By Neil H. Gordon, Discovery Museum
From a professional point of view, responding to COVID-19 has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Every day brings decisions that involve the safety of staff and visitors, the livelihoods of employees, and both the short- and long-term viability of the museum. However, the pandemic has also forced us to be creative and devise ways of reaching children and families we never would have considered before. Some of these new approaches will help us address a challenge many museums face—getting playful learning experiences into the hands of more kids, especially those without access to them.
As a hands-on children’s museum, the mission of Discovery Museum has always been carried out face-to-face, through child-directed exploration of our exhibits and grounds. Another important part of our work is what we do away from our campus, in schools. For twenty-eight years, the museum’s Traveling Science Workshops (TSW) program has brought hands-on science experiences to elementary and middle school students in their classrooms. Before schools closed due to the pandemic, we were projected to reach 46,000 children last year, up 20 percent from the previous year. We provide TSW free of charge to thousands of students in underperforming districts, where serving kids right in their classrooms is critical to reaching children of different backgrounds and experiences.
Like all of the museum’s programs, through hands-on exploration and experimentation, TSW’s goals are to improve students’ attitudes toward science, build their confidence as STEM learners, and help them recognize their own potential as scientists. At first it was hard to imagine how this could work in a socially-distanced world.
But when the museum closed to the public in March 2020, our educators immediately began working to adapt TSW to a digital format, in a way that preserves our inquiry-based approach to teaching science. In June, we piloted Virtual Traveling Science Workshops (VTSW), via Zoom webinar with eight classes of elementary students, all learning remotely from home. Our staff also worked with teachers and administrators in ten school districts, including many where we have a history of subsidizing programs, to refine the workshop delivery model and ensure they can be easily adapted to each district’s unique learning plan.
Our educators have been delivering virtual programs widely since October. Rather than present pre-recorded demonstrations, they actively engage students in real time, encouraging them to experiment with materials, ask questions, and make observations. As with our in-person programs, we still supply all the materials, only now we ship them to schools in advance, safely packaged for individual use.
As of the end of 2020, we had delivered ninety-five workshops to almost 1,500 students. Twenty-four percent of these workshops were fully subsidized—a fraction of our usual level, but a very clear proof of concept. In gathering feedback from teachers, we expected to hear some disappointment compared to the in-person programs. Happily, teachers have said things like this: “While this is a favorite program in person, given the times, I was impressed with how well it went over Zoom. The materials bags were perfect, and I was really impressed with how kids were engaged and really enjoyed the program. Thank you!” The surveyed teachers who experienced VTSW, unanimously endorsed VTSW, saying they would recommend it to a colleague.
We probably never would have developed VTSW if not for the pandemic. While we are not likely to replace TSW with VTSW, the virtual workshops have solved one of the museum’s long-standing challenges: TSW expansion constrained by the distance our teachers are able to travel from the museum. While we have grown within those limits, many districts, such as those within the Boston urban ring, were just too far away. VTSW has, in some ways, removed this barrier. In fact, we currently are not only able to reach those students “just out of reach,” but we have booked workshops in Georgia, suburban New York, and within New York City.
Over the years, as we have talked about how to reach more districts, we have considered satellite sites or “franchises,” but never virtual approaches. VTSW is the result of the museum staff’s willingness to try something new while staying very true to our guiding philosophy for all programs. Thanks to their creativity and dedication, we have significantly grown our potential audience for an important part of the Discovery Museum’s mission.
Neil Gordon has been CEO of the Discovery Museum in Acton, Massachusetts, since 2009. Prior to that he served as COO at Boston Children’s Museum for fourteen years.