Discovering Science

Geographers, Museums Revamp Learning Lab

UA’s College of Arts and Sciences has paired up with the Alabama Museum of Natural History to offer the Discovery Learning Lab to local teenagers.

The lab, which was already a component of the museum, has been improved with the addition of iPads, computers, and geographic information technology provided by the Department of Geography in the hope that it will promote education and technological literacy.

With these resources, students will be able to improve on their mapping and blogging skills, as well as learn about web page creation. They will also be able to take part in science and art workshops.

“It’s something we wanted to do anyway, but we needed the funding,” explains Linda Watson, director of the Placenames Research Center for the Geography Department.

Watson, who also teaches geographic information systems (GIS) courses, secured that funding by winning a grant from the IMLS (Institute of Library and Museum Services) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. “We were very pleased and surprised to get it because it was a very competitive grant,” Watson says.

The grant made it possible for the original Discovery Learning Lab to be redesigned to accommodate students in grades eight to 12. Teens in the community are invited to the museum to participate in guided activities that focus on building a deeper understanding and enthusiasm for science.

“This program is something that is driven by teen interest,” Watson said.

Something else to encourage their interest is the addition of a teen advisory board of a half-dozen high school students, who will settle basic decisions such as when the program should be held, and what activities would be the most beneficial. Board members will gain hands-on experience in organization and leadership skills and in the process develop a greater investment in the program designed for their age group. “If they’re going to be the participants,” Watson says, “they need to have some ownership in what’s going on.”

The teens are also charged with naming the program, which is tentatively still referred to as the Discovery Learning Lab, the name for the facility in which it is housed. Watson jokes that the name will be changed “probably to something more hip and teen-relevant.” But having teenagers become so involved as to suggest titles is another tactic to endear them to the program.

“If they can set the tone, they are more apt to engage in that,” Watson explains.

Running parallel to the teen advisory board will be another group of organizers composed of UA faculty, library and museum personnel, and members of the community.

Watson is most excited to take the students out on field trips. “One of the things I’m going to do is take them out on campus and find the way points [locations] of things such as Denny Chimes and the stadium.” The students will then return to the lab to create maps personalized with textual information to answer queries such as, “Which coach has the most wins?”

“Well, we all know which coach has the most wins,” Watson admits. But the geospatial and other technical skills learned in this exercise can then be applied in subsequent field programs that relate to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines.

The program is free of charge and open to any student in grades eight to 12. Summer hours for the lab will be Tuesdays from 1 to 4 p.m. beginning June 4.  For more information, contact Linda Watson at or (205) 348-6028.