November/December 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 2

Reaching Beyond the Museum’s Walls: Virtual Programs

Posted: Tuesday, October 24th, 2017

by Clea Matson

“My students were actively engaged in the discussions. They enjoyed participating in the “scientist” portion with the hand movements….thinking, how we live in our world, etc. Being able to see themselves on the webcam was a bonus. They also enjoyed seeing a real live person.”

-3rd Grade, Redwood City, CA

What are Virtual Programs?

The California Academy of Sciences’ Virtual Programs are opportunities for an entire class to leave the school “virtually” for 30 minutes to an hour. With no travel time or permission slips, the class can visit a small part of the Academy, embarking with a live educator on a student-led exploration of the rainforest, our solar system, or an African penguin colony–to name a few possible destinations.

Geared toward classrooms and homeschool groups, these programs vary in grade level from Kindergarten to 8th grade and are designed to be interactive experiences where students’ questions and observations can drive the focus of the program. Educators leading the Academy’s Virtual Programs respond directly to students and adjust the program in the moment based on student interaction. These programs are also designed to promote interactive, student-led experiences, using some or all of the following strategies:

  • Including time to observe: During the Rainforest Meals: Adaptations for Eating program, students have time to closely observe rainforest animals and think about what they notice, and what that makes them wonder. Some programs take advantage of the Academy’s webcams to look closely at animals live in their habitats.
  • Encouraging students to think and share with each other: During the Sharks, Rays, and Their Lagoons program, students use their own observations as a basis for asking scientific questions and planning and carrying out investigations. Choosing one of their own questions, students design and carry out a 5-minute investigation using the underwater webcams. During this investigation, students observe, collect evidence, analyze and explain their results.
  • Providing opportunities to get active: The K-3 program, Waddle Like a Penguin, gets students up and moving at different points throughout the program as they think about how the African penguin is adapted to its environment.
  • Pre-activities and hands-on materials: Impacts in the Solar System includes hands-on activities for which teachers can print out physical materials. During the program, the museum educator guides students through an investigation about size and scale using these hands-on materials. Tangible, hands-on activities are a high priority in the design of new Virtual Programs, with the intention of including more opportunities for students to explore instead of just looking at a screen.

Programs can be delivered in Mandarin, Cantonese, or Spanish. Bilingual programs in any of those languages are also available. The schedule for these programs is more limited due to educators’ schedules.

A note about expense and keeping it low cost

The Academy’s Virtual Programs are priced on the low end of the spectrum of similar programs nationwide, at $70 per class. Title 1 schools are eligible for a 50% discount, making the cost to qualifying classrooms just $35. In addition, if one school is signing up for a multiple of programs, every 5th program is free!

“Our grade level prior had gone to an outdoor camp and due to costs, the district said it would not be possible. We were looking for a program to support the curriculum that was engaging to the students and cost-effective. My group this year has a high number of students with attention and behavior challenges. They have trouble focusing even on short videos, but they were very attentive in this program. The administration came in to see and was very happy with what they saw.”

-4th Grade, Oakley, CA

How and why were these programs created?

Virtual Programs came about as one way to address the Academy’s desire to reach more students beyond San Francisco and the near Bay Area cities. There is a need and want for teachers and students for these types of science experiences, and the Academy’s physical building cannot necessarily hold all of the students that the Academy hopes to reach. Academy educators have also found that it’s a new experience and a lot of fun working with classrooms further and further afield.

The programs themselves are continuously revised and improved for the online environment based on teacher feedback. For example, Waddle like a Penguin (Grades K-3) started out as an online version of an in-person Academy program. Based on teacher feedback and the Academy educators’ own editing process, the program has been tailored to be a better virtual experience, and it will continue to improve based on future feedback. In fact, teachers who may have joined a Virtual Program two years ago will see significant differences in all programs, especially in how the students experience them.

Where should I start?

“The distance learning programs are age appropriate and work to provide great science learning skills to the students. The students also get a good look at how technology can be used in a different way. I think the programs are best when they are with smaller, more intimate groups. Tech comfort and access is key. The tech check-ins help a lot. It would probably be best to do tech check in a week in advance so if you realize something isn’t working, there is time to find a new solution and test again.”

-1st Grade, Oakland, CA

A great place to start is the Program Menu! As you browse, consider which program might best fit with your students. What are they curious about? What else are they learning about? You can book from 1 week to 6 months in advance, so what else will be happening that might be connected or supported during that time? If you’re ready to book:

  • Go to the booking calendar for your chosen program
  • Choose from the dates that program is offered
  • Select your preferred time.

If you’re nervous about the technology or whether you have the right equipment to make this work in your classroom, you will have an opportunity to email and ask for a technical check-in. An educator will walk you through the technology and process and let you know what to expect.

Once your program is booked, materials for a pre-activity will be emailed to you, along with a URL to join the virtual program and instructions on how to connect. All programs have a pre-activity to do with a student in the classroom before the scheduled program.

Making connections beyond the Bay Area

“Students were exposed to a bigger world. In the first few minutes of the program, students were captivated by the idea they were talking to people in real time in California. They bubbled with questions about the Academy- the coral reefs and the rainforest research.”

-8th Grade, Philadelphia, PA

The Academy’s educators are excited to connect with classrooms beyond the immediate reach of the museum’s local programs and to learn from students and teachers outside of the local community. The Academy’s Virtual Programs are constantly evolving and responding to student’s ideas and questions, from across the state and the nation.

“Each class I connect with brings a new perspective to any subject I am teaching, even if it is the 3rd time delivering that program that day. Each class has their own culture and life experiences which forms a new program experience for me. It is exciting and challenging all at the same time.”

-Jacque, Education Specialist: Distance Learning, California Academy of Sciences

Clea Matson is a Senior Associate, Teacher Professional Development at the California Academy of Sciences and is a member of CSTA.

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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