It's More Than A Field Trip

By: George Sparks Issue: Education & Workforce Development Section: Jewel Of Collaboration

Engaging Teachers, Students & Families in Science Literacy

Field Trip Each weekday, long lines of yellow school buses line the roads in City Park leading to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS). More than 320,000 school children each year benefit from a century old collaboration between the Museum and Colorado schools. Yet what started as a field trip to see cases of natural history curiosities is a whole different animal today. Museums offer lifelong, informal learning opportunities to all ages, complementing what schools and the formal education system provide. Modern museums take very seriously their role to provide public education, versus simply storing and displaying objects.

The specific educational focus at the DMNS is science, specifically health, space, and earth sciences, anthropology and zoology. The Museum sees its core purpose as inspiring curiosity and critical thinking about the scientific issues of our time, such as global climate change, obesity, species extinction, genetics, or, here in Colorado, pine beetle infestation.

Science education today is a poignant issue for Colorado schools. Recent science tests of Colorado 5th, 8th and 10th graders showed that half lack proficiency in science. Teachers, particularly at the pre- and elementary school levels, report a lack of training in science and discomfort in teaching it. Science literacy is not only a concern for Colorado schools but also for Colorado businesses who need scientists and engineers for their future workforce. Our large aerospace, oil and gas, and health industries are just some examples of businesses who want to promote the study of Museum core competencies in space science, geology, and health. And, it is no secret that our lack of scientists and engineers is an issue of global competitiveness for our country.

It is no secret that our lack of scientists and engineers is an issue of global competitiveness for our country.

Science museums like DMNS provide very unique learning tools for the formal education system. The collections of objects and specimens, the “real stuff,” intrigue students with dinosaur fossils; gems and minerals; the birds, insects and mammals of the Rocky Mountain region; and Native American treasures. The exhibitions have evolved from displayed collections of natural history artifacts to interactive and constantly changing scientific labs staffed by trained volunteers. And, as always, working on an archaeological site or fossil dig with a Museum curator offers a memorable educational experience not available in the classroom.

The Museum’s collaboration with Colorado schools dates to 1908 and has grown to programs serving 327,030 schoolchildren in 37 percent of Colorado schools (2007). A surprise to some is that the Museum employs some 40 educators, as well as 15 scientists who actively work with students.

Museum educational programs range from labs and classes, to after school, home school and preschool programs, to workshops, camps and internships. Science standards are at the forefront in designing these programs. Science standards are spelled out specifically for teachers in online promotional materials so they can link Museum offerings to their curriculum. Currently teacher professional development programs are a major focus of the Museum with workshops for credit, offered through a collaboration with the Colorado School of Mines, and extensive online resources. Bilingual and parent programs also are growing.

Expedition Health – Collaborative Education between DMNS, the Community, and Business the Museum employs some 40 educators, as well as 15 scientists who actively work with students.

Collaboration is fundamental to the development of DMNS exhibits, one of the primary teaching tools of museums. Right now the Museum is working on a new health science exhibition called Expedition Health. The goal of this exhibition is to improve our community’s health by promoting healthy personal choices by our visitors, which last year totaled more than 1.4 million. Part of a Health Sciences Initiative, the exhibition will be supported by gallery programs, classes, and online resources for teachers, parents, and the general public.

While the Museum has a Curator of Human Health (one of only two in the United States), it was important for us to talk to key partners in the community about the content, design, and outcomes of our new exhibit. Advisory Councils provided highly valued expertise and advice from schools, the scientific community, the health care industry, and related government agencies and non-profits.

The Education Advisory Council of teachers, educators, and physical fitness experts, report that student visits to the Museum:

  • Offer a unique experience, not like school
  • Promote curiosity - learning more after the Museum visit
  • Provoke questions and critical thinking
  • Build in interactivity, not just with technology but between students and others
  • Involve not just students, but teachers, parents, and families.

In addition to providing and reviewing content for accuracy, the scientific advisors:

  • Help the Museum share it’s research with the public
  • Design the exhibit for the constantly changing nature of science.

The community advisors suggest that Museum visits:

  • Promote healthy lifestyles to reduce health care costs
  • Reach out to the underserved
  • Be relevant, talk about living well in Colorado
  • Be creative - old programs have not produced behavior change as hoped.

Advice from the community informed the work of another collaborative model, the internal interdepartmental team of scientists, educators, designers, and technology experts responsible for producing the exhibit, working with Kennedy Associates of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The result is Expedition Health, which will take Museum visitors on a virtual climb up one of Colorado’s famed Fourteeners Mt. Evans (Colorado has 54 peaks over 14,000 ft), while learning about their bodies and personal health.

Activity stations in the exhibit, such as Mind Ball, Vein Viewer, Walk Visualizer, and Face Aging, are designed to engage the visitor’s body, mind and senses. A group of 12 virtual expedition guides, volunteer Coloradans (not actors) filmed on an actual mountain ascent, will coach visitors throughout the exhibit. Colorado’s first “object theater,” will be a multi-sensory, multi-media experience in an intimate 35-seat theater. Also new will be a working laboratory, where students will perform experiments and visitors may elect to participate in a national, university-based research study. The Summit Science Stage will be the backdrop for daily live demonstrations and programs on changing health topics. Children under five will enjoy a separate early learners space called Tykes Peak.

Collaboration with schools will go beyond the Expedition Health exhibition experience. The Colorado Health Foundation is supporting new education programs for underserved schools through a $1.3 million Passport to Health program. Passport to Health will extend the experience of Expedition Health into 30 low-income metro area schools over two years. The program will increase both student and parent understanding of health sciences, raise their health literacy, and encourage them to live healthier lives. Passport to Health is scheduled to launch in fall 2009.

The program begins the summer before the school year with a special one-day workshop for fifth-grade teachers at the Museum. The workshop, led by the Museum’s education staff, will increase teachers health science content knowledge and prepare them to facilitate Passport to Health with their students. The Museum will provide online teaching resources to complement and enhance the program, including lesson plans about health science, nutrition and exercise.

Once the school year begins, the Museum’s outreach teachers will visit each Passport to Health classroom to engage fifth-graders in hands-on activities to prepare them for a field trip to Expedition Health at the Museum. Students will receive their own Passport to Health journal and a demonstration about how to measure and log their own personal nutrition and activity data.

Next, each Passport to Health class will come to the Museum to visit Expedition Health and attend an on-site class taught by Museum educators where they will learn how the body benefits from physical activity. Students will use their journals to collect and record more health data about themselves at the interactive stations in Expedition Health.

After the Museum visit, Passport to Health will engage the families of the fifth-graders to encourage an ongoing commitment to healthy choices. Each school will host a Family Health Night where Museum educators will present fun physical activities families can do together. Each family will be invited to a free Family Health Day at the Museum where they can visit Expedition Health together and experience more health-focused programs. Family Health Day also will include healthy snacks and giveaways. Finally, families of each Passport to Health fifth-grader will receive a free, one-year family membership to the Museum so they all can continue to learn about health and science together.

Other Community Collaboratives

Field Trip In addition to collaborations with elementary schools, the Museum is partnering with the Community College of Aurora (CCA) to present demonstrations on genetics in the new health exhibition. Science students in CCA’s biology and biology technology programs will interact with visitors and demonstrate some of the interesting technical aspects of laboratory work, e.g. DNA isolation, gel electrophoresis, bacterial transformation, or protein chromatography. CCA students can earn extra credit for demonstrating lab techniques to Museum visitors and honing their public presentation skills. Importantly, young visitors will be able to see science careers modeled by the CCA students, 22% of whom are African-American and 12% of whom are Hispanic.

The Health Sciences Initiative involved many critical funding partners. Kaiser Permanente made a major investment with a $4 million grant, as well as providing access to their medical team, health programming, and marketing support. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding the lab-based research in the exhibit and many others are enabling the $10.2 million project to move forward.

When Expedition Health opens in April 2009, the Museum hopes that its partners and the public will say, “Wow, this isn’t the old museum field trip I remember!”

To learn more about the programs at the DMNS, please

contact Bonnie Downing at 303-370-6369 or at

bonnie.downing@dmns.org. George Sparks is the President

and CEO of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.