Collaborating with Museums and Schools to Make Field Trips More Beneficial

by Karen Knutson

The overall field of informal learning has emerged through the study of museums, and the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE) is continuing that rich tradition.

Natural history museums contain specimens that serve as the scientific record of the natural world. Collections in these museums are cared for by on- staff scientists and curators who also research the collections. The potential for students to learn from original collections is great but challenging, as visitors may lack the context to make sense of observed details and subtle distinctions.

UPCLOSE has conducted studies of learning in many different kinds of museums across the United States and has developed partnerships with several Pittsburgh-area museums, including the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, to help provide this context.

At CMNH, two projects stand out as illustrating the potential power of learning that can be supported in natural history museums. A three-year project funded by NASA helped the museum to develop a new field trip experience that was aligned with the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) curriculum. The ambitious project explored the creation of new materials, and Pitt School of Education Professor Kevin Crowley and doctoral student Lauren Allen developed new models for tour guide training and tour structure. PPS science coordinators worked closely with the museum-based team to develop new materials and to ensure that the tours would align with curricular needs. Tour content was directed toward a specific week and unit in the science curriculum.

The project also extended the learning of museum staff by creating a community of practice with three other informal science learning organizations in the city: the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and the National Aviary of Pittsburgh. CMNH worked with these other organizations to develop similar tours for their locations, with museum staff helping with tours and the development of previsit materials. These groups previously had never had the chance to work together in such an in-depth way. The project was piloted for two years, and visits to the museum were provided for all PPS eighth graders.

Pitt graduate student and UPCLOSE members also have produced several dissertations through the work with CMNH, and alumni have gone on to work in the museum. UPCLOSE and CMNH have collaborated on holding a joint seminar for museum staff and Pitt graduate students who both created and studied a hands-on exhibit area called Discovery Basecamp. This popular exhibit area provides touchable specimens and educational materials for families to help them focus on developing observational skills, comparing and contrasting specimens, and thinking about habitat and ecosystem needs. Families can then use the approaches developed in the exhibit area as they visit the rest of the museum.

Karen Knutson is the associate director of UPCLOSE.