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Museums Bring Field Trips to Schools
April 23, 2010

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If it's too expensive or time-consuming to get students out of school for a museum field trip anymore, then why not have the museum come to school?

That's a question that some museums around the country have answered in the affirmative, as decreases in school budgets and increases in paperwork required for field trips have combined to curtail the number of times that students get to go afield.

Never fear, say the staff of a well-known science museum in Boston, we'll come to you. And they have and they do, bringing such things as a portable planetarium into local schools so that teachers can indeed do what they're charged with doing (namely, get their students ready for the next high-profile test).

The planetarium show, a 50-minute lesson on the Sun and the rest of the bodies in the solar system, ties in neatly with the state's physics and space science standards for learning. The show is, teachers and students alike report, compelling. Seeing concepts illustrated in a large-as-life way tends to heighten students' appreciation of the subjects in particular and learning in general, many teachers say.

A similar exhibit from the same museum introduces students to the intricacies of dinosaurs – a favorite topic of youngsters – by facilitating hands-on exploration of footprints and droppings of the giant prehistoric reptiles.

In all, the museum has 14 separate traveling programs, with students and teachers reporting high levels of satisfaction after experiencing the mobile exhibits. The museum plans to exceed 1,000 school visits this year.

Many museums have developed print materials such as handbooks and posters and image- and video-friendly websites showcasing the museums' contents, but the lack of tactile experience is a drawback to many educators. The portable museum concept fills this gap, to an extent that many are happy with.

It's not just Boston, either. Similar "mobile museum" efforts are in business all over the country. Some, like the Boston museum, transport parts of the museum into classrooms. Other museums showcase their wares via video link, which can be as simple as a static broadcast or as interactive as a question-and-answer session.

Then there's Egypt. One museum in South Carolina has made a special effort to take its ancient artifacts to the masses. The mummy doesn't make the trip to schools, but nearly everything else does, including pieces of papyrus and replicas of boys and girls clothes for students to try on.

Under increasing pressure to save money, many schools have abandoned field trips altogether, citing costs of hiring buses, covering museum admissions fees, and possibly even compensating extra personnel for accompanying students to and from school. The other loss, especially for students, is time. The aforementioned 50-minute planetarium show is also just a 50-minute part of a normal school day; by contrast, a field trip to a museum for a 50-minute tour of an astronomy exhibit could last several hours. With few exceptions, the time that students on field trips spend away from their desks – lining up for the bus, riding the bus to the museum, riding the bus back to school – is not spent learning. If the field trip comes to school, however, it's a class session, during which students can apply themselves 100 percent of the time, including direct followup by teachers on what the students just experienced.

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