North Carolina’s classrooms are about to get a lot bigger.
Virtual field trips and remote science lessons will be possible with the opening of the Nature Research Center.
Across the state, classrooms will be able to connect to the SECU Daily Planet, a three-story multimedia globe that is the expanded N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ signature feature. There, scientists will present research in front of a 40-foot high-definition screen that can immerse visitors into, say, the deep sea or outer space. The presentations will be available, live or uploaded, to schools through the N.C. Research and Education Network, a high-speed Internet2 setup.
So teachers will be able to integrate the museum’s science programming into their own instruction, without spending the time and money to load children onto school buses to Raleigh. Or, if students do visit the Nature Research Center, they can watch scientists at work or participate in hands-on experiments.
“The idea is that (students) meet a researcher and see that they’re a normal person like you or me and they’re just excited about something that they’re doing,” said Betsy Bennett, museum director. “They get to do some of the same activities that that researcher is doing in an ‘Investigate Lab’ or go on field research with them. The hope is that more students will go into the sciences and be encouraged to be those innovators in technology.”
The museum hosts 250,000 schoolchildren a year, mainly elementary or middle school students. The new wing is expected to boost that number and reach more broadly to an older audience, including high school students.
The museum has always offered opportunities for educators – hands-on experiences that provide teachers with training, outdoor programs and access to researchers. The Nature Research Center is expected to take that outreach to another level, by connecting teachers to the latest discoveries and real-time science news.
The museum plans two open houses for teachers – one just before school starts and another later in the fall – where teachers will learn how they can incorporate exhibits and programs into their curriculum.
Frank McKay, an eighth-grade teacher at Exploris Middle School in Raleigh, said the seamless connection will be important for teachers across the state.
Exploris, near downtown, enjoys a close relationship with the museum. Students visit weekly to train as museum docents as part of a community service project. Eighth-graders worked with researchers on the museum’s microscopes, seventh-graders studied genetics and sixth-graders took on a fish restoration project. The students raised shad from eggs in their classrooms, while monitoring water quality and setting up filters.
“They’ve gone out with museum educators to set them free and watch them into the Neuse River,” McKay said. “That’s been a neat project.”
Now, teachers everywhere can plug into the museum’s work.
“With all the budget constraints right now and transportation costs going up and up, I think having that resource and being able to share cutting-edge science with classrooms directly through the Daily Planet will really benefit students across the state,” McKay said.
Liz Baird, the museum’s director of education, said the staff wants to help teachers reach their curriculum goals. That could mean a long-term project with field work. Or it could be a 15-minute presentation about the rainforest from Meg Lowman, a tree canopy scientist who leads the Nature Research Center. Maybe that talk could be brought to students on a live feed from Brazil through the Daily Planet.
The Nature Research Center could help educators bring science alive at a time when U.S. students have fallen behind. Test results released in 2010 showed that 15-year-olds in the U.S. rated 17th in science among 34 nations on a key international assessment.
Inspiration may be the first step in reversing that trend, Baird said.
“If that one child decides, ‘Yes, I’m going to take a harder science class,’ or ‘Yes, I’m going to sign up for an environmental science,’ then I think we’ve done our job,” she said.