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Cornell has major role in the Discovery Trail -- partnership of eight local hands-on learning facilities

Ithaca doesn't qualify for membership in the G8, but it has its own powerhouse group of eight. This cluster does not discuss aiding children in Africa, but rather, it seeks to educate every child and adult in Ithaca via hands-on learning. 

This coalition is the Discovery Trail, a 33-mile loop of exploration. It consists of eight local cultural institutions: four Cornell-affiliated facilities -- the Cornell Plantations, the Johnson Museum of Art, the Museum of the Earth at the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) and the Lab of Ornithology -- and four regional centers -- the Tompkins County Public Library (TCPL), the Sciencenter, the History Center in Tompkins County and the Cayuga Nature Center.

The Discovery Trail was conceived six years ago when the director of the TCPL approached the other centers to collaborate in applying for a grant. The application failed, but the idea succeeded, and the cultural cluster of local institutions formed a cooperative for interactive learning and marketing their educational offerings.

In seeking to both educate the local community and promote tourism, the Discovery Trail aims to strengthen the connections among science, art, history and the natural world. This alliance among disciplines has had Donald Rakow, director of Cornell Plantations, leading tours on botanical art at the Johnson Museum and the Cayuga Nature Center consulting with the Plantations on which plants to get to attract butterflies. 

The latest development in the Discovery Trail's growth is the Kids Discover the Trail initiative to introduce schoolchildren to each of the institutions during their first eight years of school. 

"Our vision is that by the eighth grade, every child in the Ithaca city schools will have visited all eight sites," said Charlie Trautmann, executive director of the Sciencenter and adjunct associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell. He notes that 800 students took part in a pilot version of the program this spring. 

Rakow, who became chair of the Discovery Trail's board this month, hopes that the trail "will serve as a model for how relatively small communities like Ithaca can effectively introduce residents of all ages to diverse cultural institutions." 

In an age of keyboard conversation and hypertext roaming, the Discovery Trail's hands-on learning approach, Trautmann said, is consistent with the words of Confucius: "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand." Each of the programs at the respective institutions was developed with local teachers and is keyed to the state's educational learning standards. 

For example, this past year the TCPL gave kindergartners library cards and time to explore science books. First-graders peered through the ribs of PRI's whale skeleton and toured the Museum of the Earth, while second-graders explored magnetism at the Sciencenter. Cornell Plantations' Raylene Ludgate introduced third-graders to the Mundy Wildflower Garden, while the History Center led fourth-graders through the Eight Square Schoolhouse, where they spent the day "living" in the 1890s. Fifth-graders from various schools and ethnic backgrounds met each other while romping through the Cayuga Nature Center's ropes course, sixth-graders explored Japanese art at the Johnson Museum, and seventh-graders learned about the biology of bird migration at the Lab of Ornithology.

The Discovery Trail's collaborative efforts but reach deep into the community. While new ground was being broken on Mars, for example, a model rover built by Cornell students was on display at the Sciencenter, a museum that was largely conceived by Cornell faculty members and whose two boards include many Cornell staff and faculty members. The model is now on tour, along with four other traveling exhibitions on science, math and engineering -- all created in collaboration with Cornell faculty, staff and students -- that reach 500,000 museum visitors annually throughout the country. Two of the most popular exhibits include Tech City, developed in collaboration with the College of Engineering, and It's a Nano World, which was created in close collaboration with Cornell's Nanobiotechnology Center and opened at Epcot in 2003.

"The Discovery Trail is unique," said Trautmann. "There is no other example in the United States where university and independent cultural organizations collaborate so closely and so effectively to enhance the education and quality of life of their community."

Cornell is proud to be associated with the Discovery Trail, according to Gary Stewart, Cornell's assistant director of community relations. "It is unique for a small community to have so many facilities of this quality," he said. "The exhibits at the Sciencenter, for instance, are nationally recognized and constantly changing, as are those at the Johnson Museum. None of the sites is stagnant; they have real bounce to them."

Kerry Gilfillan is an intern at the Cornell News Service.

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