Park Avenue Elementary School third-graders Dahlia Desrosiers, left, and Junior...

Park Avenue Elementary School third-graders Dahlia Desrosiers, left, and Junior Lubin Jr. on Thursday participate in STEM activities, modeling fossils buried under sediment using slices of bread and gummy bears. A partnership between the Westbury school district and Long Island Children's Museum introduces students to experiential learning, where students learn by doing hands-on activities.  Credit: Danielle Silverman

A program at the Long Island Children's Museum that exposes Westbury youth to STEM is expanding, which educators say will bolster students' understanding of science and cement them as lifelong learners. 

The partnership with the museum and Westbury school district, which launched in 2009, has only allowed first- and second-graders to participate in the program. Following a successful pilot program last year for third-grade students, a nearly $50,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services will now include third-graders and special education students. The program is free for the district and is funded by museum donors and grants, museum representatives said. 

Since its inception, thousands of children from Powells Lane, Drexel Avenue and Park Avenue elementary schools have participated in the program, which educators hope will propel them on a path to the STEM field and for careers that may not yet exist. From November to June, students will leave their classroom behind once a week when the museum is closed to the public to immerse themselves in science, technology, engineering and math. There, museum educators and the students' teachers collaborate to introduce the students to experiential learning, where they learn by doing hands-on activities. 

"Whenever you have the opportunity to give scholars experiential learning, you know that you've hit a home run,” said Westbury Superintendent Tahira A. DuPree Chase. "It's a win-win for everyone." 

Some favorite lessons include the dissection of owl pellets (of which 5,700 and counting have been examined) and "fish tales," where students watch as educators dissect and cook a fresh striped bass, said STEM Initiatives program director Claire D'Emic. It's a thrilling day and, sometimes, students' first time eating fish, she said.

The program includes more than science. Students also are exposed to geography and theater, D'Emic said. 

A key skill the program targets is collaboration, an ability important for STEM and other subjects, the educators said. The pandemic deprived students of opportunities to collaborate in their studies, first, because they were remote learning, and later to accommodate social distancing in the classroom. Last year, educators noticed that even in group activities, students were "siloed," said museum education director Aimee Terzulli. When their experiment goes haywire, collaboration is a tool they can use to get it back on track, said Rebecca Skibiel, a third-grade teacher at Powells Lane.

From left, Park Avenue third-graders Yarelis Bonilla-Reyes, Melissa Viera Aguilera and...

From left, Park Avenue third-graders Yarelis Bonilla-Reyes, Melissa Viera Aguilera and Erick Juarez Pareja, with teacher Cristina Ayala, participate in a STEM lesson hatching "dinosaur eggs."  Credit: Danielle Silverman

The museum provides Westbury teachers with kits to bring back to the classroom to continue experiential learning, which researchers have found to boost critical thinking skills. Last year, the museum sent clay back to the classrooms, where teachers used the material in lessons on Martin Luther King Jr. and Lunar New Year, D'Emic said. 

"To have the materials provided by the museum to the classrooms that allow for extra STEM activities for them … further enriches and enhances our curriculum," Skibiel said. "It's no longer [just] textbooks and paint and paper anymore." 

Through the program, the students receive a free family membership to the museum. This move engages families who might not otherwise visit the museum, educators said. Skibiel said she tells parents to treat the pass "like gold." 

"We use this as an invitation to the community," Terzulli said. "We want lifelong learners." 

Westbury-STEM partnership program by the numbers since 2009:

  • 6,720: Hours of professional development for teachers 
  • 9,258: Students who have participated
  • 18,000: Parents who have attended family nights 
  • 370,320: Hours of hands-on learning