Friday, October 1, 2010

Strand by Strand: Emotional Engagement at the Museum of the Earth

This is the first in a series of posts inspired by the National Research Council report Learning Science in Informal Environments: People Places and Pursuits. The report outlines Six Strands of informal science learning. Each of my posts will focus on a museum exhibit that exemplifies one of these Strands. This post also appears as a review on ExhibitFiles.

Strand One: Developing Interest in Science

"... personal interest and enthusiasm are important for supporting children's participation in learning science." (Learning Science, 43)





If you're not interested in science, chances are you won't want to learn about it. And that's why Developing an Interest in Science is the first Strand in the NRC report. One of the best ways to foster an interest in science is through personal discovery. The feeling of discovery is very emotional and memorable and it helps to build deep, personal connections. Learning Science refers to this as "emotional engagement". The Museum of the Earth of Ithaca, New York knows the power of emotional engagement and invites visitors to make their own personal discoveries in their Fossil Lab.

The Fossil Lab is a facilitated table in the corner of Beneath an Ancient Sea, a gallery in the permanent exhibit Journey Through Time. There, volunteers call visitors over to a series of bins overflowing with locally found fossil-rich shale.


“If you find a fossil, you can keep it,” they say.

I can’t think of a more enticing proposition. On my recent visit to the museum I watched two kids, maybe 5 and 7, sit at this table for a good half hour, jumping up with excitement whenever they found a trilobite or a brachiopod and proudly showing their finds to their mother. The volunteer scientists behind the counter helped them identify their fossils, but of course the real prize was the thrill of discovery and taking home a special treasure.


It came as no surprise to learn from one of the scientists volunteering at the table that day that this experience is incredibly labor intensive to maintain and staff. They have to pore over most of the shale before it goes out on the table to ensure good fossil content and the table must be staffed at all times. On my rainy Saturday visit there were no staff members on the floor except for in that corner. The museum realized they had a successful, popular activity and made it their priority. At other museums, these kinds of facilitated experiences are often overlooked or ruled out for lack of resources, but even a small museum like the Museum of the Earth can maintain a docent station like the Fossil Lab if they decide it's important enough.

Judging from the squeals of excitement coming from the Fossil Lab, I’d say the Museum of the Earth made an excellent call. There’s no doubt in my mind that the children I watched will be talking about their discoveries and showing off their souvenir fossils for years to come. The highly emotional experience of discovering something for yourself not only builds strong memories, it gives you a sense of ownership and personal connection to what you're learning about. And it's through those connections that you start developing the interest in science that provides the foundation for science learning.

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