Today I had the chance to volunteer on behalf of my university at a local museum, as part of British science week. Which seems to entail plenty of disinterested school children being bussed to a local museum, where a group of scientists from nearby scientific institutions bombard them with a variety of information about mini-beasts, ocean acidification and in our case, fossils and a couple of rocks. The children were UK years 4/5 (so 8-10 year olds) so had plenty of much more interesting things to think about (mainly Pokémon)
Initially the session was run as a stand and point, fossils and objects were held and discussed. With cards with the fossils details assigned to each specimen. Hardly a stimulating session, which left most of the children fairly bored (even their teaching assistant wandered off to look at beetles), language used by my colleague was even getting me bored. What 9 year old cares how ammonites floated? They want to know about big things, and feel the fossil!
This seems to directly be an analogue of a lot of museum exhibits, those hidden behind a glass case, safe, although restricted from curious hands and as a boundary between the object and interested parties. These children may never find an ammonite or a mammoth tooth; so will be denied the opportunity to feel the ribs on the shell or the ridges on the tooth.
With this in mind I decided on a fresh approach, as a mini-experiment to see if the children were more engaged: The kids spend all day being talked to, and we have a table of novel and interesting objects so why not get the kids picking them up? Sure they might get dropped, but the university/ museum has tonnes of ammonites, most of which spend their lives in draws.
Discussion rather than lecturing proceeded. Yes, if these kids decide to go to university and study geosciences they will experience lectures – but there they want to learn. I also found using things the children would have heard about to get them interested, so there has been plenty of talk in the news about radioactivity in Japan as a result of the goings on down there. Well I had found some raduiohalos halos in the biotites of the thin sections of granites we had – seemed natural to get the kids interested in the minerals by relating it to them, also acted to slightly scare them, which always get children interested!
The children who were touching the objects and looking at them as they should be looked at retained more interest (so we can assume information) and asked questions – rather than stood vacantly. Nothing was dropped (except by me), nothing went missing but more was given.
Going back to the different museum analogue should museums operate in this way? Well there are a couple of problems, firstly it was exhausting enough for 2 hours, anyone doing it for a whole day would be shattered. Secondly we were there to watch the objects so it was unlikely anything was going to go walkabout; in an exhibition with maybe unstaffed anything lying around would have to be secured down or very inexpensive (ammonites on Ebay?! – very cheap). But are these such hurdles for introducing geosciences within a museum environment? – I don’t think so!