by Patrick McShea
Natural History Interpreters are a corps of educators charged with presenting the museum’s exhibits to audiences in a way that encourages the collective development of emotional and intellectual connections to the topics being discussed. During the past eight months, a small, but growing number of Interpreters have pursued this mission by guiding school groups on virtual tours of Dinosaur Armor.
The visually striking objects in the world premiere exhibition retain much of their captivating power when presented over electronic screens, and cell phone cameras, when paired with hand-held stabilizer units, have proven to be fully capable of live streaming all the required video.
During the recently completed school year 54 virtual tours of Dinosaur Armor reached an estimated student audience of 3,450, with classes in first to fourth grades accounting for the greatest number of those individuals. The geographical reach of the program has been particularly impressive, with schools in 13 states participating.
The Interpreters developed a team-based strategy for delivering their presentations as cohesive interactive lessons. Standard team positions, which rotate as necessary, include a camera operator in the exhibit, an accompanying narrator who occasionally appears on camera, and a director who participates via a computer link to both provide occasional commentary and facilitate communication between the audience, camera operator, and narrator.
According to Interpreter Joann Wilson the development was an easier-said-than-done proposition. “When I started virtual tours, I thought that it would be like my old in-person tour role with a few minor adjustments. How wrong I was! What I have discovered after over 8 months is that although the goal is the same, how we get there is very different.”
On June 8, I had the opportunity to observe a virtual Dinosaur Armor tour for a combined pre-school and kindergarten class. My computer screen displayed the same images the children watched on a large monitor at the front of their classroom. When the colorful image of a frightening looking Eurypterid, or sea scorpion filled the screen, audience excitement was transmitted back to the Interpreter team via the “oohs” and “ahhs” of young voices. Just as the Interpreters would do for any in-person audience, they quickly transformed student curiosity into a learning experience through the careful use of questions.
Students were initially asked to describe what they observed, and their responses (“The claws are sharp.” “The eyes are big ovals.”) provided immediate feedback about the clarity of the transmission. In this case the routine compilation of student observations was remarkable because of the distance involved. The pre-school and kindergarten class was in Bali, Indonesia.
As Program Manager Mandi Lyon explains, “It was 9:30 a.m. for us in Pittsburgh, and 9:30 p.m. for them in Bali. They came back to their school in their pjs for a pajama party so they could participate in the tour together.”
In most cases, however, the same COVID-19 restrictions that led to the development of Virtual Tours also placed many students in viewing conditions far less comfortable than the classroom in Bali. Whenever a Virtual Tour served a class in a school operating under a remote learning mandate, the Interpreter team faced the challenge of engaging dozens of students watching separately from their homes.
By supplying teachers with relevant digital resources, including video clips, blog posts, and work sheets, weeks before their students participated in a Virtual Tour, the Interpreters hoped to initiate teaching partnerships that made each live 60-minute program both instructive and enjoyable. The success of such efforts is currently being accessed through the review of post-Virtual Tour evaluations, several of which included heartening testimony. One teacher noted how the virtual tour had expanded the range of possible teaching resources: “I am so excited we had the opportunity to visit through Zoom. After doing this, it seems we could reach so many places and let the students have such a varied experience in the classroom.” Another teacher was particularly pleased with a potential career thread woven into the tour: “The idea of anyone becoming a scientist was evident in your presentation.”
Outside of the formal evaluations, one wholly positive real-time measurement stands out. Several times teachers remarked that students who kept their cameras off though weeks of regular remote classes turned their cameras on to watch and participate in the Virtual Tour.
CMNH Interpreters have also provide Virtual Tours exploring Ecosystems, Ancient Egypt, and Gems and Minerals. Besides Indonesia, other particularly distant schools served by the program were in Qatar, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Training is currently underway to expand the number of Interpreters who are able to participate on Virtual Tour teams.
The development and implementation of Virtual Tour Program was generously supported with funding from the Buncher Foundation and the Scaife Family Foundation.
Patrick McShea works in the Education and Visitor Experience department of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation InformationBlog author: McShea, Patrick
Publication date: July 12, 2021