Archive for February, 2011

I recently had the great opportunity of teaching a “mini-course” for a group of 9th grade students from my museum’s magnet high school, Science Leadership Academy.   I had complete free choice over the course topic and lessons (well, it had to relate to science, of course…) and since we are currently hosting the exhibit “Leonardo da Vinci’s Workshop” I thought it would be fun to explore how Leonardo learned: though an apprenticeship.  Plus I got to use my art history background, a rarity in a SCIENCE museum! 🙂 

During the Renaissance (and well after) most jobs were learned by studying under a master– carefully observing, performing grunt work, taking on tiny jobs and, eventually, using those skills gained to apply for acceptance into a guild.  Artists like Leonardo had no need for formal schooling, (something he seemed to deeply regret) rather their entire apprenticeship was like a multi-year hands-on learning lab.  I wanted the students in my class to get a taste for the work an apprentice would do in a Renaissance artist’s workshop, to see that the master artist’s studio was actually more like a science lab/school/wood shop/barnyard than a quiet gallery and to learn how modern science helps us conserve the treasures from this time period.  All over the span of 5 class hours!

Eggs and vinegar for art class???

We started out by talking about some of the more… menial tasks an artist’s apprentice might do.  Things like stretching canvases, mixing paints, making brushes and collecting supplies.  We made plaster of paris “walls” to use as the base for a fresco.  The students used burlap to hold the plaster together– modern restoration work on frescos has found materials like straw and horsehair holding the plaster together. 

Grids make drawing EASY!

I taught the class how to use a grid to reduce or enlarge a magazine picture (math is your friend!) and we used National Geographic images to create a nature-inspired sketch for the fresco.  Next we transferred the image to the plaster using a real Renaissance technique.  Artists would first poke pinholes along all the lines on a to-scale draft or “cartoon” of their final painting.  They would post this cartoon on the fresco surface, often when the plaster was wet, (we created fresco secco, painting on dry plaster) then they dusted ground charcoal all over the pinholes.  The charcoal would leave a faint, erasable sketch right on the wall.  Guess what?  This technique is AWESOME and totally works!

Trade secrets!

After a discussion of what makes up paint (a pigment and a binder) I demonstrated how to make a simple tempera paint by mixing egg yolk with wetted pigment.  The kids got a kick out of separating the egg and a few brave souls even took on the difficult task of gently releasing the yolk from the little protein sack that binds it.  I found some great, historic pigments on Blick.com, I think that gave them a good idea of the palette limitations an artist would have to overcome.  Then we painted the frescos!

Hands-on learning

For the modern science aspect I showed them a few videos of art conservators using technology like x-rays, infrared cameras and microscopes to analyze centuries-old masterpieces.  We also explored a really phenomenal new google application http://www.googleartproject.com/  I put together an online gallery of images highlighting the topics we covered in class, link here.  On the last day I had all the students bring in their laptops (their school gives each student their own) and we perused the gallery together.  It was really rewarding to see the students pick out details in the paintings that related to our topic.  They were pretty good art historians, too!

My fresco in progress

I didn’t ask the students if I could put their work on the internet so I won’t post it here.  But I was really impressed with the work the class was able to do in such a short period of time.  Most of the students didn’t have an art background, but all of them definitely had an interest in learning more.  The thoughtfulness behind a lot of their questions really surprised me, and they were not pleased when I had to respond with “great question, but I don’t know that specific answer!” on a few zingers.  I have never taught 9th graders before so I think I learned even more than the students!  

Working at this museum and others has really shown me that apprenticeships did not end with the Renaissance.  Although I have formal training in my field I gain practical experience daily.  Being a good teacher is more than just knowing theory; as my first museum mentor told me, “the best way to learn how to teach?  Teach!”   Every time I get thrown in a new teaching situation like this I feel like I am the apprentice– learning through doing, reflecting on my mistakes, following the lead of my mentors and striving daily to reach “master” status.


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Stormy day

Yesterday was a strange weather day– furious rain storms interrupted by bursts of sunshine.  We dashed out into wild gusts of wind for a very important ingredient in our evening plans: egg roll wrappers, ohhhh yeah!

The wonderous egg roll tower

Pure delight!  Pat and I were embarrassingly stomped at euchre all night…  The cards were against me!  Pete and Erica brought over a delicious veggie salad, “Texas Caviar.”  Here’s Erica’s super easy recipe: Toss in a medium bowl: 4 bell peppers, one of each color, diced; 1 red onion, diced; 1 can white corn; 1 can black-eyed peas, rinsed; 1 can black beans, rinsed.  Combine in a saucepan and heat until boiling: 1 cup white sugar; 3/4 cup apple cider vinegar; 1/2 cup salad oil.  Pour over the veggies and chill.  Serve with tortilla chips.  Yum, thanks!

High five teamwork!

And today, although the sun is shining it’s still a chilly February day so we’re hunkered down inside, dreaming of warmer weather.  This summer is going to be busy with lots of bike rides and camping trips– we don’t want to be total greenhorns for our big trip.  We’ve also decided to take on a bigger challenge– the City to Shore bike ride sponsored by the MS Society.  There are a lot of route options but since the event is at the end of the summer we want to train for the 100-mile Saturday, 75-mile Sunday loop.  That’s a long haul!  We also have to raise a collective $600.  Luckily we have some time to work on that, too but we did set up the “generic” fundraising websites: Pat’s City to Shore and Liz’s City to Shore.  Expect more updates!

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I used to think Michigan had some crazy weather but after living in Philly I realize MI’s weather is not crazy, just reliably terrible.  Here it’s a total guessing game.  For example, winters here can be so extreme– it will snow for 28 hours straight, leaving behind 11 inches of snow and shutting the city down for days.  Then 3 weeks later it’s warm enough to wear spring jackets (and mini-skirts for those brave enough).  Yesterday there was a high of 68!

Valley Forge, PA

So we had a breakfast of champions, did some quick Bike Garage, hit up Lee’s Hoagie House and then got out of dodge.

Mmmm, fuel!

Before we left I hooked up the simple bike computer I got Pat for Christmas, it’s quite nifty.  It records a bunch of stuff but we biked 48.2 miles and hit a maximum speed of 21 mph.  Sweet!  

The Manayunk tow path was a slightly soupy mud pit at points.  I was grateful for my new hardcore tires and fenders.  My body is still pretty wary of falling though so I kept having to remind myself to chill and not tense up on every bump.  Mind over body!  Once we got to the paved part of the path we kept a good pace in spite of the slight, unceasing headwind.  Even with a sammie break we reached Valley Forge in about 2 hours and enjoyed a king-sized Snickers bar each at the visitor center.  Too delicious.

Outside Valley Forge visitor center

Pat occupied himself by harassing, I mean coaching my speed from behind most of the way home. 😉  I was pretty exhausted and crashed out from all that sugar but we kept a good speed most of the way.  The Schuylkill path was absolutely packed with oblivious runners on the way back into the city.  Though I guess I shouldn’t be grumpy when we all have the same awful spring fever!  Yesterday’s ride was challenging but not as bad as I thought it would be after 4 months of no long rides.  I’m really looking forward to spending this summer getting in shape for our trip!

Today it’s chilly again with insane wind gusts whipping in all directions.  I had to shift into grandma gear while riding into the city today, that would be pretty pathetic under normal circumstances.  I was sitting in the cafe at Pat’s work when their front door whipped open and smashed the front window.  See, crazy weather!

Good thing it's safety glass

Hopefully this early spring holds– Pat has a plan for a time-lapse photo project on the tow path.  I don’t think we’ll get the same awe-inspiring effects as Planet Earth but it should be pretty fun.  Stay tuned for more on that 🙂

Fossil watch ad??

Another weekend come and gone… sometimes they seem way too short!

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Now c’mon, I’m not actually posting something about death on the day before the day of LOVE.  I’m here to tell you about another scrumptious, fatty dessert!  I whipped this up for a little at-home Valentine’s Day feast (celebrated on the weekend, of course).  It’s so decadent, chocolate-y rich and delicious.  Your sweet tooth will not know what hit it.  And although the name includes death, you probably won’t die from eating this.  So everyone just calm down.

Okay, okay, hold your applause!

I mashed up recipes from three books: Hershey’s 1934 Cookbook (crust), Treasured Recipes of the Hershbergers (filling) and the Joy of Cooking (topping).

Chocolate overload/overlord

Recipe after the jump…


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If you know me at all then you know I’m definitely not watching the Super Bowl tonight.  Instead I made some soup… and ate it in a bowl.  So I think that counts for something!  I tried a new Rachael Ray recipe from her latest magazine– a veggie soup with dumplings.  I’ve never made dumplings in soup before and was a little nervous but it turned out pretty good.  I’m also wondering what the point of a bay leaf is?  I bought a little container of them but only needed one for the soup.  Now what to do with the other 10 fresh bay leaves?

Rainy weekend

This nasty weather has meant a longer wait to get back on my bike.  The bike lanes are still crappy and our street is a sheet of ice pretty much everywhere except the trolley track.  Siiiiiiiigh.  We’ve been walking to and from work a lot lately.  It’s a pretty nice walk and if I time it right I get to watch the sunrise and sunset.  This morning I was ogling a particularly nice, orangey sunrise and slipped on a little black ice.  I will need to keep that in mind for when I’m an old lady and my bones aren’t as resilient– if you want to admire the pretty sky stop walking.  Check.

I led a family workshop at work today about Leonardo da Vinci (our new travelling exhibit).  I asked the class what they could tell me about symmetry.  A very eager young boy in the back quickly raised his hand and proudly announced, “That’s where the dead people are buried!”  Too funny!

Photo by Pat

My next project: Death by Chocolate Cheesecake for my hubby’s Valentine’s Day present.  I’m doing research now so I can find the most decadent, sinfully rich and chocolate-y chocolate combination possible.  We both agree that an actual death by too much delicious chocolate is by far one of the best ways to go.  Hopefully this dessert doesn’t reach that extreme, but I am definitely saving up my calories!

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Yesterday the vice president of our education/exhibits shared some statistics with us:

The 2010 PSSA (state proficiency exam) shows that only 16.3 percent of 11th graders scored a “proficient” in science testing.  That means 83.7 percent of these students are NOT reaching the “proficient” standard.  83.7!  Looking at younger grades, 8th grade students scored a 25.9 percent proficiency and 4th graders pulled a 53.3 percent proficiency.  A quick google search of “PSSA scores, news” reveals a few databases and some success stories of schools who pulled their numbers up.  The District touts improvements in math and reading (as they should) but is completely mum on the science scores.  There are few (if any) articles that admonish the fact that 83.7 percent of this city’s young adults are scientifically illiterate.  Hmm.

These statistics lead to a discussion of our role as informal educators in a science museum.  Our mission, to inspire a passion for science and technology learning, is supported by our programming efforts.  Our VP explained that the mission is our “what” and programming is our “how” but what we’re missing is the “why”.  Why do we, the museum and educators, provide programming? 

Revealing the "fingerprint" of a star

We all mostly agreed that the museum is an alternative to formal education, to news outlets and the internet.  It’s a place where people can supplement their knowledge, test ideas and experience science phenomena first-hand.  We provide programming because being scientifically literate is essential.  Science helps explain the world around us.  It makes us think and question.

Biology- it's the science of us

One of the group members said something that really stuck with me– that most informal educators are in museums because they feel there is something wrong with the formal education system and they can’t reconcile that with their desire to teach.  For me this is not the case.  I work in a museum because I love museums.  But I love school, too!  As I learn more about formal education in our country I find myself becoming more and more interested in becoming part of the “cure.”  Sure, I love creating fun programs, interacting with guests of all ages and teaching others how to teach.  But what if my talents are better suited to the “front lines” of education?  It’s something to think about.

Dance, molecules, dance!

In the meantime I know my team and I can continue to try our best to get visitors excited about not just science but learning in general.  Afterall, if people aren’t excited to learn and to develop their mind why should they care about the subject– science, math, social studies, etc.  For me the “why” is because we need a society of enthusiastic learners who delight in critical thinking.  Brains on, everyone!

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