Washtenaw United: Leslie Science and Nature Center prepping Earth Day Festival
ABOUT SUSAN WESTHOFF:
Susan Westhoff brings a passion for working with youth, volunteers, and cultural partners to her work and strives for a feeling of community in all her interactions. She loves building opportunities for everyone to experience something new and inspiring every time they visit, whether inside or outside, with science, the arts, or our natural world. Susan spends her free time camping and hiking throughout Michigan with her husband, Jim, and their children, Ellie and Sam.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And welcome to an early Earth Day edition of Washtenaw United. Earth Day is going to be observed around the world on Saturday, April 22nd. On April 23rd, the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum and Leslie Nature and Science Center will be hosting their annual Earth Day Festival. Now, the theme of Earth Day this year is "Invest in our Planet". And clearly, battling the climate crisis and preserving our natural resources, public health and the ecosystems on which our wildlife depend, that takes a lot of money. But today, we're going to explore a different kind of environmental investment, and that is education and awareness. Our guest does work to provide that kind of investment on a daily basis. Susan Westhoff is president and executive director of the Hands-On Museum and Leslei Science and Nature Center. And thank you so much for making time for us today. And happy early Earth Day.
Susan Westhoff: Happy early Earth Day. It's a pleasure to be here, Dave. Thank you.
David Fair: What comes to your mind when you think of Earth Day?
Susan Westhoff: Well, it's my 11th year having the city's Ann Arbor Earth Day Festival at Leslie Science and Nature Center. And so, I think of families having fun, to be completely honest, because the festival is just full of life and opportunity to engage with our community. So, I can't help but picture the festival itself.
David Fair: And fun is great. And it's one of the great ways to engage people. At the same time, a lot of the issues that face us, the climate crisis among them, it's very serious. So, how does the mission of the Leslie Science and Nature Center kind of gel with the goals and objectives of the annual Earth Day observation?
Susan Westhoff: Well, it's a great question. I feel like, through education, people can learn, but a lot of people become intimidated by climate change, by the magnitude of the challenges that we face. And if they're able to come to the festival, they can engage with local nonprofits and businesses that are working to make positive change. And all of those businesses and nonprofits are bringing hands-on activities for children and families to engage in, so that they can break down a larger concept or a larger challenge into something that is attainable and has an element of play and fun. Because even though we're dealing with really serious challenges, mere loss of habitat and water quality, and all of these major issues, if we can't engage in a way that feels personal and for children through some element of play or hands-on activity, it can really be hard to wrap our heads around. So, the mission of Leslie Science and Nature Center has always been around engaging that curiosity and that element of inquiry and discovery and learning and fun in order to talk about something much larger than ourselves.
David Fair: To follow further down that path, Susan, for some, getting in touch with and learning to appreciate nature is something they grow up with. For others, it was something they learned along a life's journey. Still, others have had little to no experience getting out of an urban center and experiencing nature in any meaningful way. So, what is the genesis of your love and commitment for nature and science?
Susan Westhoff: I would credit my grandmother whether she would know that or not. My dad's mom helped me appreciate nature. Her favorite place was a place called Ricketts Glen in Pennsylvania. And it had waterfalls and rocks and trees. And it was just glorious. And every time we went out there, I could see her relax. And I could see her de-stress. She became the best version of herself. And I definitely learned to appreciate that through her.
David Fair: We're talking with Susan Westhoff from the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum and Leslie Science and Nature Center on WEMU's Washtenaw United as we approach Earth Day 2023. There are clear inequities in education and access to educational experience. In developing programming and access at Leslie, how much does social justice play into the matter in which you choose to create experiences?
Susan Westhoff: It's key to everything that we do at both Leslie Science and Nature Center and the Ann Arbor Hands-On museum. We've talked about it as inclusion and belonging, as being the lens through which we look at every new opportunity now. Who does this program or this opportunity include? Is there anyone that it naturally excludes? And if it excludes somebody, do we want to continue to pursue it, or is there a way to change the opportunity? And, you know, before the pandemic, we started offering an EBT discount at the Hands-On Museum where admission was $3 a person for anyone on a food assistance program in and out of state. And it was meant to be a short-term offering because we had funding to underwrite it. And we were maybe naively surprised by how much it was utilized. And while we weren't able to continue finding funding to underwrite it, we underwrite it with our own general operating and fundraising because we see the incredible significance that it plays in our community. And it's actually 20% of the people walking through the museum doors now utilize the $3 EBT discount.
David Fair: And that is significant, and it does point to a great need that needs to be further addressed in all areas of our community. But you mentioned something earlier that I want to touch on again, and you mentioned curiosity--being inquisitive. One of the great things about being a kid is the almost automatic way we absorb information and experiences. How important is it to appeal not just to curiosity, but to imagination and advancing children's knowledge and understanding of the natural world around them?
Susan Westhoff: Hearts are incredibly important. I always say that kids are naturally scientists, and they sometimes look at me curiously like they don't understand. But if you've ever been around children, you know they ask questions. They ask questions constantly. It's part of their nature. And that is, you know, at its core, that's what a scientist is doing all the time. They're asking a question. They're testing a theory or a hypothesis and seeing what happens. If it doesn't play out the way they think it will, they'll change one element and keep testing. Kids naturally do that through play. And so, it's incredibly important to all of our exhibits at the museum, through all of our experiences at the Nature Center and our programs in schools, that we embrace that natural tendency that they have to ask questions to be curious, to try things out themselves with hands-on activities. It's the core of who we are and how we develop our program.
David Fair: And, of course, the hope is that we all desire to and continue to learn and experience as we age. So, what goes into the design at Leslie Science and Nature Center and the Hands-On Museum to inspire that curiosity through the entire age spectrum, from toddler to great grandparent?
Susan Westhoff: That's my favorite part of our work. It happens in different ways. So, at the museum, we'll find that we have multigenerational engagement around exhibits. So, there will be grandparents playing with kids because a lot of the exhibits require more than one person. So, if you have a grandparent bringing their three-year-old or their seven-year-old to the museum, their grandchild can play, but they'll have a much richer experience with someone else at the exhibit with them. So, you'll find a grandparent whispering on the whisper dishes to their five-year-old across the room. It's so much fun to see it bring out the child in the adult and them having that same spark of curiosity and interest and having fun. In programs, in our new preschool programs, we actually engage the parents very intentionally because we're seeing that a lot of our preschool families have kids that don't necessarily intuitively know how to encourage their child to play with other kids because we didn't actually do that for a year or two. So, a lot of our programs, we've adjusted to coaching the parents or supporting the parents and understanding that it's okay for their kids to get messy. It's okay for their kids to try something and have it fail and encouraging those parents through that process.
David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU. We continue an early Earth Day edition of Washtenaw United. Earth Day to be observed this coming Saturday with a theme for 2023 of "Invest in Our Planet". Susan Westhoff is helping us learn more about the educational and awareness investments being made in our community from her post as President and Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum and Leslie Science and Nature Center. As we move further into the climate crisis, Susan, it's going to take an investment in STEM education and outcomes to give us the best chance of coming out the other side. Based on your professional experience, what you see on a day-to-day and annual basis, at what level is your optimism?
Susan Westhoff: Oh, it depends on the day, David. It really does. Today, I'm feeling optimistic, and I think it has to do with my own children. I see them not giving up. And kids in general tend to be natural optimists, although they've all been through a lot with the pandemic and had their own challenges. I think that if adults can listen to children and we can work more together as a community, we have the opportunity and we have a lot of the answers and solutions available to us to make change--make positive change--with the climate. I'm thankfully in a lot of interesting circles around Washtenaw County, and there are people working at literally all levels through housing, through food access, through habitat restoration, through government policy. There are people working in so many different facets of this community to make positive change for this community. So, I'd like to think that, through the Hands-On Museum and Leslie Science and Nature Center, we're able to embrace that and help bring kids into the conversation and make sure that folks continue to remember that children and families have a key role to play as we're raising these young adults and helping them understand that we haven't given up, that there isn't a lack of answers. There's an ability for us to all work together and make something positive happen.
David Fair: Well, as you mentioned, when your Earth Day Festival rolls around Sunday, April 23rd, it is meant to be fun and engaging. What are you most looking forward to? Is there something in particular that always puts that smile on your face and gives you even greater hope for the future?
Susan Westhoff: We always do a parade, and kids dress up as different animals, but several of our staff and volunteers dress up as different animals. And they have instruments, and they parade around the whole site through all the different booths of the different community organizations and businesses, nonprofits. And it is so much fun. It's so much fun to see parents, you know, banging on a drum, wearing maybe animal ears or a tail and just being goofy. And I think a lot of us don't have enough opportunities to be silly together and allow ourselves to lighten up a little bit and enjoy community. And that's what I look forward to.
David Fair: Well, thank you for the time today. And, once again, happy early Earth Day. I appreciate your spending some 11 or 12 minutes with us today.
Susan Westhoff: I truly appreciate it, too. Thank you so much, David.
David Fair: That is Susan Westhoff, president and executive director of the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum and Leslie Science and Nature Center--our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on the discussion and to get all the links and information about the Earth Day Festival, Sunday, April 23rd, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County. We bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
Leslie Science and Nature Center (LS&NC) was once the home and laboratory of Ann Arbor residents and nature enthusiasts, Eugene and Emily Leslie. Today, it is a special place where people of all ages can explore 50 acres of land and Black Pond Woods.
United Way of Washtenaw County is proud to partner with Leslie to feature the Center’s volunteer opportunities that center on STEM education, families, and the environment, on UWWC’s virtual volunteer center, Volunteer Washtenaw (www.volunteerwashtenaw.org).
If you’re interested in volunteering during Earth Week or participating in environment-focused activities, visit Volunteer Washtenaw for open opportunities.
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU todayto keep your community NPR station thriving.