Object Lessons

(This column was first published in the April 20, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    I turned the stark white mammal skull up and down, over and around, fascinated by its delicate features. By the oddly shaped eye sockets, so different from our own. By the way the lower jaw hinges fit so perfectly into their upper mandible sockets. By the simple nose entrance that opened inside into fragile sinus cavities. By the threatening arcs of the upper and lower pairs of this rodent's incisors. By the group of grinding teeth set far back in the mouth where they fit together saw-like. And by the light but dense quality of the bone.

    It took some effort to turn my attention away from this small animal skull and when I did I could have been Hamlet setting aside the skull of Yorick: "I knew him well, Horatio."

    This was a perfect demonstration of Peter Dow's suggestion, "If a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps an object is worth ten thousand."

    The skull is part of the Mammals Object Lesson prepared by Dow's team of curriculum developers at the Buffalo Museum of Science. He, Kristen Gasser, Kevin Kegler and newcomer David Hartney tried to show me these materials last week. I say "tried" because I took so long examining them that I am sure their patience was severely strained. Never do I recall having been so intrigued with activities designed for elementary school children.

    In addition to the half dozen skulls to be identified that come together with a cat skull and an impression of human teeth for comparison, the mammals box contains such items as types of fur, molds to make impressions of animal tracks and, most important, field record books where students record their observations and measurements, their discoveries and conjectures. A teacher guide encourages student inquiry: identification of the six mammals and associating them with their skulls and footprints are among the mysteries to be solved.

    Three of these collections -- mammals, insects and birds -- have already been developed and a fourth on trees is in process. Each is carefully packed in a box somewhat smaller than my old navy footlocker and over fifty of these boxes are now in use in Buffalo and Lancaster classrooms. Support for their preparation has come from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Science Foundation has funded the necessary teacher training to implement them.

    Where were materials like these when I went to school? My elementary science training, what little there was of it, came strictly from books. And never did we venture outside the school building to observe the natural world as teachers are encouraged to do with these lessons. Pictures in books even led me to believe that muskrats and beavers were the same size. Unfortunately my observation of many schools today suggests that little has changed.

    What is truly remarkable is the fact that activities similar to the Object Lessons were widely disseminated through the first quarter of this century by Cornell University Nature Study essays prepared under the direction of Anna Botsford Comstock. Somehow those materials disappeared -- a ten year search finally turned up a collection in a Fort Erie bookstore which I quickly purchased.

    The students of Buffalo and Lancaster who are using the first of these Object Lessons are fortunate indeed. So too are the other schools of this area if they join the program. They have the cadre of trained teachers of those two districts available to show them how to use these materials.

    Although a national distributor has shown interest in disseminating them, Dow plans to continue targeting the Buffalo region. Forward looking local educators should join the queue outside his museum office.