Celine Dion and paleontological specimens may seem like an unconventional combination to most, but for museum-based science educator and early 2000’s music fan Aaron Lawson, they are both subjects that bring him immense joy. In addition to his love of the Canadian Queen of Pop, Aaron cites Star Wars, comic book films, and poetry as some of his other long-held interests. Yet, Aaron pursues his most profound passion as a celebrated Children’s Educator at Philly’s own Wagner Free Institute of Science.
Aaron took some time from his teaching schedule this week to chat with Geekadelphia about all things science ed:
For those readers who are not familiar with the Wagner Free Institute of Science, could you describe a bit about what makes it an important cultural and scientific landmark, as well as a unique place to visit?
The Wagner Free institute of Science is a natural history museum located in North Philadelphia, right next to Temple University. The building was built in 1865 and for over 150 years the people that have worked here have been dedicated to providing free public science education. I believe that the Wagner special for two reasons. One: it is very authentic to Victorian era, as our museum has been changed very little since the late 19th century. Two: it is one of the few museums where almost the entire collection is on display to the public. Many museums have only a small fraction of their collections on display but that is it not the case here at the Wagner. And overall, there are a variety of incredible specimens to look at.
What are some of your most cherished duties in your role as Children’s Educator?
Mainly just knowing that I am making a difference and affecting the lives of kids in a positive way. There is no better feeling then walking into a school and having a classroom of kids get excited to see you and to learn more about the natural world around them. And when they’re excited, it is genuine. They’re not faking it when you’ve just blown their minds and shown them something amazing. It takes me back to when I was a kid and discovered dinosaurs for the first time. I think that is why I like working with kids so much. It is truly an honor to be a part of shaping their world.
I know that you are a big believer in exposure to scientific inquiry from as early an age as possible. What would you say is the prime age for parents and teachers to “hook” kids with science?
I would say that the prime age is probably 5 or 6 years old. That’s how old I was when I first saw Jurassic Park and starting learning about fossils–the rest was history for me. However, I would say that what is more important than the age of the kids is having adults that are supportive of the kids’ interests, whether that is in science or something else. Without that encouraging environment, those interests will fade away.
What are some of your favorite, most engaging ways to get kids (or adults) thinking about scientific concepts or research?
My favorite way to engage an audience is with our collections. I love bringing in specimens to the classrooms because every specimen has a history and story to tell, and being able to share that with the kids is truly rewarding. I also love taking the children on field trips. One of my favorite trips was taking a group of our 4th grade GeoKids to a fossil quarry I volunteered at in grad school. It was an amazing experience for them. I think the combination of the collections, field trips and other hands-on experiences help to make science more accessible and understandable.
Any items in the Wagner collection that are particularly beloved to you?
One of my favorite specimens in our collection is the type specimen for Smilodon, which is a saber-toothed cat. Along with dinosaurs, that was the other major animal that got me hooked in paleontology and science, so it is amazing to work in the museum that houses the first one ever discovered. I also really like this specimen called “Tooth Story”, which is the lower half of the skull of a child. It is a little creepy at first sight, but I am fascinated by it. You can see all the teeth, and that includes the baby teeth which are in place but also the adult teeth that are in the gums waiting to come in.
Any distinctive events or programs you’d like to recommend for adults and/or children?
As for upcoming children’s programs, we have our Winter Wonderland in February and our event for the Science Festival where kids can be marine biologists for the day at the end of April. For adults, we have monthly weeknight lectures which start up in February, as well as various classes that can be taken throughout the year. And they’re all free!
I’ve heard that while a student at Temple you and your friends were fond of chanting “geology!” at parties. Was that an expression of departmental camaraderie or disciplinary enthusiasm (or both)?
Definitely a little bit of both! I was fortunate enough to make many good friends in our geology department. I feel like most of us came from similar backgrounds and were at the same point in terms of getting our degrees, so we just wanted to help each other succeed. We developed great relationships with the teachers and TAs, many of whom went to Temple for their undergrad degrees, too. The “chant” was more of a call and response, though. One person would enter the room and scream “Geology!” and then the rest of us would respond with the same. Definitely made school, and the parties, a lot more fun.
Geekadelphia readers can check out the Wagner Free Institute’s incredible, free offerings for the new year at wagnerfreeinstitute.org.