Title:Building and Sustaining Learning Communities
Authors:Nancy Hechinger
Publication:MW99: Museums and the Web 1999

The American Museum of Natural History was founded almost 130 years ago. It is one of the world's pre-eminent natural history museums, a leading scientific research institution, especially in the fields of systematic and evolutionary biology, vertebrate paleontology and anthropology. The Museum's founders envisioned an institution "furnishing popular instruction and recreation" and "encouraging and developing the study of the Natural Sciences." Throughout its history, the Museum has developed and sustained an active education agenda with a full complement of programs and activities for learners of all ages and backgrounds, across a broad spectrum of scientific topics. This agenda includes thousands of class visits (more than 500,000 students a year); workshops and courses for thousands of teachers ( more than 10,000 a year); more than 200 hundred public programs (e.g., lectures, performances, film series, workshops) annually; and numerous programs designed for groups that traditionally have been under-represented in science, that are under-served by schools, or for which museums are not a regular destination (e.g., minorities, girls, and the disabled). Through exhibitions and programs, the Museum has served as a bridge between the scientific community and the lay public, educating and entertaining generations of New Yorkers and visitors to the City from across the nation and the globe. To better serve and educate its audiences, which are multilingual and come from highly diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, the Museum has recently completed a strategic planning process in which it reaffirmed its twin missions of science and education and planned for their further integration. The plan underlines the Museum's responsibility and commitment to serve as a platform for educating the public about science, the process of science, and scientific issues of pressing public concern. It emphasizes the strategic importance of partnerships and the use of technology, and heralds the National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology as a vehicle for moving the Museum's educational activities beyond its walls. As the Museum approaches the new century, it is also developing dramatic new exhibition foci and resources. These comprise exhibition and programming relating to: 1) biodiversity, promoting an understanding of the range and variety of life on the planet, its importance to life on Earth, threats to its existence, and strategies for its sustainable development; 2) Earth and planetary sciences, promoting an understanding of the dynamic processes that shaped and continue to shape the planet; and 3) astrophysics, promoting an understanding of the universe, galaxies, stars, and planets. In all of these new exhibitions the focus is on the scientific enterprise-what we know (and don't know) and how we know it. The new halls and the efforts of the National Center will provide unparalleled resources for communicating science to the public, increasing science literacy not only at the Museum but around the country. About The National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology: With its long tradition of excellence in research, the array of scientific resources on which it can draw ( including a collection of more than 32 million artifacts and specimens, its scientific staff of more than 200 men and women who go on more than 100 research expeditions a year), the impressive size of its audience, and its historic dedication to public education, the Museum is positioned to assume a significant new national role in advancing standards of scientific literacy nationwide. The National Center is advancing this objective by developing educational materials, programs, and activities that capture the scientific resources and spirit of the Museum, make science more accessible, and promote the teaching and learning of essential twenty-first-century skills. Its efforts are directed at audiences of all ages and in all places (homes, schools, libraries, planetaria, science centers, colleges and universities, and community-based organizations), and take advantage of the power of information and telecommunications technologies. New technologies present new challenges as well as opportunities. It is not enough to say that we must wire all classrooms to the Internet. What will students find when they get there? It is not enough to say that students can follow scientists on an expedition. How will it fit into the standards teachers are being asked to teach? It is not enough to say that we will connect children to real science and real scientists. How can these programs work so that children have that contact, but scientists can get their work done? It makes no sense to bring advanced technologies -such as the Internet, interactive television, and advanced image processing and simulation tools -to twenty-first-century classrooms if we continue to teach in nineteenth-century ways. In the first two years of operation we have … developed a middle school curriculum on Biodiversity (called Biodiversity Counts) that integrates print, hands-on outdoor activities, natural history drawing and online technology. Now being piloted in 115 schools in 39 states. … redesigned the Museum's Public web site, … developed a digital publishing system to enable people throughout the Museum to create their own websites that can connect to the Public Site … webcast a number of scientific conferences, … co-produced an interactive televised broadcast on the Mars landing, developed 'Bulletins' that update the science presented in the new halls, … created at least 20 web sites for targeted communities ( from 'lapware' for parents of young children to use with their pre-schoolers to an extensive site on Black Smokers, undersea volcanoes, targeted to high school earth science classes. … taken over a million people on online expeditions to the Gobi Desert, the Juan de Fuca ridge, Gabon, Bolivia, Siberia, and Australia. Some of these expeditions have been in partnership with Discovery Channel On Line, some have been first-person dispatched from the scientists themselves back to out web site. We are experimenting with targeting audiences, distribution mechanisms, business models to support our ongoing work, and interactivity. We are embarking on several major new projects that focus on developing online learning communities, including professional development of teachers and at least 3 other middle school science curricula. We propose to show some of the work we have done--warts and all. What we have learned, what we did well, what didn't work. More importantly we would like to discuss the kinds of issues we are trying to address--the problem as we posed it to ourselves. We hope this might be a contribution to the kinds of questions, all of our institutions are wrestling with. What's the Issue? Our big issue has been that the American Museum of Natural History is in a way a 'temple of evidence". People come here to see real things--real dinosaurs, real meteorites, real totem poles. Our mandate is to take the resources beyond the walls, but all of these resources lose their "Aha!" quality when digitized and put on a 13 inch screen. Here is how we framed our challenge - how do we retain reality when we go virtual? There are at least two major categories of resources that we could tap into--ones that are not as apparent when you walk through the doors: our scientists and their work, and the affection and connection that the community feels for this place (this community includes not only the New York are, but is global through tourism, and certainly throughout the scientific community...we find that many scientists were inspired on a field trip here in their youth) . Going beyond the walls has come to mean going behind the scenes, designing experiences for visitors they couldn't have at the museum, and trying to figure out how to build learning communities online. The issues we are facing, dealing with--are issues we all face as educators, and museum educators.