Area Preschoolers get a leg up on STEM learning at the Grand Rapids Public Museum

This spring, more than 1,500 area preschoolers from Head Start for Kent County and other early education programs visited the Grand Rapids Public Museum thanks to PNC Foundation grant-funded field trips.
Encouraging curiosity and preserving history, the Grand Rapids Public Museum is the perfect playground for preschoolers to explore science, history, culture and, of course, the carousel.

This spring, more than 1,500 area preschoolers from Head Start for Kent County and other early education programs visited the museum, participating in hands-on activities and touring the exhibit Creatures of Light, which highlights bioluminescent organisms like fireflies and deep-sea creatures.

This is the second year for the PNC Foundation grant-funded field trips, but this year it focused on reaching Head Start students, typically a more diverse and low-income population.

“By offering the opportunity for pre-K children to visit the museum, utilizing our educational resources and specialized early childhood programs, we are providing early exposure to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) concepts that will help them throughout the rest of their lives,” says Dale Robertson, president and CEO of Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Dale RobertsonThe museum’s staff develops special programming for the preschoolers, which includes a reading and listening component, craft activity, and other age-appropriate lessons related to a current exhibit. Past exhibits included Whales: Giants of the Deep and The Robot Zoo.

“We work really well as a team to build programs that are dynamic and strong in science content,” says Dr. Stephanie Ogren, director of science, of the collaboration with Rob Schuitema, director of education. “This is such a young age group and we’re tailoring those programs to that age group.”

This year’s $25,000 PNC grant enabled nearly 70 classrooms of three- and four-year-olds to visit the museum for about 90 minutes. Besides making their own firefly, students visiting in May are learning some of the basics behind how bioluminescence works, or the ability to generate light through a chemical reaction; why creatures glow—for mating, communication and survival; and more about where they live.

Students make fireflies while learning about bioluminescence.“Most of the students see fireflies,” Ogren says. “When they get that connection to place, they make that connection to nature and (better) understand.”

Museum staff praised the partnership with PNC and hope it’s something that continues. The field trips are a great way to expose young children to a cultural institution and STEM concepts, and it’s also allowed teachers to extend the learning to the classroom, tying it to insects and other science studies.

"Everyone has their own learning styles, and at the museum we incorporate all of these learning styles into each program to ensure each child is touched,” says Robertson.

As a company, PNC has focused its philanthropic efforts on early childhood education initiatives through its Grow Up Great campaign. The $350 million, bilingual initiative began in 2004 and helps prepare children from birth to five years old for success in school and life.

PNC committed $2.1 million for a three-year program in science and the arts for preschool students in 2010, and extended the program in 2014. The company recognizes the importance of early childhood education opportunities for children, their families, and the greater community, says Sean Welsh, PNC Regional President.

“We want to make sure our money is going to high-impact, data-driven programs,” he says. “These are true investments in kids and the community.”

Sean WelshAlso this spring, the PNC Foundation announced a new initiative through, a popular website where teachers can crowdfund projects to support pre-K teachers in public, charter, and Head Start classrooms.

The PNC foundation committed $5 million to match, dollar-for-dollar, donations that support pre-K and Head Start projects listed on The goal is to encourage individuals to help support preschool programs and project requests with their own donations. PNC’s matching dollars help fund eligible requests up to $1,500 per project.

“We want as many teachers as possible to know about it,” says Robert Darmanin, PNC’s VP Regional Media Relations. “We want to see the teachers out there posting projects so employees and the community can help match them.”

Thanks to the PNC grant, has expanded funding to include project requests from Head Start teachers for the first time. A recent study by the National Head Start Association showed that 94 percent of teachers say they need more resources to enrich learning, but 84 percent are unable to fund the experiences. Often, those teachers pay for extra supplies out of their own pockets; 88 percent reported spending up to $500 per year.

West Michigan teachers are encouraged to go on and post a project or need. Common requests are for learning materials, resources for field trips, speakers, art supplies, science equipment, technology, and visits from specialized educators.

Likewise, individuals can visit the site and donate to a project. To encourage employee participation, the PNC Foundation also provided 14,500 PNC employees who volunteered with Grow Up Great $50 electronic gift cards to select classroom projects they want to support.

“What’s really cool, it puts the money right into the classroom,” Darmanin says. “They vet all the requests. It’s so easy. You can run a search of preschools in your area.”

This is the single biggest Grow Up Great project the PNC Foundation has funded, Darmanin says. The initiative will support preschool classrooms in every state where PNC has a significant presence, including Michigan. The duration of the match program depends on the number of project requests and donations.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist and professional writer based in West Michigan. Learn more about her by visiting her website or Facebook.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio
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