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The contribution of natural history museums to science education

Museums and schools can complement one another to maximise students' learning.

Dinosaur skeleton

19 June 2017

By Diane Hofkins

Natural history museums provide valuable experiences for students in schools that help them gain a deeper understanding of the nature of science and science enquiry. Students can engage with ‘real life’ applications of science and undertake their own enquiries, using real objects. For example, in fields such as palaeontology they can use actual specimens and equipment, and also engage with scientists at the museums.

A study from the UCL Institute of Education, Harvard University and other institutions, and supported by the Wellcome Trust, ESRC and Science Learning + initiative, looked at how schools and museums can work together and researched the long-term benefits to learning and engagement that museums can provide.

The study found that museums provide an impressive range of resources that serve the needs of the school science curriculum well, and their programmes “should be embedded within STEM learning ecosystems so that parents, schools, NHMs and the general community are collaboratively involved in engaging students with science”. Teachers should encourage students to think about science as something they can engage with outside of school.

The report emphasises the importance of learning as a social and emotional activity. However, neither national history museums (NHMs) nor teachers take sufficient account of these aspects.

England: Key Stage 3 curriculum areas covered in activities from the selected natural history museums

“Given that museums invest significant resources in attempting to engage school students, the affective value of museum visits is an area that has received surprisingly limited attention” it says. Teachers, too, need to recognize that students should explore exhibits interactively with others as well as on their own. “The most effective learning in NHMs takes place when students are physically engaged, and when learning experiences are enjoyable, meaningful and socially interactive,” says the report.

One similarity between teachers and students interviewed for the study was that they talked about ‘exciting’ exhibits and how they were able to learn about scale, evolution and change over time, as well as being able to go into more depth about individual exhibits. 

Oxford Museum of Natural History

Other key findings are:

  • To ensure successful collaboration between museums and schools, the roles, and boundaries of each should be clearly defined.
  • More attention should be given to students’ prior knowledge and their resulting interpretive stance in the design of exhibits and related learning experiences.
  • Students should be provided with suitable pre- and post-visit activities and these should give students opportunities to ask questions.
  • Learners benefit from meeting with scientists and other experts. Such encounters can improve their attitudes to learning science, knowledge about career choices and understanding of ‘how science works’.
  • NHMs need to make use of new possibilities afforded by digital technologies, including online exhibits and interactive multi-user games.
  • At the same time, NHMs are increasingly displaying replicas and digitising collections in order to preserve collections and increase public access. Research is needed on the effects on the learner of this shift.
  • NHMs need better ways of measuring the long-term consequences of their provision.
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