Spring break is on the horizon and families with tweens and teens may be especially eager to get out of town. Older kids haven’t had an easy time of it, with Covid wreaking havoc on their social lives, mental health, studies, and future plans. In many cases, online school has turned education into a dreaded routine of memorization and testing, remote classes, and daily struggles over homework.
So, what’s a parent to do? How can you help your kids reframe learning into a series of amazing discoveries and endless possibilities? I reached out to experienced educator Theresa Xia Michna for tips on how families with older children could combine a well-deserved vacation with sightseeing that’s guaranteed to reignite a love of learning.
STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) courses continue to be emphasized in schools. However, these days New York State educators receive training in how to mesh subjects that complement each other, a mutually beneficial (symbiotic!) concept designed to promote creative interdisciplinary collaborations rather than fostering divisiveness between disciplines. There’s also an increased focus on helping students strengthen their problem solving and analytical abilities, lifelong skills that will serve them well in college, careers, social networks, and communities.
According to Theresa, there are three simple ways caring adults can support and inspire kids’ educational journeys in various settings.
- Asking open-ended questions
- Modeling active observation
- Encouraging them to preserve their ideas and impressions in a sketchbook, photos (phone, iPad, camera) or a journal
Can these be incorporated into a family trip? I visited two popular tourist attractions in Key West to find out! First up was the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory on Duval Street. It’s hard to resist a butterfly, and The Learning Center was full of fascinating tidbits about the popular insect’s physiology, life cycle, feeding, and migratory habits.
Here’s a few sample questions to help learn more
- Butterflies have some of the same body parts as humans. What are they and how are they different from ours? What’s a typical butterfly meal?
- How do butterflies navigate (there’s more than one way of flying!)
- What are some of the major threats to butterflies? How can we help?
The observation room is an airy, beautifully landscaped space, home to 50-60 species of butterflies and 20 exotic bird species from around the world. This is where kids’ observation and recording skills can be put to good use so don’t rush through! Take time to draw, write, or photograph the amazing creatures, capturing all the tiny details that make them unique as you watch them go about their daily business. Stand still long enough and a butterfly or two may even land on you!
I usually don’t mention gift shops but I’m making an exception for “Wings of Imagination-The Butterfly Gallery. I love the tale of Sam, whose life unfolded like a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis. A hobby eventually became a science career, which ultimately evolved into this butterfly art gallery. Here, Sam continues to compose and customize his colorful creations for people all over the world to enjoy. An uplifting story of personal perseverance and passion with a happy ending, something everyone could use right now!
The next day we headed off to the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum. It’s unlikely your kids will know anything about the man himself which is a shame, because he also has a fascinating backstory. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was this landlocked Indiana boy’s favorite childhood book. As an adult, Mel pursued his own treasure-hunting dream, through good times and bad. Long on hope and short on dollars, what I’ll remember most about him was his daily mantra, “Today’s the day!” He repeated this for years, until the day he finally located the 1622 shipwreck, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, in Florida waters.
The rest of the exhibits were fascinating too, not only for the factual information they contain but for the array of career possibilities they present to young people. If you have a son or daughter who’s interested in unusual occupations in areas like chemistry, history, marine biology, museum studies, 3D photogrammetry, artifact conservation, paleography, or the fine arts this is the place for them!
An unexpected highlight of the Maritime Museum visit for me was the Lab tour, led by Director of Archaeology Corey Malcom, PhD. He and his team spend their time in the laboratory “looking for new ways to see the past” through finding and conserving marine archaeological artifacts. Using the example of a ship that sank in the 1500’s off the Bahamas, he walked us through the diving, mapping, and preservation processes they followed-time consuming but so enthralling!
Possible STEAM questions for teens
- What kind of historical research is necessary when doing marine conservation? What sources would you use? (Hint: they’re not all online).
- What elements contribute to corrosion? Given this, what’s the best way recover and store recovered marine artifacts?
- How did Corey’s team return this dust to its original form?
Vacation attractions offer numerous opportunities for kids and adults to practice problem solving, hone their observation and documentation skills, and see ‘real life” examples of people in different STEAM fields working together to accomplish goals that improve and enhance our world.
You don’t need to go to Key West to do this (though I’d highly recommend it!). Anywhere that spotlights a subject or vocation your kids are interested in or passionate about will do.