Partner Highlight: Using the Explore Science: Earth and Space toolkit to bring Astronomy “Down to Earth” at The Robinson Nature Center in Howard County, Maryland

By: Meagan Downey, Robinson Nature Center
Participants engaged in an astronomy activity

Robinson Nature Center

Robinson Nature Center is a nature education facility in Columbia, MD whose mission is to facilitate the enjoyment and understanding of nature. Robinson includes a planetarium, dubbed the “NatureSphere” through which center staff interpret Earth and space science concepts. Robinson was honored to receive a 2017 Explore Science: Earth & Space Toolkit to help patrons of the center discover phenomena studied by NASA in a whole new way.

“Many people come to Robinson assuming they will learn solely about plants and animals,” said Stacey Yankee, Director of the Robinson Nature Center. “What we hope to make people understand is that the natural world is so much more than that. It includes amazing phenomena such as ocean currents and cloud formation. Nature, itself, isn’t limited to that which is contained within our atmosphere. It goes far beyond the Earth –  encompassing stars, nebula, moons and distant planets. These are concepts that are harder to illustrate, but ones that NISE has brought to life through the fantastic toolkit activities.”

On April 12, 2017, Robinson Nature Center held its first ever Yuri’s Night Space Party for a sell-out audience. Toolkit activities such as Ice Orbs, Solar Eclipse and Orbiting Objects were spread throughout the building to engage visitors. The event also featured several Solar System Ambassadors whose presentations ranged from a sensory exploration of the layers of the moon’s surface, to the story of how we saved the Apollo 13 astronauts, to a scaled solar system discussion facilitated through a bean bag toss activity. Participants sampled various space foods and made their own nebulas in bottles.

In addition to the Yuri’s Night event, Robinson is integrating activities from the kits into various existing programs that will reach visitors of all ages including:

  • Lil Stars -  For the youngest visitors, the center holds its “Lil’ Star” program in which parents can expose children between the ages of 3 and 8 to astronomy and space science in an engaging, hands-on program whose theme changes monthly.
  • Docent Presentations - During field trips for children and youth that range in age from PreK to high school, the center augments the time in which groups navigate the center’s permanent exhibits with a docent “cart” program. Trained volunteer docents facilitate hands-on activities throughout the exhibits that expand upon concepts and provide new ways of understanding.
  • Home School Classes and Workshops – The center serves a robust home school community and has developed classes for ages PreK – 13 years of age held on the first Thursday of every month between September and May. Additionally, on the second Thursday of each month, home school students and their families can return for Robinson’s Home school workshops in which self-guided activities that expand upon topics covered in the classes provide further opportunity for learning and socializing.

Feedback has been incredibly positive from both staff and volunteers leading the activities and from audiences enjoying them. “The Orbits activity with the "gravity well" is a fantastic visualization of how gravity works - in the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe. It has so many opportunities for discovering and discussing concepts,” said volunteer, Bob Savoy. Various participants from programs have revealed not only how much their children have learned, but how much they themselves discovered with comments such as, “All of the activities were excellent for both the children and the adults!” and “The activities and exhibits were perfect for all ages (we ranged in age from 2 to 67.)”

Robinson plans to continue showcasing the activities in upcoming summer programming, and thanks NISE Net again for the opportunity to bring the science of NASA “down to Earth.”

Photographs: Stephen Talabac; SJTPhotography

For questions about Robinson Nature Center’s use of the Explore Science: Earth & Space toolkit in programming and with volunteer docents, please contact Meagan Downey, Program Manager, at mdowney@howardcountymd.gov and Marisa Olszewski, Special Projects and Exhibits Coordinator, molszewski@howardcountymd.gov.