Connecting Kids with Science


by Annette Hinkle


On Tuesday, the lobby of the Children’s Museum of the East End (CMEE) was abuzz with activity as mothers and children worked on art activities and socialized with other families.

It may have looked like any other workshop offered at CMEE throughout the year, but in fact, the event was the culmination of a 10 week science program designed for the East End’s Latino community which CMEE was able to offer through a $15,000 grant from the Long Island Community Fund.

Sag Harbor’s Leah Oppenheimer, director of the program, Ciencia@CMEE (ciencia is science in Spanish), hopes it can become a model for communities across the country.

“The goal is to introduce families to informal education and increase their educational opportunities,” explains Oppenheimer. “Our overall goal is to develop a replicable national model for promoting science literacy among immigrant families.”

The program is geared toward children ages 4 to 8 and while it meets at CMEE after school, it is not a drop-off program. Instead, parents attend with their children and work together to build skills in science and English literacy.

Oppenheimer notes the idea for the program came from Latino parents who had taken part in another program at CMEE for younger children.

“Four years ago, we started a literacy program for young Spanish families with children ages 0 to 3,” says Oppenheimer who adds that when their children aged out of that program, many parents wanted the connection to continue.

“We have a parents council and last year, some moms said, ‘It would be so great if there was something we could do with our kids after school,” notes Oppenheimer.

So using science literacy as the focus, the program kicked off this spring with 14 families exploring natural history through the development of observational skills.

“We do projects that become the vehicle for literacy learning,” explains Oppenheimer. “The last 10 weeks have focused on the natural sciences and each family kept a science log book.”

CMEE is surrounded by nature so parents and children observed the nearby bird and pond life and documented what they found in their log books. Oppenheimer notes the families even discovered a muskrat den by the nearby pond which no one at the museum even realized was there.

The log books and shoebox dioramas of various bird nests which the children made were prominently displayed at Tuesday’s event and families will continue to use the log books to document the nature of the East End throughout the summer.

“Science is so hands on,” says Oppenheimer. “A lot of moms weren’t comfortable in the outdoors here because they didn’t grow up here. They’re comfortable now, the kids are noticing things.”

There is also a language component to the program and Oppenheimer notes the goal is to create truly bilingual children and improve the English skills of parents — something the parent/child nature of the program reinforces.

“Research shows its better parents speak only Spanish with their kids,” explains Oppenheimer. “But their brain needs to be completely bilingual. The English will come naturally for the kids through school, but if there’s not enough of the mother tongue spoken at home, it will hard for them to be bilingual. So we encourage everything at home in Spanish, then give them bilingual books.”

“When you look at literacy programs for adults, a lot of times its set up as an English class and you have tutors,” says CMEE’s director Stephen Long. “What’s unique about family literacy is it’s a bit of the parents learning from the children and the children learning from the parents.”

Beyond building literacy in science and language, the program also builds parenting skills, social connections and an understanding of available resources on the East End.

“At end of day, the kids play then we have a class with the moms,” explains Oppenheimer. “Often it’s on topics they requested — like nutrition, female domestic violence or issues centered around personal safety.”

“I never expected families to be so incredibly dedicated to the program,” confides Oppenheimer. “We’re taking summer off, but will have a reunion picnic where we’ll have them bring in their science logs and show us what they’ve done science-wise over the summer.”

“We don’t want to lose the connection,” she adds.

“This program helps a lot and it’s helping our children learn to know the habitat,” says Sandra Jacome who took part with her six-year-old daughter Gabriela.

Jacome adds that another benefit of the program is the close bond she has developed with the other mothers in the program.

“We read newspapers and the fliers and we meet and go out in Sag Harbor,” she says. “We always go together.”