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Florida Museum shares tools of exploration with libraries in new backpack program

The backpacks will be available at all library locations starting in November. They have binoculars, a plant press, butterfly net, bug enclosure, bug lens case, hand lens, clipboard, pocket microscope and a copy of “The Nature of Florida” field guide. ©Florida Museum/Kristen Grace

BY NIKHIL SRINIVASAN

Courtesy of Florida Museum of Natural History

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – For the last two years, the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Museum in the Parks program brought children and families to local state parks for in-person exploration, learning, and hands-on fun. They got to meet scientists, explore green spaces, and check out rare artifacts from the museum’s collections while going in-depth into various topics like pollinators, birds, and geology.

Now, the program is reaching further into the community through a partnership with the Alachua County Library District to bring this experience to all library card holders. The new Exploration Backpacks contain tools and objects used by scientists when doing fieldwork, giving people a new way to experience parks in the area.

“If you want to go look for birds at Sweetwater Preserve, you have binoculars. If you’re going flower picking at a local park, you have a plant press,” said Alberto Lopez, the Florida Museum’s youth outreach coordinator. “The backpacks enhance the experience of families who may not have these items and can now see the parks through a new lens, literally.”

In addition to binoculars and a plant press, the bags also include a butterfly net, bug enclosure, bug lens, clipboard, hand lens, pocket microscope, and “The Nature of Florida” field guide. The plan is to add more objects to the backpacks as the program advances. As a bonus, when the backpack is returned, families will receive a pass for up to four free admissions to the Florida Museum’s “Butterfly Rainforest” exhibit.

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The backpacks will be available in the Library of Things section at all 12 Alachua County Library District locations starting Nov. 7 and can be borrowed for up to two weeks.

“Using the Exploration Backpacks while on walks in local parks offers students and families a way to be inspired by the process of discovery, outside the walls of the museum or library,” said Susan Wright, the Alachua County Library District’s youth services senior manager. “With this program, we are both providing indoor and outdoor engagement to make learning fun!”

The hands-on activity guides as well as the themed videos that were part of the original program will continue to be on the museum’s website and included in the backpacks via QR codes.

This reimagination of Museum in the Parks has been funded by a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services [MA-251532-OMS-22]. In addition to creating the Exploration Backpacks, the grant is also funding two years of in-person programming for youths in collaboration with four local after-school programs: Kids Count in Alachua County, Woodland Park Boys & Girls Club, Children Beyond Our Borders, and the city of Gainesville’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department.

These monthly outreach sessions will bring the children of these organizations to county parks to use the backpacks, explore, take part in activities, and meet experts. Each event will have a theme and a goal of showing participants a different side to science and nature.

By bringing these groups to the parks and having them meet and engage with researchers and experts, Lopez hopes the sessions will provide a unique, meaningful experience to children in these after-school programs who may not have been exposed to science outside the classroom.

“We really want these kids to experience local biodiversity in their actual habitat and not just in jars or through pictures,” Lopez said. “When we cover birds, for example, our scientist talks to the group, shows them the tools they use to search for birds, and then we actually go looking for them together; that’s the magic of it.”

The organizations get to keep the Exploration Backpacks after the program ends. Their staff members received training on how to use them, ensuring that they can continue to explore local parks and have these experiences with other groups in the future.

“The program is not just about seeing the animals and plants but also about imbibing an increased appreciation for these natural spaces — especially for kids who may not be able to go to these parks consistently and explore,” Lopez said. “We’re helping close that gap.”

Over the next two years, the program is anticipated to hold four outreach events every month during the school year and reach more than 2,000 children. The first outreach program was held at Morningside Nature Center on Oct. 13 with the City of Gainesville’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department and covered reptiles and amphibians.

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