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Want an Authentic Learning Experience? Volunteer at the Science Center September 14, 2013

Posted by Sean Musselman in Science Center.

Originally posted on my personal blog: www.musselmanscience.com

So much of what education reformists, administrators, and teachers talk about is the need for students to engage in authentic learning experiences. Knowledge and skills that are developed in prospective career dimensions and assessed in ways beyond straight-forward multiple choice or fill in the blank examinations.

As I enter my third year at the Burlington Science Center I recognize that I am truly blessed to work in an environment that presents those opportunities to anywhere between twenty to thirty high school student volunteers each year. Science Center volunteers, in lieu of their scheduled study halls throughout a given week, help maintain the animal room by partaking in the daily rituals of pet maintenance. No job is too surly. Feed the hamsters. Clean the owl cage. Give the tortoises a bath. Students are introduced and trained to tend to the individual demands of creatures ranging from hissing cockroaches to red-tailed hawks.

An hour after school, Zack and Laura are still helping out around the Science Center.

What impresses me most is how the students simply can not get enough of the time and experience in the Science Center. Even after spending a full-period scrubbing, rinsing, sorting, and feeding, a number of students return to the center after school to continue the work, helping Science Center Director and animal expert, Wendy Pavlicek strike any remaining chores off the to-do list. Why do they do it? A love for animals? A penchant for pungent odors? I believe it is because for some, its the most authentic learning experience they encounter from day to day.

Take Sam Hovasse, a Burlington senior entering her third year volunteering at the Science Center. Besides gearing up for a year full of college applications and rigorous academic courses, Sam was recently hired at a animal hospital in Woburn. For Sam this is a tremendous opportunity. “Its a stepping stone to my goal of being a veterinarian or vet technician.”

This hasn’t always been Sam’s vision. “Before the Science Center I only owned cats and had read about horses” says Sam. “I had no real pet experience except feeding the cats and changing their litter box.” All that changed when she began to volunteer at the Science Center. “Miss Pavlicek started me on ferrets. I loved Demes and Abby. I would change their paper and bedding, clean their litter boxes, refill their food and water, and then play with them… ferrets need four hours of play a day.” For Sam, the ferrets were a gateway to other animals, particularly mammals. “I don’t mind snakes and reptiles, but I really love mammals.”

Sam Hovasse and “Bubbles,” one of the Science Center’s many mammals.

When Demes health took a turn for the worse, Sam stepped up and provided the additional care needed. “I took care of Demes when he contracted cancer. I would monitor his health, feed him sugar water when he appeared low, and even revive him from comas.” The lessons and mentoring came through Wendy Pavlicek, who put the trust in Sam to care for the animal despite his fragile condition.

When Sam applied for a job at the vet office they asked about her experience with dogs. Sam replied honestly, “I don’t have a lot of experience with dogs, most of my experience comes from the Science Center animals.” But Sam proceeded to list the variety of creatures she had cared for over her two year tenure, adding “you never know what will come through the doors.” Sam now primarily works with dogs in the clinic’s kennel. She starts a shadow internship in the main facility in February. The experience at the clinic will just be the next step in a series to her ultimate career goals.

Will all Science Center volunteers pursue careers in veterinarian science and animal care? Certainly not. But many will gleen positive work habits and skills like organization and multi-tasking from their work. “You must be able to multi-task,” Sam told us. “Handling interruptions are part of the game at both the Science Center and in real life at the clinic.”

The Science Center is a special place and experience, but there are only a few in the state of Massachusetts. This leads me to wonder openly: How else can we create authentic learning experiences for our students in our schools? What kind of real-life opportunities do we present to students who are interested not just in sciences but in the arts, business, tech-sector, and beyond? How can the Science Center expand to offer more authentic experiences to even more participants?


1. Alison Varrell - September 16, 2013

Right on, Mr. M.! Back in the day my brother got his taste for science/biology by shadowing a veterinarian at the MSPCA in Lowell. He was a fifth grader then, but today he is an environmental scientist/biologist who flags wetlands for companies who need to know how to protect the environment before they can build on it. 🙂

MrMusselman - September 16, 2013

What a fabulous story, Alison! I wish more companies and organizations would open their doors to students. Their experiences can help shape their personal and career paths!

2. Nicole McDonald - September 17, 2013

Hoping the garden at Francis Wyman can be the next big “authentic learning” opportunity for kids! Looking forward to seeing it grow in the next few years!

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