Michael Stafford, the director of Cranbrook Institute of Science, leads a handful of students behind a door and pulls out his favorite display — three otter skins used as shaman medicine bags between the 18th and late 19th centuries.
The kids are allowed to touch the skins and to observe vivid changes wrought by trade with European settlers: With its porcupine quill tail and simple glass eyes, the 18th century bag is simply made. A century later, a similar otter skin bag is vividly transformed, festooned with metal bells, ribbon and colorful glass beads.
This is anthropology in action, and it’s now part of Detroit Public Schools curriculum — a field trip to the Cranbrook science museum for every seventh-grade science class in the district.
It’s a full day of lectures, meet-ups with mastodon bones, asteroids, Masai warrior shields and, for the lucky ones who view the 800,000-item collection behind the scenes, the chance to stare at a golden eagle stuffed in 1926.
Stafford, an archaeology Ph.D. expert in ancient Danish language and neolithic dagger making, reached out to Detroit’s public schools three years ago, seeking a way to connect kids with the Bloomfield Hills museum and its trove of artifacts and displays.
The result was a collaboration that includes $200,000 from the Bosch Community Fund, which pays for bus, lunch, teacher training and curriculum development. “Cranbrook reached out to us and Mr. (Roy S.) Roberts said, ‘We’re going to make this happen,’ recalls Alycia Meriweather, executive director of the DPS office of science. “So we did.”
On a recent day, a couple of busloads of seventh-graders from Burton International School pulled up. Their mission included hour-long classes taught by Cameron Wood, the staff anthropologist, and John Zawiskie, a Wayne State-trained geologist and paleontologist, that held them rapt.
“We don’t just want this to be a one-shot experience. If you want to effect change, you have to impact kids, but also their families, and the teachers,” says Stafford.
With that impact in mind, Cranbrook offers professional training to the teachers — and makes free science museum passes available to families.
When the first group attends Wood’s lecture on Africa, they walk into a room blaring a live Internet broadcast from 97.1 FM Nairobi. He gets the kids talking about DNA (“It’s what makes you you.”).
One tries on a Masai warrior sword and shield. In an hour, he covers African languages, illustrates colonialism’s impact with a judiciously chosen clip from the film “The Four Feathers,” and explains that everyone in the world appears to be descended from the same early humans in Africa.
“I promised you money and jewelry,” he says, offering a bead kit that includes shells used as currency among some African tribes.
The Burton International students are engaged and animated in both classes. Their hands shoot up. They shout out answers. When I ask Breale Shamily, 12, about her interest in science, she says: “I didn’t like science, but now I do. This made it interesting.” Then she says, “I like how clean and nice it is.”
Meriweather hopes to incorporate similar experiences at Cranbrook and other venues for every grade — eventually.
Stafford, the museum director, mentions he is from a very small Michigan town and never went to a museum until he was in high school. He knows, from his own life experience, that even a day of hands-on, eye-opening exposure to science can ignite a lifelong passion.
But he, the Bosch philanthropists and the Detroit Public School system have taken the extra steps to connect all the dots — getting 1,700 seventh-graders from schools all over Detroit to a memorable day meeting paleontologists and holding everything from dinosaur bones to samurai swords in their hands.
Laura Berman’s column runs Tuesdays and Thursdays.