It was the toad’s moment. After the long wait and the big move, he at last returned to the spotlight before dozens of gaping schoolchildren. Traveling the room in a clear, acrylic box, the palm-size amphibian uttered not a single croak, but delivered a lesson all the same.
“He’s very soft, a little bit wet. Feel the inside of your mouth with your tongue. He feels like that. He has bumps – toads have bumps, but frogs don’t,” docent Barbara Salerno told the first school tour of the Great Valley Museum’s grand new digs. The natural history museum occupies most of the ground floor of the $70 million Science Community Center on the Modesto Junior College West Campus.
It opens officially April 4, but student events and tours have opened the door for early visits. Tuesday morning, Martone Elementary third-graders traipsed three-quarters of a mile to become the first tour group of what promises to be a busy spring.
“We’re learning about habitat and the solar system. They all did their animal studies report, where they tell about its habitat, predators,” said teacher Melissa Qualle. “This is our lead-in to the solar system. This will be getting them excited for that.”
In its new quarters, the museum has both. Students crooked their necks, looking up at a giant sphere illustrating the Earth’s plant life and the effects of weather. Other sphere-based lessons cover geology and stars.
“They can show us more here. It’s larger and the kids get a better view,” said parent volunteer Veronica Fernandez. After the tour, she said she’d be back. “I have two more kids I need to show it to,” she said.
Docent Mike Clarke took classes through expansive displays of animal taxidermy in wetland, stream, grassland and woodland settings. Mounted in lifelike motion, once skittish or nocturnal creatures remain frozen in view through explanations, questions and staring stragglers.
Birds appeared to gaze back at eye level with the third-graders as Clarke called their attention to a burrowing owl that, he pointed out, does not dig. Gophers dig the holes that the owl claims as its own – not fair, Clarke said, “but that’s what happens in nature. Everything’s connected to everything else.”
Live exhibits, including the toad, a tiger salamander and a hissing cockroach, had Tuesday’s young visitors leaning forward – and sometimes squirming sideways.
Waiting to touch a large lizard, Matthew Davis said his favorite display was, “Everything!” The crawling critter held the third-grader’s rapt attention. But then, Matthew’s eyes slid to wall-mounted cages holding slithering captives. “I like to watch snakes,” he said, grinning ear-to-ear.
See the museum and catch a planetarium show for $5 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and on Telescope Night, 8 to 10 p.m. April 3. The Great Valley Museum will have regular hours starting April 4, open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. School tours can still book spots on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays by calling (209) 575-6196.