March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Making the Most of Museums

Posted: Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

by Jim Kisiel

Be honest. If you’re a science teacher, and you read the title of this column, chances are the first thing you thought of was a field trip. Sure, you may have reminisced about that cool third grade field trip to the natural history museum, where you saw a real fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton for the first time and finally understood just how big they were. Or perhaps a painful reminder of the last class trip to the zoo that you attempted came to mind—an experience involving forgotten lunches, disgruntled parents, and a skeptical administrator convinced that your test scores would drop due to lost instructional time. Whatever the case, the school field trip is probably the most common approach for bringing the resources of the museum to students. When asked why field trips are important to their curriculum, teachers report a wide variety of motivations ranging from student exposure to new interests, fostering student interest in science or other topics, and of course, supporting classroom learning.[i] There is a growing base of educational research related to best practices in field trip pedagogy; this research identifies strategies that are likely to result in effective student learning experiences.[ii]

But there remains a problem. Informal science education institutions (ISEIs), such as science centers, natural history museums, aquariums and zoos, nature centers and the like, typically offer a variety of supports for K-12 science teachers that go far beyond the traditional field trip. Yet recent research studies suggest that when asked about how museums and other community organizations might support school science, the majority of teachers think ‘field trip’.[iii] Meanwhile, these institutions spend millions of dollars on science programs and materials that are underutilized.[iv]

ISEIs often provide a variety of science learning opportunities for both students AND teachers. Outreach programs, ranging from auditorium shows, to smaller hands-on classroom lessons, to unique mobile vans or trucks, can provide science-based activities to a range of grade levels on school grounds. Such programs, while still requiring some logistical preparation, bring the community institution to the school without the challenge of permissions slips, bussing arrangements or tracking lunches. ISEIs also frequently provide professional development training for teachers as well. These training opportunities may focus on a particularly challenging science concept (e.g. climate change or evolution) or exploring new pedagogies (e.g. inquiry, project-based learning, and engineering practices.) Many ISEIs have a strong web presence that not only provides information about the institution but also provide a variety of e-resources such as videos, lesson plans, and of course, science and instructional background for teachers. Some examples of outstanding websites include the University of California Museum of Paleontology, The Exploratorium,   and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

What prevents teachers from using these resources? Although there seems to be several misconceptions and concerns that affect access, one of the most common is simply a lack of awareness. Despite emails, flyers, posters, and other forms of communication, teachers in a recent study of school-museum interactions indicated that they were most likely to learn about such programs via word of mouth.3 Even informal science educators, in the same study, indicated that word of mouth was likely the most effective mode of communication! So how can we get around this contradiction? It requires teachers to be a little more attentive to those mailings and fliers stuffed in their school mailbox, and requires ISEI educators to think about how best to directly interact with teachers—perhaps reaching out to individual schools, administrators or teachers and meeting them face to face, say during a faculty meeting. In some regions, there are online portals that list a variety of science resources from multiple institutions. An example of this would be the California Regional Environmental Education Community website where you can specify region, grade level, topic, audience (teacher vs. student) and then see what programs/opportunities might suit your teaching needs.

There are two other concerns often brought up when talking about using field trips or other out-of-classroom resources to support science instruction: costs and curriculum. While limited funding and accountability issues are unlikely to disappear anytime soon, these need not be limitations. Although the costs of field trips (especially the transportation costs) may seem daunting, other ISEI K-12 resources such as professional development and outreach programs require much less funding (and may even be free.) In many instances, ISEIs can offer a limited number of ‘scholarship’ field trips, where admission and/or transportation are provided. Such programs may be described on the institution’s website, but it also pays to contact the ISEI educators directly to get more information and suggestions on how to make these resources more affordable. As for the curriculum, most ISEIs indicate alignment of their student and teacher programs with current content standards. Conversations with teachers who make use of ISEI resources on a regular basis indicate that addressing standards is rarely a challenge—the right resources can be used to support just about any learning goal.3 Yet remember that these resources are just that—materials and experiences that can help science teachers achieve their instructional goals. Although an outreach program may be listed as addressing Life Science standard 3a and 3b, it is the teachers who will ultimately use the experience as one of several strategies for helping students develop understanding. A single assembly program or even a 2-hour trip to the aquarium should not be mistaken as a ‘completed standard requirement’—good preparation, thoughtful follow-up and application of concepts will ultimately help students master the desired learning outcome.

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As we begin to dig into the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), we realize that these adjustments to how we think about science education in California (and across the country) present a new challenge. How do teachers find the resources (time, funding, and knowledge) that allow them to effectively implement the new guidelines, new strategies, and new science content required by NGSS? These new ideas, as good as they are, will require teachers to re-examine their science knowledge, their instructional practices and the resources needed to do this effectively. More than ever before, now is a great time to take a closer look at what your local aquarium, nature center, or science museum has to offer teachers. You may be surprised at what lies just outside your classroom door.

Jim Kisiel is an Associate Professor in Science Education at CSU Long Beach and is a member of CSTA.


[i] Kisiel, J. (2005). Understanding elementary teacher motivations for science fieldtrips. Science Education, 89(6), 936-955.

[ii] DeWitt, J., & Storksdieck, M. (2008). A short review of school field trips: Key findings from the past and implications for the future. Visitor Studies, 11(2), 181-197.

[iii] Kisiel, J. (in press). Clarifying the complexities of school-museum interactions: Perspectives from two communities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

[iv] Phillips, M., Finkelstein, D., & Wever-Frerichs, S. (2007). School site to museum floor: How informal science institutions work with schools. International Journal of Science Education, 29(12), 1489-1507.

 

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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