- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

Scientists are looking around the lab for clues, especially in the fossils, the animal bones and the fish preserved in jars of alcohol.

While the "scientists" are really a group of seventh-graders from St. Joseph's School in Herndon, here at the Smithsonian Naturalist Center in Leesburg, Va., they are able to do research of a sophistication beyond their middle school level.

The Naturalist Center, housed in an office park, is a place where students can use a variety of references to boost their knowledge of natural history. There are hundreds of books, maps, models and specimens that bring the study of science to life.

"We teach kids what it is like to be a scientist," center director Helene Lisy says. "Children ages 10 and older learn about observation techniques. Often, they come here on a school field trip, then return to work on a science fair project or report."

The Smithsonian has had a Naturalist Center since 1976. Most of the 30,000 objects in the collection were housed at the National Museum of Natural History in the District. When the museum needed to make room for its new Imax theater in 1996, the collection was moved to the Loudoun County space, Ms. Lisy says.

In Leesburg, the fragile nature of the specimens housed in the main study room make it a destination for older children, Ms. Lisy says. The large room, reserved for ages 10 and older, has a quiet, studious atmosphere that gives it the aura of a college science lab.

That look at what it would be like to work in such a lab is part of the center's appeal, Ms. Lisy says.

"Even high school kids can see careers in science," she says.

Two popular study activities for groups include "Unknowns" and "Adaptations." In the Unknowns project, students play the part of museum curators, working in pairs to investigate an object, such as a bone or fossil, to find out all they can about it using the Naturalist Center resources. In the Adaptations activity, students use a specimen from the collection and point out what characteristics, such as locomotion or body coverings, helped the species to survive.

"I think this a very good way to learn science," says Cathy Daughtrey, a teacher at St. Joseph's who was on the recent field trip. "This is our second time here. The children are studying Unknowns, investigating and locating specimens. They are able to use the books and specimens."

For visitors not part of an organized group, there are smaller interactive activities in the study room. Among them are "Museum Mysteries," where visitors look for clues in various items, and the "Be a Taxonomist" game, where visitors can use moving pieces to figure out the hierarchy of the mountain gorilla.

The center is also a popular spot with artists, who use the skeletons, stuffed creatures, fossils and minerals as models. The center will play host to a more formal artists' session titled "Exploring Nature in Detail" on Dec. 14. The daylong workshop is for budding and professional artists to draw from the center's collection and learn more about a career as an artist.

The front of the center is a bigger draw for younger children, who will enjoy the more hands-on nature of the displays. They can see a bison bone and an elephant tusk and feel the softness of an animal skin or the intricacies of a fossil. A taxidermied lion is among the life-size animals to see up close at the center.

"The front room is for the younger children," Ms. Lisy says. "It is more activity oriented. They can look at animal tracks. One of the most popular activities is 'Who pooped in the woods?' where children can match animals to [models of] their droppings."

Visitors to the center are encouraged to bring in found items, Ms. Lisy says. A naturalist and the study tools can help anyone who finds, for example, a bone or rock, to determine what type of specimen might be from his own back yard.

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