Message in a Bottle

Connecting educators and students to online museum resources during COVID-19

Museums are often the first institutions voted off the funding island when money gets tight. Many of us have fond memories of grade-school field trips (mine is riding a tricycle across a wire at the Witte Museum to learn about the physics of balance) but, during a recession, outings like these vanish from school budgets. Between 2008-2011, over 40% of school administrators reported eliminating field trips. As of 2015, only 12% of schools had returned to their pre-recession field trip levels. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only provoked a new recession; it has also temporarily suspended the physical operation of both schools and museums.

Recession and pandemic aside, access to museums has never been equal for all students. Museum trips can be time-consuming and expensive for underfunded school districts. One museum educator conducted a regional study of the three countries surrounding the Wellin Museum of Art in Clinton, NY to learn why local teachers, who overwhelmingly agreed that museums were valuable institutions, did not actually take their students on any museum field trips. Surveys showed three main obstacles: lack of time, lack of funds, and difficulty justifying a museum trip to their supervising administrator. Even with a willing administration, distance alone makes museum visits impossible for schools in some rural areas.

Research suggests that museums help school-age children to not only learn information, but also to develop critical thinking skills and empathy. These effects are even stronger for students in rural and low-income districts. Because educators have long recognized the impact museums can have on students’ intellectual and personal development, they have developed creative strategies to overcome obstacles like budget and distance. Some museums, like the Boston Museum of Science, have developed programs in which museum educators visit classrooms to teach students about topics like paleontology and space through hands-on activities. In the age of COVID, however, these kinds of visits are impossible.

Physical distancing requirements have demanded unprecedented creativity from both classroom and museum educators and, in the process, produced new opportunities for collaboration that can and should outlast the pandemic. Take, for example, the Carnegie Museum System in Western Pennsylvania, composed of four separate institutions: Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Science Museum, Carnegie Museum of Natural Science, and the Andy Warhol Museum. The Carnegie Museum system has long offered resources for schools and educators, but has added new resources for online classrooms since the onset of COVID. Given that many school districts in the U.S. are still at least partially online, many parents also find themselves in the role of “educator.”

Physical distancing requirements have demanded unprecedented creativity from both classroom and museum educators and, in the process, produced new opportunities for collaboration that can and should outlast the pandemic.

            Carnegie Museum educational resources include an in-home learning page for all four museums, as well as online classroom materials from the Carnegie Science Center and the Museum of Natural History. Resources for in-home learning focus mainly on kids. These activities vary in topic and are meant to fill time, rather than follow a curriculum or lesson plan. For instance: Every day at 8:00am, the Carnegie Science Center posts something to read, something to watch, and something to do on all its social media platforms. [insert screenshots from Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook] In contrast, the Online Educator Resources are structured as lesson plans and activities for grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-12. Many of these “lesson plans” include activities and videos from the Read, Watch, Do series.

Many of the online resources generated by the Carnegie Museum system could be better integrated into curriculum-type structures to make them accessible and useful for classroom educators. For example, the Ask a Scientist Series from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (which went viral on TikTok this summer) contains 37 informative videos and counting. Currently, the video gallery is filed under “Research>Science Videos” on the website menu and consist of four pages with about nine video tiles each. This layout lends itself to the purposes of curious individual visitors. The videos are not labeled or structured for classroom use. Incorporating materials like these videos into online lesson plans and tagging them as such would enhance the Carnegie Museum System’s digital classroom offerings.

Museums have to work to make their resources accessible and useful to schools; simply producing resources is not enough. When staff from Montana’s Museum of the Rockies wanted to reach students in remote areas, they collaborated with teachers and educators from around the state to create a rich 181-page dinosaur curriculum packed with lesson themes, standards, images, and activities. This curriculum came from a larger survey project that asked over 400 educators across Montana about how the Museum of the Rockies could meet their needs. Because the museum designed this curriculum in thoughtful cooperation with teachers, it has now reached 9,067 educators in 32 counties. While these numbers do not show how many educators actually used the lesson plans in their classrooms, they do demonstrate that an exhibit-based curriculum traveled to thousands of teachers in a traceable, verifiable way.

Too many museums are sending out COVID-era digital resources like messages in a bottle, not knowing who they will reach or how they will be used. Digital materials can help democratize school-museum relationships in an exciting way, but they will be most effective when designed with and for actual educators. Careful rather than haphazard collaboration will help museums stay relevant during a global pandemic.

Works Cited

Geary, Amber. “What Makes K-12 Public School Educators Choose to Use a Museum as Part of Their Curriculum?” American Alliance of Museums, May 6, 2019.

Greene, Jay P., Brian Kisida, and Daniel H. Bowen. “The Educational Value of Field Trips.” Education Next, August 21, 2020.

Horsley, Scott. “It’s Official: U.S. Economy Is In A Recession.” NPR. NPR, June 8, 2020.

Lewin, Tamar. “Museums Take Their Lessons to the Schools.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 22, 2010.  

“Map: Where Schools Are Reopening in the US.” CNN. Cable News Network. Accessed October 5, 2020.

“MOR School Outreach Participation.” Museum of the Rockies inspires lifelong learning in science, history, culture, and art; and presents engaging, vibrant exhibits, and programming. Accessed October 5, 2020.

Patterson, Emily. “How One Montana Museum Doubled Field Trip Attendance.” Institute of Museum and Library Services, February 4, 2019.

Reeves, Richard V., and Edward Rodrigue. “Fewer Field Trips Mean Some Students Miss More than a Day at the Museum.” Social Mobility Memos. Brookings, August 2, 2016.

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