Applause for the Education Mission of Museums

Next week is Museum Advocacy Day (February 24-25).

It is a time to publicly acknowledge the vital role of museums, to salute the people who contribute their life to make them meaningful ... and, to thank them for their commitment to educating our young.

Twenty years ago The American Association of Museums published a report on the future of American museums including one chapter titled "A New Imperative for Learning," which admonished that "museums have yet to realize their full potential as educational institutions." And the report noted: "The museum-school relationship shows considerable potential ... particularly in light of the recent calls for strengthening the quality of instruction in science, the arts and the humanities in the schools."

That was then. Today, museums are breaking new ground and making tremendous strides transforming education through partnerships of all kinds.

This is certainly the case at the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco, which has made a major commitment to "Inspire the next generation of scientists" with lesson plans and classroom activities, classroom kits, field trips, workshops for teachers and other activities designed for young people to learn.

Recently, Elizabeth Babcock, Chief Public Engagement Officer and Roberts Dean of Education at the Academy, was honored as a "White House Champion of Change" for her leadership and commitment to libraries and museums around the United States. The Academy joined with the San Francisco Public Library, KQED, and the Bay Area Video Coalition to create "a digital learning lab and a regional youth program network to equip young people with the 21st century skills they need" in the new economy.

Ms. Babcock explained that the Academy's network for the community:

The Academy, she said, "has a STEAM focus (science, technology, engineering, art and math), leveraging the unique technology, science, and art resources of the Bay Area. It aims to provide teens with the access and skills they need to use emerging technologies, and to transform them from media consumers to media producers. We also hope to encourage interest in STEAM areas through multidisciplinary experiences and leadership opportunities."

Other museums around the country are doing the same... sometimes more to provide the new thinking skills our young people need.

In Chicago, for example, "The Field Museum and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) conducted a study in 2008 that demonstrated CPS students' science comprehension to be among the lowest of any urban school district nationwide and that no systemic reform programs were in place to improve science achievement in Chicago's elementary schools. In response, The Field Museum, Chicago Children's Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Northwestern University and CPS partnered to deliver a multi-year (2009-2012) science education reform effort in seven high-needs elementary schools, targeting K-3 grades."

The Partnership was built on the premise that informal learning institutions and universities have much to contribute to reform efforts in large urban school districts. Museum and university partners directly linked their resources to district-supported science curricula and delivered a suite of supports including professional development, field trips, in-classroom instructional support, school-based collaboration, and school leadership development and represents a transformation in the way "teachers, schools, universities, and museums work together to improve teaching and learning."

And in Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts School has developed programs with individual schools and school districts. As they put it:

"The rationale behind our School Partnership Program is to build long-term capacity within the schools--by training the faculty to incorporate art into their various subject areas, and by providing access to art for the students, thereby cultivating the Museum's audiences of the future. Our school partnerships take varying forms, depending on the school/district and their needs and priorities. We work with administrators and teachers to design partnerships that meet our shared educational goals."

Increasingly we are finding that the addition of museums to the academic mix are helping young people connect the dot, visualize the real world more closely and in the process acquire new skills that enhance their experiences. Most recently it was reported by that "art makes you smart" and museums make it happen. According to Jay P. Greene is a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, and Daniel H. Bowen, a postdoctoral fellow at the Kinder Institute of Rice University. After considerable research and experimentation to explore the value of field trips by schools:

"We find that students learn quite a lot. In particular, enriching field trips contribute to the development of students into civilized young men and women who possess more knowledge about art, have stronger critical-thinking skills, exhibit increased historical empathy, display higher levels of tolerance, and have a greater taste for consuming art and culture."

"Museums spend more than $2 billion a year on education activities;" and "help teach the state, local, or core curriculum, tailoring their programs in math, science, art, literacy, language arts, history, civics and government, economics and financial literacy, geography, and social studies." Indeed, " the typical museum devotes three-quarters of its education budget to K-12 students."

There is little doubt that these partnerships enable students to see, hear, feel what they are learning -- to connect the dots -- and enrich their learning experience in ways that the schools themselves cannot do. Our legislators must know that our museums are among this nation's greatest assets, and deserve their wholehearted support.

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