Image: College student tour guides
Mary Altaffer  /  AP
Hassan Mohamed, 19, right, tells students from the P168 school in the Bronx about mountain goats during his "Attack and Defense" tour of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
updated 7/30/2007 4:42:45 PM ET 2007-07-30T20:42:45

When a young boy loses interest in a museum tour, guide Hassan Mohamed expertly draws him back in.

And when another child interrupts, Mohamed takes it in stride. “After I finish this, I’ll answer your question,” he says gently.

Sounds like an experienced tour guide, right?

Nope.

Mohamed, 19, is a college student participating in an American Museum of Natural History program that trains young adults to become tour leaders. The program allows the students to design their own excursions through the vast institution — and uses their enthusiasm to capture the interest of even younger minds.

The program, now in its 12th year, also reflects the diversity of New York City. So far this year, tours have been offered in Cantonese, Spanish, Italian and French, said Caren Perlmutter, who is in charge of hiring the students.

Through the Museum Education and Employment Program, about 40 college students, ages 18-21, are hired. They get a month of training, and are asked to come up with a themed tour that they can teach to children’s groups over the summer.

Students create own tours
While other institutions have roles for college students, the one at the Natural History museum is unique for the way it allows students to create their own tours, said Perlmutter.

“They can explore their own interests, they go back into the halls, go up into the library, use their own resources and design tours on whatever they find most interesting,” she said.

Mary Altaffer  /  AP file
Hassan Mohamed, 19, discusses how a moose uses its horns to defend itself.
Mohamed, who attends Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., leads the “Attack and Defense” tour, focusing on how animals protect themselves and attack others. Stops include the Hall of North American Mammals, the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, and, of course, the Fossil Halls with all the dinosaur bones.

He loved the idea of creating his own tour. “It was definitely something. You could plan it the way you like — show you’re personally into it,” he said. “You tell kids something that interests you and hope that it interests them, too.”

Among the other offerings this summer: “Precious Matter,” which takes a look at what people consider to be the most important things to them, such as gold and gemstones; “Disney Tour,” which teaches children about some of the people and animals they’ve been introduced to through Disney movies; and “Insignificance,” which looks at how humans measure up in the history of the world.

A better connection
Having young tour guides is a way for the museum to better connect with young visitors, Perlmutter said.

“I think there’s a greater ability to relate to the students coming in, and a greater desire and willingness from the students coming in to learn from their peers,” she said.

Teacher Gregory Wood, who came in with the boys on Mohamed’s tour, agreed.

“It’s not an authoritative figure,” he said. “I think it’s an excellent way of doing it.”

It makes sense to Mohamed, who has spent previous summers working with kids in other environments, such as his community mosque.

“Kids normally want a friend rather than someone that oversees them,” he said.

It certainly seemed to work on the four boys who went on the tour with Mohamed. By the end of the session, the questions wouldn’t stop coming as they asked him almost everything they had ever wanted to know about natural history.

“It was good,” said Brian Martinez, an 11-year-old who was making his first visit to the museum. “I think it was more fun because he was younger and he made it more fun.”

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