Hi. I’d like you to meet J. Albert Ervin. Albert is standing in front of a restoration of the original office of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS) in Raleigh, the state capital.
The Attentionology Connection
The original office – that of the museum’s founding director, Mr. Brimley – caught and has kept Albert’s attention from the time he first visited the museum on a class trip when he was six years old. “Mr. Brimley’s office fascinated me,” Albert recalls. “The windows were so high I had to stand on blocks to see it!”
Albert had no idea at the time that he’d found his life’s work. After the class trip, back home in Rocky Mount east of Raleigh, Albert recalls asking if he could use his mother’s china cabinet to “start my own museum.” (Teachers take note of this attention-getting trick to encourage science study in grades K – 5)
“Mom said no,” Albert grins, “but thankfully dad built me shelves in my playroom.” Albert delighted in labeling and displaying anything natural that he found – feathers, rocks, shells, bones, artifacts like he’d seen in Raleigh.
A Teacher at Heart
Albert’s keen memory of seeing museum artifacts with a child’s eyes has been a guiding force in his present work as Coordinator of Special Exhibits and 3-D Theater in this world renown destination. “At heart, I’m a teacher,” Albert says enthusiastically.
His focus extends beyond coordinating attention-grabbing special exhibits at the NCMNS, like Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition that recently concluded – 200 artifacts from the ill-fated voyage.
“Our museum wants to be a unique resource for educators,” explains Albert, describing the Investigate Labs that museum-goers can visit to develop classroom materials and as Albert puts it, “to encounter exhibits at a deeper level.” “We work as a team,” he says, expressing the pride that NCMNS staff take in creating experiences that serve adults and children of all ages and different learning styles.
Albert takes a personal interest in every exhibit he coordinates.
He had a good model for personalizing learning in his own fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Ellis. “She sparked my interest in science,” Albert says appreciatively, “by accepting me as I was.”
Mrs. Ellis let Albert stay in from recess on occasion and design the classroom Science Bulletin Board. “I did the entire Solar System, planets and moons, making them to scale from construction paper and using yarn to show the orbits.”
Albert learned to re-use resources at an early age as well; a practice he continues in his current work. “In elementary school I made a volcano for science,” he explains, “and then I used it again in language arts when I gave a presentation about the book, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.” Mrs. Ellis encouraged presentations with visual aids. Albert’s still at it…
When Albert accompanies visitors on a tour of a special exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, he’s quick to point out the artifacts that most catch his attention and why.
At the Titanic Exhibition, he pointed to the Crow’s Nest Bell. “We’re the only museum to show this incredible artifact from the multiple Titanic exhibits overseen by Premier Exhibitions, based in Atlanta,” he said, his voice full of emotion.
“Imagine being the lookout in the crow’s nest above the deck of the Titanic on the night of April 14, 1912,” Albert suggested. “Think of the shock that crew member felt as he rang this bell three times to warn of an iceberg right ahead.”
Albert thinks of this bell as a symbol of the larger tragedy that was the sinking of the Titanic. “Its fate,” he elaborated, “shattered the world’s faith in technology and progress at that time.”
When Albert coordinates exhibits, including the one that housed artifacts from the Titanic, he and the NCMNS staff employ multi-sensory features that make visitors feel like they’re not just viewing the exhibit, they’re living it.
The floors of the Titanic exhibition, for example, vibrated with replicated sounds of the ship’s engines. They were powered by three gigantic propellers, engineered pieces that dwarfed the Titanic’s ship builders in Belfast, Ireland.
Touch- Me Features Grab Attention
Kids touring through the Titanic artifacts were immediately attracted to an awesome touch-me feature – the man-made iceberg, shown below, that the museum staff created to bring history to life.
“Children were amazed by the iceberg we formed from a large shaped metal plate attached to a compressor,” Albert said. “Every day, moisture from the air kept freezing in place on the form, and every kid that came through the exhibit reached out to touch it.“ The setting behind the iceberg – a black night and stars (tiny lights) added to the chilling effect.
Stories Bring History to Life
“Nothing brings history to life better,” asserts Albert, “than the stories of the people who lived the times.”
The Titanic exhibit offered dozens of stories. Replicated passenger boarding passes that visitors received at the start of the tour revealed fates. At the conclusion of the exhibit a Wall of Remembrance listed those who survived the voyage and those who died.
Other stories about the crew and passengers, and the luxury accommodations of the ill-fated cruise ship were told through photographs and objects recovered from the ocean floor.
History Meets Science
One of the best ways to catch and keep kids’ attention is to amaze them! History can do that; so can science. Blend them, like Albert does, and watch kids get drawn in.
He was wearing his teacher’s hat as he pointed to a piece of the Titanic’s hull recovered from the wreckage.
Visitors to the exhibition could reach down through a small hole in the acrylic display case and touch a piece of history that has weathered time because of its metal composition.
“Organic materials fared otherwise,” explained Albert, “unless science worked some magic.” “Look at the leather satchels, small wallets, perfume bottle samples of a salesman, and business and personal papers,” Albert said, pointing to several other acrylic display cases.
“The only organic items – papers, for example – that survived did so because they were carried in leather bags aboard the Titanic. The tanins in the leather preserved them.” Fascinating…just like Albert himself!
The special exhibitions at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences – thirty coordinated by Albert since 2000 – may well be a team effort, but Albert’s passion for teaching and his attention to detail make the exhibits EXTRA special.
The signs for the Titanic have come down at the museum now. Albert is in his high-energy mode working on the next special exhibit.
Soon he’ll be standing with his engaging smile by a new sign, ready to greet visitors, including teachers accompanying groups of excited elementary school students and others on the lookout for resources that link them to educational centers, like the NCMNS, with a worldwide reach.
Attentionology will continue reaching out to other professionals who inspire creative teaching with their passion for education in coming International Festival of Attention-Grabbers posts. If you know someone that I can feature, please send the contact information.
Comments are welcome, too. Share your experience teaching. How have you helped your students learn how history meets science?
Don’t forget to check back here on Monday for a new Attentionology for K – 5 Teachers.
Talk with you soon,
Barbara ♥ The Lovable Poet