For many Nassau County residents, 2023 represents a chance to make big changes or head in a new direction.
For the team of educators and administrators behind the Westbury Union Free School District (WUFSD) and Long Island Children’s Museum’s (LICM) collaborative educational program, the new year is instead an opportunity to grow and refine the work they’ve already been doing in our area.
Since 2009, LICM has partnered with WUFSD to provide first- through third-grade students and teachers with both museum visits and coordinated curricula, adding up to a program that’s become “very beloved in the community, and at the museum,” according to LICM Director of Education Aimee Terzulli.
In a phone interview with Nassau Illustrated News, Terzulli said the program has seen “a tremendous amount of buy-in” from kids, educators, and administrators in its Westbury STEM program over the years.
The program currently involves spreading a STEM curriculum (one that’s typically infused with and influenced by literacy learning, as well as exposure to the arts) across ongoing classroom activities and a series of three visits to LICM. Whether an exhibit and its correpsonding classroom unit center around animals, habitats and ecosystems, criticial thinking, or even architecture, they’re the product of ongoing conversations between LICM and WUFSD educators, with the goal of allowing children (and their families) to get the most out of these shared resources.
In addition to the three musuem visits – featuring two STEM-centered interactive lessons, and one performance at LICM’s theatre – students are also invited to bring their families to the museum for free at the program’s annual Community Nights, which Terzulli described as “the biggest party of the year.”
“There’s pizza, and buses to the museum provided by the Westbury school district, and kids become museum docents themselves as they take their families around the museum and explain the exhibits themselves.”
The program has also taken on new significance in Westbury classrooms following the COVID-related closures of schools and other educational facilities over the past few years.
“This year, we’re really seeing how we can serve each other in order to close that academic gap from COVID,” Terzulli noted.
For example, she said, “We’re noticing that kids really struggle at first to build [structures] in 3D. Which makes sense, because they were on screens for so long.”
Westbury teacher Patty Mueller, who serves as the district-wide Chair of Science and STEAM for WUFSD, told Nassau Illustrated News by phone that LICM “played a major part in distance learning” for her students during the pandemic.
“[The museum] created kits to send home to every student in the program, so they could experience hands-on activities.”
Mueller similarly noted that kids have seemed especially enthralled and enthused by the museum’s activities and exhibits following COVID shutdowns.
Right now, for example, students are beginning their dissection unit, featuring owl ‘pellets’ for first-graders, fish for second-graders, and cow eyes for third-graders.
Mueller recalled how, during the fall and winter following the beginning of the COVID pandemic, “I was lucky enough to attend some of the trips to LICM, and I got to see their ‘Fish Tales’ lesson. The adults were sometimes grossed out, but the kids were touching things, holding parts of the fish in their hands… They were just fascinated.”
“It’s hard to put the impact of this partnership into words; you really just have to see the kids when they’re absorbed in these activities,” added Mueller. “It’s a huge asset to our district and our community.”
The team behind the collaborative programming is also excited to expand their work with Westbury’s special education classes, whose younger students have already been taking advantage of more accessible visits at the museum, e.g. during special Monday visiting hours for schools, or with the lights dimmed or noise-level reduced, as part of the museum’s LICM For All program.
Starting in the 2023-24 school year, special education students in grades kindergarten through 12 will be able to participate in coordinated museum visits and classroom lessons. LICM and WUFSD are currently undergoing a “pilot year” as such, planning out potential units that may even include life skills classes.
Jessica Pesce, a WUFSD special-education classroom teacher who’s part of the special ed teachers’ advisory committee for the program, told Nassau Illustrated News, “Students get a real sense of achievement when they’re [at LICM], even if they might not always feel that way academically.”
“They can problem-solve at the museum, and be hands on, and when we come back from these trips, the children have fond memories, and can write about their experiences and apply what they learned.”
“These trips really seem to stay with them,” Pesce added. “I think what the museum is doing is wonderful.”
“And experiencing it with my own personal family, which includes children with special needs, has been really incredible.”