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Science Museums in the Digital Age

By guest blogger Alyssa Morones

The American Museum of Natural History in New York is working to creatively engage students in science education through hands-on activities and technology. In a webinar Thursday hosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education, Barry Joseph, associate director for digital learning at AMNH, talked about ways his brick-and-mortar museum is encouraging connected learning and helping teachers go "beyond the field trip."

Through a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the museum is working to find out "what youth could do when removed from a restricted school environment," said Joseph during the webinar.  "We're working together to allow students to access resources an institution like ours can provide."

Changes in technology are also propelling changes in science education, as scientists increasingly rely on digital tools to do what they do. These tools include new technology such as 3D printers or technological tools to share data. One example of this Joseph gave was Morphobank, an online database of morphology, dealing with the biological structure of organisms, that allows scientists to share data, research, and findings and gives them a chance to work together over the Web to continue this research.  

"We want to be able to help people [who are] not in the museum connect to it and play with the concepts they're learning about, not just talk about them," said Joseph. "The museum is not just based on something from 100 years ago. Scientists are working hard now to advance knowledge in all sorts of areas."

The museum also created augmented reality games that can be played in the exhibits, including an application that allows a users' phone to see microbiomes, or symbiotic ecological communities. The game puts players in the context of working with scientists to figure out and understand more deeply how these systems work. 

"It allows them to think critically about how games can be designed to teach," said Joseph, and "to think about teaching others and produce something that can be sent out through a number of different mediums."

AMNH is also using new versions of Minecraft—the very popular computer game—that relate directly to the museum's exhibits. In the past year, Joseph and his team have used the game to introduce youth to the science of farming, poison, and geology. Foodcraft, a day-long experience, let youth go into Minecraft to learn about farming, food processing, and food trade. Then, when students went to the museum exhibit about trade, they could see the issue of global food trade up close. 

Another strategy mentioned by Joseph is "badges" that students can receive through the museum's program. These badges, an alternative to the grades students would receive in traditional classroom education, let students choose what learning they want to undertake and demonstrate.

This strategy isn't unique to AMNH. The Smithsonian also uses digital badges with its Q?rius learning center, letting visitors earn them for documenting their learning experiences through the program. At the learning center, students can participate in hands-on experiences related to museum exhibits and use the same scientific instruments as Smithsonian scientists. 

Joseph also encouraged teachers to find online communities and to make connections at places or institutions to help further their students' learning.

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