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Learning As They Lead

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MEEPer Hannah Sherman and Museum Member Gabrielle Dolinsky in the Discovery Room. 
Photo: © AMNH/R. Mickens.

“Batman! Superman! Spiderman!” shouted a crowd of young campers, eager to share the names of their favorite superheroes, as guide Michael Malave kicked off his “super power” tour through the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life and the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.

“When you look around the hall, you can see many animals, and each of them has an ability that helps them to succeed and survive,” explained Malave to the pack of superhero enthusiasts. “This is much like how superheroes use their powers to win and beat the bad guys.”

Malave, who studies applied math at Marist College, was one of 32 students selected for last year’s Museum Education and Employment Program (MEEP), a summer internship that trains college-age students from the New York City area to develop and lead free themed tours for camp groups who flock to the Museum’s halls each weekday. In 2010, MEEPers, as the student guides are affectionately known, led more than 580 tours in a span of six weeks — an average of more than 20 tours a day.

Part of the Museum’s science education pipeline, a slate of programming that extends from early childhood courses to programs for undergraduates, MEEP is also one of many youth initiatives supported by New York Life Foundation. “The Museum is a leader in providing science education, and MEEP offers college students a valuable opportunity to both learn about and get work experience in this important field,” says Christine Park, president of the New York Life Foundation.

MEEPers spend their first month training with Museum staff to learn the content of the Museum’s halls while crafting original 45-minute tours based on personal or academic interests. Once staff and supervisors approve the tours, which cover topics that range from deep-sea creatures to shamanic practices, MEEPers have the rest of the summer to perfect their presentation. Their challenge: to be ready to improvise on the spot depending on their audience, which could be three-year-olds one day and college or even graduate students the next. MEEPers also work in pairs behind touch-carts — portable stations stocked with artifacts and specimens placed throughout the Museum — to demonstrate objects to visitors during the summer rush in the halls or in the Discovery Room.

“MEEPers not only gain extensive knowledge of science and culture at the Museum that support their academic and career goals, they also sharpen their leadership and communications skills,” says Margaret Jacobs, director of youth initiatives at the Museum. “Our young campers also see them as role models, as they explain complicated ideas in ways that inspire children of all ages.”

The variety of tours each year reflects the diversity of the MEEPers’ interests. Hannah Sherman, a bioanthropology major at Skidmore College, led tours through the “alien worlds” on Earth and beyond that took campers from the Rose Center for Earth and Space to the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. Sherman says working as a MEEPer — specifically, making science accessible to the general public — has inspired her to pursue a career in science and the media.

“I was obsessed with the Museum as a kid, so I’ve come full circle,” she says. “I love communicating science to people, but you need a Ph.D. to understand most science magazines. The Museum and other channels can bridge that gap.”

On Frieda Benun’s popular tour of the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing, campers examined the long, graceful neck of the Barosaurus and the terrifying teeth of the Tyrannosaurus rex while learning about how physical form relates to anatomical function. Like most MEEPers, Benun, a biology major at Brooklyn College, at times struggled to explain certain terms to younger campers.

“These are complex concepts, and the first day a lot went out the door,” Benun says. “The kids wander off, some absorb with their ears, some with their eyes. I realized I shouldn’t be offended.”

Alix Cotumaccio, assistant director of youth initiatives, points out that along with gaining confidence and communication skills, MEEPers also get to know scientists and other staff — and leave with a renewed enthusiasm for the institution.

For Benun, who grew up in New York, the internship reaffirmed her connection to the Museum. Her dream now: “to work here forever.”

Applications for the program are due March 31. Email meep@amnh.org for more information or click here for the application form.

MEEP is generously supported by the leadership contribution of New York Life Foundation.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the magazine for Museum Members.