Museum engages students, children and residents
Drop by the Natural History Museum at Sierra College on any week day morning and you might see energetic groups of children marching in single file along nature trails, examining skeletons of fossils of local animal inhabitants, taking a “rock walk” or testing the knowledge of college student docents.
Or you might attend the family-centered annual Dinosaur Day which draws several thousand people to the college each spring for a daylong dino fest, or perhaps catch actor Lee Stetson bringing John Muir to life in a Friday night performance. Or maybe you’d like to attend a presentation at the planetarium or find peace in a stroll through the museum’s 95-acre nature preserve.
For all this, you might just thank the science faculty of Sierra College, which founded and continues to direct and maintain the museum as a resource for their students and the community. The museum is part of the college, but is a non-profit organization that is supported through memberships as well as the community. A Sierra College Museum Committee helps plan the museum’s activities and its growth.
Sense of pride
“There is something unique at Sierra College that I hadn’t really experienced at the other places that I have worked: a sense of pride. People really connect to the college, long after they are gone,” said Keely Carroll, a biology professor who serves as the museum’s director. I think that the Museum adds to that pride that people feel about being part of this campus. I think that the community feels that sense of pride as well.”
The museum offers tours of the museum itself, the nature preserve and the planetarium. College students are also given a stipend to serve as museum docents, although faculty like earth science professor Richard Hilton, have been known to pinch hit on occasions.
“We get tremendous support from the college but our tours are also a prime source of funding,” said zoology instructor Jennifer Skillen.
Of course, faculty make extensive use of the museum in their classes for science and non-science majors as well.
“In the fall, when we offer our Natural History class, we get people fresh out of high school and people who haven’t been to school for decades. That’s the great thing about the community college system,” Skillen said. “You can find a class that’s fairly inexpensive and pursue your interests.”
Four miles of trails
For botany instructor Shawna Martinez the beauty of the museum is in the nature preserve.
“In all of the community colleges I’ve visited, I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” she said. “If we added it all up, we’d have four miles of trails around here,” she said.
Martinez explained that because Sierra College was originally “in the middle of nowhere,” toward the foothills east of Sacramento, it had access to a large area of undeveloped land. Over the years, supporters were able to convince the college to officially incorporate its nature area into the college’s master plan, thereby preserving it into the future.
“It’s been my goal to have this area preserved since I was a student here,” she explained, while overlooking a still-flowing creek.
Like the large nature preserve, it’s unlikely the college actually planned a museum of natural history as part of its campus. The museum was founded by happenstance in 1967 by R. A. Underhill, an avid collector like many science instructors. His collection grew and grew until he could no longer keep it at home. Over the years, the collection also outgrew the original space it was given in the science building and expanded into the hallways, which are now lined with huge display cases. It was Underhill who organized the collections into a full-fledged museum.
“Then people outside the college began donating things. Some were great specimens, but we had to start diplomatically steering some of them away,” Skillen said.
Because of those avid collectors, Sierra College students as well as students from the surrounding area are able to get an up close and personal look at the biodiversity around them.
“Of course students can use the internet or we could use a whiteboard, but it’s not the same as seeing things in person,” Skillen said.
The museum is also a beacon promoting science in the area.
“Science suffers from an image problem,” Keely Carroll said. “Being a scientist seems so unattainable for so many. When children come here on tours, they can learn that just by being a community college student they can go on dinosaur digs and find fossils. Making those jobs attainable for them, I think, inspires the next generation of students. Parents can also see how they can help make their children’s dreams happen. You don’t have to go straight into a four-year university, you can start here.”