Cole, head of education. “We are really fortunate to be a complement and to help supplement Oklahoma schools for science education.”

 By teaching Oklahoma children the joy of experiential learning, the museum has molded statewide science education. In the past year, 1,245 participants enrolled in our public education programming, and the museum has impacted 219,380 students through field trips in the past decade.

Lesson 2 – You Don’t Need a Classroom

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Nothing is more terrifying to a teacher than watching his or her students discard precious information over summer vacation. But there is something you as a parent can do, and it starts with Summer Explorers.

Summer Explorers is the Sam Noble Museum’s summer educational programming for students ages 4-14. We offer a wide variety of courses throughout the summer - covering everything from baby to animals to pond scum, world cultures to paleontology. It’s a chance to see the world behind the safety of gallery walls.

“There aren’t many summer camps that have the same security that watches over priceless artifacts in the same area as my priceless kiddo,” said Amy Davenport, parent of a former Summer Explorer. “Whenever we drop Zoey off to class, we know she is in great hands.”

Lesson 3 – Learning is for Life

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If you’ve ever heard the term lifelong learner, then you know that curiosity is not outgrown. Adults love digging in the sand for buried fossils just as much as their children, especially when playing for keeps.  That’s why the museum offers family and adult-only public programs.

 “Everyone is a lifelong learner, and everyone’s always wanting to learn more,” said Cole. “We try to offer what other educational institutions cannot, and that’s how we design our adult programming.”

In addition to inspiring new interests, adult education also strives to answer everyday dilemmas with specialized scientific knowledge. From preserving family heirlooms to mastering macrophotography, these programs foster learning for life.

 Exam Review

 Summer brings ample opportunity to enroll your child in educational programming - but will you make the correct choice? Every right answer begins in a book, so study up using our education website! Come see what science education is all about, and discover our school of thought.