Fifth graders from Ortega Elementary Museum Studies Magnet School in Jacksonville, Florida, use a hands-on wet lab at the Marine Science Education Center in Atlantic Beach, Florida, one of Ortega’s seven museum partners. Photo credit: ANN MCGLAUFLIN
Museums and school districts around the country have partnered to create museum magnet schools, which combine formal and informal learning. These schools offer some advantages for science classes. “Partner[ing] with The Discovery Museum and Planetarium lends itself to many opportunities exclusive to a ‘space’ museum,” says Janine Walsh, seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Interdistrict Discovery Magnet School (IDMS) in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The museum “has exposed my primarily urban students to events that they would not experience[in] their neighborhood schools,…[including] teleconferencing with NASA scientists from Operation Ice Bridge, a polar ice cap survey mission, [and] live viewing of the Orion Spacecraft.”
“Museum staff [co-teach] at the school, [and] our student coaches and interns [work] with younger children at the museum,” says Claire Gold, IDMS founder. She also notes that “most elementary teachers are weak in science and need expert, knowledgeable support” that museums can provide.
“A lot of people have a misconception about the word ‘museum;’ they associate it with having no interaction with the exhibits, just looking,” says Josh Hunter, seventh-grade science teacher at Moore Square Magnet Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Our idea is it’s all about interaction. [For example,] our students do experiments with scientists at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.”
“We’re able to take students to…an active research museum, and [they] see how the science they learn…is useful in the real world,” says Krista Adair, sixth grade science teacher at Moore. “We scaffold so at the beginning of the year, they do little experiments and some data tracking. Then they can see how it works in the museum setting, [which has] a lot more resources and equipment.”
Last year, “we took all 500 [Moore] students to the museum” for an event featuring “scientists with many different research areas and talents,” says Julianna Martinez, seventh-grade science teacher. “We [also] had an opportunity for young scientists to come to our school and present their work.” At these events, students heard from scientists who have succeeded despite having disabilities. “These kinds of experiences really touch the students,” she observes.
Museum magnet teachers cite the benefits of assessing students’ knowledge through the exhibits they create about what they learned. “Our students create exhibits that are more than just a bulletin board item. They try to make them museum-quality,” says Ann McGlauflin, fifth-grade science teacher at Ortega Elementary Museum Studies Magnet School in Jacksonville, Florida. Students’ exhibits “integrate more than just the topic” and can include “language arts, art, and music,” and “more critical-thinking skills [are involved], such as communication and language skills,” she contends.
For the science fair last year, her students created a large “wall quilt,” with each block illustrating a student’s project. “The artistic representation made them think at a different [and more creative] level,” she observes.
McGlauflin’s students scored two percentage points higher on state tests last year. “I knew it wasn’t a fluke; what we’re doing seems to be working,” she asserts.
“The magnet museum format has helped students understand the importance of reading and writing in English class as well as in science class,” says Raji Menon, grades 6–8 science teacher at New York City’s Museum Magnet School. After researching their topics and writing reports, four of her students presented their projects at the American Museum of Natural History last June.
“My students felt so proud. They were talking about their projects like experts—taking ownership of their own understanding,” says Menon. The museum gave them the opportunity “to explain their work to other people besides their teachers and classmates.”
Support for Teachers
Seven area museums work with teachers from Normal Park Museum Magnet School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “We meet with museum partners two or three times a year [to] talk about what studies are coming up. They give us ideas, and we collaborate,” says Kara Semtner, sixth-grade science teacher.
Erin Woodrow, seventh-grade science teacher at Normal Park, worked with an art teacher on a unit that engaged students in “looking at how an artist conveys force and motion” in an exhibit at Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum of American Art. “Though the museum’s paintings and sculptures are stationary, they convey motion,” she maintains.
When Trey Joyner taught science at Normal Park, he was able to take “a backstage tour of the exhibits” at the Tennessee Aquarium. “The aquarium was breeding new species of jellyfish… The jellyfish exhibit fit right into our content,” he notes.
The aquarium offers courses for county teachers. “It’s like an open door. I can go and learn as much as I want to, anytime,” Joyner relates. In addition, museums “have access to the most current research,” he points out.
As in any relationship, these partnerships face some issues. “[Our] partnership is still relatively young,” says IDMS’s Walsh. “Hampered by [the museum’s] leadership changes and staffing gaps, we have not had the ability to experience the full potential of this partnership.”
When grant funds ran out, “we bought less programs [from the museum],” says Mary Servino, IDMS science specialist. The museum also started charging fees for services that had been free. “We’re hoping [there will be] sufficient funding for the school and the museum to rebuild the relationship… We’re very positive it will happen,” she observes, noting that communication has improved since the museum’s new education director has attended school governance council meetings.
When it lost Title I funds in 2005, Normal Park created an Education Fund and hired a part-time executive director to raise money. “We’re paying $25,000 a year to raise $250,000 a year,” Principal Jill Levine explains.
Nevertheless, the teachers encourage colleagues at traditional schools to reach out to their local museums. “There’s a lot you can duplicate on a smaller scale,” with free resources from museums, says Woodrow. “Allow yourself to look at new ways to teach through an art or museum perspective. It helps teachers stay excited about what they’re doing, and will help kids stay excited about what they’re learning.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.
The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.