Science Projects

Cranbrook Institute of Science (CIS) has long held a special place in the hearts of many area schoolchildren. Field trips, weekend family outings, and onsite demonstrations in schools and community centers are a part of the fabric of the metro Detroit K-12 educational experience.

Elementary students visit the Cranbrook Institute of Science in 1935. Robert T. Hatt, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

A recent discovery in our collections furthered my appreciation of the Institute’s educational outreach and its commitment to ensuring access to the world of science for all its surrounding communities. It all started with the folder titled “Pontiac Area Urban League, 1988” in the Institute of Science Director’s Records.

The Pontiac Area Urban League (PAUL), was founded in 1950 as an affiliate of the National Urban League. An integral part of PAUL’s mission was to improve educational opportunities for underserved residents. Through its Education Committee, they partnered with Pontiac Public Schools in the 1980s to empower students of color to seek equity in science and math education by providing real-world role models and encouraging parent involvement. In 1988 this effort took the form of a project that focused specifically on middle school students and lead PAUL to approach Cranbrook Institute of Science. The resulting partnership formed the basis of CIS’s relationship with students in the School District of the City of Pontiac that continues to this day.

A visiting school group, 1966. Robert T. Hatt, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Correspondence in the CIS Director’s Records suggests that CIS had already been considering educational outreach efforts to Pontiac residents. Janet M. Johnson, Director of Education, states in a 1988 memo to Director Robert M. West regarding the possible partnership with PAUL: “This may be another avenue for us to pursue interests with Pontiac.” West expresses his “delight” a few months later in a letter addressed to PAUL’s Interim Director, Jaqueline Washington:

We much anticipate working closely with you as our neighbors and to open the Institute of Science to Pontiac in as many ways as possible. This cooperative activity will help Cranbrook fulfill its science education mission and simultaneously will add to the quality of life and the cultural opportunities for Pontiac.

The outcome of an initial meeting in August 1988 proposed a cooperative effort including Pontiac Area Urban League, Pontiac Public Schools, Cranbrook Institute of Science, and a yet to be determined local corporation. Working under the title Pontiac Celebrates Science the group’s original goals included an outreach component in the Pontiac area, sixth-grade student visits to CIS, a reception held at CIS for civic leaders, and CIS Saturday programming for Pontiac families.

By early October plans were in place for a kick-off event at the Institute. The reception, sponsored by Perry Drugs, with a program by CIS, was intended to stimulate excitement within the Pontiac community for the project’s goals. Subsequent visits to CIS from sixth graders in each of Pontiac’s five middle schools took place. On Saturday January 28th, the Institute held Family Day, welcoming Pontiac preK-12 students, their families, and friends to tour the entire museum and take part in extra programs designed exclusively for their visit. These included: Wonderful Rocket and The Winter Sky Tonight in the planetarium; hands-on activities like Fossil Lab and Bubble-ology; and the Discovery Room where animal and plant specimens could be examined. The CIS 1988-1989 Annual Report confirms the success of all three program components.

CIS visit to an area classroom, 1994. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

In 1989, with funding from The Skillman Foundation, the Institute of Science refocused on the unrealized outreach aspect of the 1988 Pontiac project and expanded it to create Science in Action, a hands-on program that brought CIS staff into four Pontiac and six Detroit fourth grade classrooms. With both cities experiencing population declines and dealing with the subsequent results of decreased school funding, Cranbrook Institute of Science sought to help motivate students and teachers in applying science to everyday life. In a letter from PAUL Director Hayes Jones to CIS Director West in 1990, he unequivocally points to the importance of supplementary programs like Science in Action: “the Urban League intervenes in the social and economic structures where the interests of minorities and the poor are at stake, challenging the public and private sectors in order to achieve equal results for our constituency.”

Redubbed Science on the Move in the following years, the program expanded to include science kits, a quarterly newsletter, and family passes to CIS, in addition to classroom instruction. Today, Cranbrook Institute of Science continues to provide valuable STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) educational opportunities for over 30,000 students in Southeastern Michigan, including Pontiac, through Science on the Go!

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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