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At the Eli Whitney Museum, Learning by Experiment


The Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden is a place of exploration for kids. The museum is open to all students, but it targets a special kind of learner.

Nestled next to a waterfall on a few acres of green land, the museum is chock full of marbles and springs and catapults of all kinds -- all atop dusty, well-used shelves.

One morning last week kindergarteners from New Haven's Conte West Hills Magnet School sanded bits of balsam wood to turn into toy boats that would demonstrate the physics of water.

Students visiting the museum can build anything from Japanese drum machines to a spark generating Wimshurst device.

Bill Brown is executive director of the museum.
"We collect kids who are very very clever but not showing it in the classroom. We call them Whitney learners," he says.

And through experimenting, he says, some kids find a better way to learn.

Trained as a clinical social worker, Brown says smart kids who may struggle in school are often measured by the wrong yardstick - standardized tests rather than hands on activities, like building machines for example. And college is not always the best place for every student.  

"We should not endow colleges with the capacity to educate all people."

Brown thinks that today's society undervalues skilled mechanical workers -- like the people who will install solar panels in the future.

"But gosh, I think we're going to need those people. And it's real and complex skills that they're going to need. What if reading machines or what if reading people is a gift as important as reading books?"

Many students in his apprenticeship program for older kids have difficulty in school, he says, but find new ways to learn while working at the Eli Whitney museum. He's seen some of them go on to become great designers, chefs, builders and sea captains.

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