What the DuPage Children's Museum is doing to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Brett Nicholas, chief of play and learning, shows off the new virtual STEM with DCM Labs offered at the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville.

      Brett Nicholas, chief of play and learning, shows off the new virtual STEM with DCM Labs offered at the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville. Lauren Rohr | Staff Photographer

  • The new virtual STEM with DCM Labs at the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville were born from discussions with school leaders, says Brett Nicholas, chief of play and learning.

      The new virtual STEM with DCM Labs at the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville were born from discussions with school leaders, says Brett Nicholas, chief of play and learning. Lauren Rohr | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/19/2020 6:44 AM

In pre-pandemic times, families would spend hours exploring the interactive displays strategically woven through the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville.

Groups of schoolchildren would take field trips to the facility. Large crowds would attend community events. Museum educators would visit classrooms to share activities integrated with math, science, engineering and art.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Those in-person opportunities evaporated when the COVID-19 crisis hit.

The DuPage Children's Museum at 301 N. Washington St. has been shut down since mid-March, forcing leaders to re-imagine ways to carry out their mission from a distance.

The online content offered in the spring has since evolved into virtual labs, take-home kits and socially distanced parking lot events, all centered around blending interactive learning with social-emotional development, said Brett Nicholas, chief of play and learning.

"It was really important for us to focus on still providing hands-on activities, still embracing all the things that museum-led education is about," he said. "(The programs are) really fun and challenging, but provide opportunities for the kids to try and fail and try again and be successful and build that resiliency."

Museum employees convened a set of focus groups in June to ask school leaders, "How we can be part of a solution for what will be a challenging school year?" Nicholas said. The STEM with DCM Labs were born from those discussions, he said, prompting months of developing, testing and tweaking a series of lessons and activities.

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The museum started rolling out the labs last month, distributing all the necessary equipment to the schools and individuals who signed up to participate, Nicholas said.

"Having the materials to do these experiments is really important," he said. "We want to reduce the barrier and make sure we have a mechanism in place ... so everyone can follow along."

One lesson is focused around constructing a bridge from paper straws and testing how much weight it can hold, teaching kids about engineering and problem-solving. In another, participants use rubber bands, a Slinky and a handmade kazoo to learn about sound.

Other topics include paper airplanes, space and nature observation, Nicholas said, noting more activities are in the works. The labs involve both synchronous and asynchronous learning methods, he said, allowing kids to come together in the end show off their work and teach others what they learned.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"2020 has taught us all a little something about resiliency," he said. "When your bridge breaks, when your internet goes down, whatever it is, you need to find an alternative solution. You need to figure out, what can you do to address that problem?"

In addition to the families and groups that sign up, the museum works closely with educators in Naperville District 203, Indian Prairie District 204 and West Aurora District 129 to offer the labs, Nicholas said, noting discussions with other nearby districts are ongoing.

Museum leaders also have been holding events in the parking lot until they can start welcoming families back inside the facility. The upcoming Pumpkin Palooza will take place on Oct. 24, when kids can dress in their Halloween costumes and enjoy fall-themed festivities that also involve science, math and art, Nicholas said.

"We've had to adapt and be creative," said Julie Carlsen, chief of creativity and strategic communications. "But that's what this team is really exceptional at."

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