Fossils, fish, and bugs, oh my! This is just a sample of what awaits you if you were to visit the Alabama Museum of Natural History on a Wednesday afternoon. Explorer Wednesday, which is typically held once a month for children in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, is one of the many after school programs that the museum offers for young explorers that want to learn about the world around us, and have a blast doing it.
Upon walking into the Alabama Museum of Natural History, located in Smith Hall on the University of Alabama campus, you are greeted by three stories of exhibits. Hanging over your head is the massive Basilosaurus cetoides, a genus of early whale that lived millions of years ago, and it’s also the state fossil of Alabama. All of this is laid out under a large, glass roof that bathes the entire museum with natural light.
As 3:30 rolls around, Explorer Wednesday kicks off with the group of children being led up to the third floor to start their tour, which is given by Allie Sorlie, the Education Outreach Coordinator for the museum. The third floor features a variety of animal exhibits, showcasing different species that are found around Alabama. Sorlie starts off by teaching the children about the animals, like the difference between an Alabama alligator and a crocodile. In case you ever need to identify one, Sorlie says that one easy way to tell is to check their snout; alligators have a U-shape, while crocodiles have a V-shape.
Next, the group can move on to a large window that has a set of binoculars available, and a chart listing the different types of trees native to the area. This gives the children an opportunity to try to find and identify the trees surrounding the museum on their own. One boy excitedly claims that he has identified an oak tree, and seeing as how this is Alabama and we have no shortage of oaks, chances are he was correct.
After they’ve had their fill of tree finding, the group is taught about fish found in Alabama, and get to see a large variety of them mounted on a wall. There’s also fossils out on display that they can touch and get a close-up look at. As they make their way to the second floor, the group gets another chance to test their identification skills, as there is another window set up with binoculars, except this time with a chart showcasing local birds instead of trees.
Next, Sorlie takes the children to an exhibit to teach them about bugs and insects, and how they compare to their prehistoric ancestors. After learning about the bugs, the group gets the opportunity to do some hands on work, and they are given nets and containers to catch some of their own. Luckily, the bugs today aren’t quite the size as they were millions of years ago, because then the kids would definitely have a hard time catching specimens with nets. Sorlie takes the group outside, and shows the group a good place to find some bugs, and how to catch them.
“When I find a bug, I’m smashing it!” one boy exclaims.
Luckily, no bugs were harmed in the making of this activity, because Sorlie explained the importance to catching them alive, observing them in the containers, and then releasing them back where they were found.
Sorlie explains that for the after school programs, they always do a tour and an outside activity, and hope that letting them do hands on work outside helps them gain a better experience. Sorlie also told the parents in the group an easy way to make bug containers at home, so the kids could take this knowledge home with them and continue to use it.
“Even having them outside just looking at bugs helps them develop an appreciation for the outdoors and natural history,” Sorlie said.
After the bugs are safely returned to their homes, the kids head back inside for one last activity: feeding the fish. A classroom located on the first floor has a fish tank filled with native species, including some feisty crawfish. Sorlie tells the kids about the different types of crawfish and how to identify them, and how one particularly mean one had to be relocated after picking fights with the others too much. Before the kids head home, they get to choose two shark teeth each to take with them, as a way to remember their time at the museum.
Explorer Wednesday offers kids the chance to learn about natural history in a fun and engaging way. Other after school programs include Museum Monday, for grades K-2nd, and Growing Up Wild Preschool Friday, which are all typically held once a month. Sorlie says that in addition to the new faces they see in each group, they have a lot of kids that come back and repeat the tours.
During the summer, the museum also has other camps, such as the Science Day Camp for 5th-8th graders, and the Art and Nature Day Camp for 3rd-5th graders. The summer also offers day trips that include canoeing and tubing on rivers in the surrounding area. This year, the museum will be having its 37th Annual Museum Expedition Camp in June. Explorers who participate in this week long camp with get to do paleontology field work in Greene County, Ala. All of the after-school programs and camps require pre-registration, and information concerning them can be found on the museum’s website, amnh.ua.edu.

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