Working with Local Teachers to Improve Exhibits and Programs

By Stephanie Lukowski

The Ice Age Discovery Center (IADC) is a small museum located in the mountain community of Snowmass Village, Colorado.  The main focus of the museum is the significant fossil discovery that was uncovered in 2010 and 2011 during the construction of a reservoir for the town.  Through the course of the excavation thousands of skeletal elements, plant, and invertebrate fossils were uncovered in an area that had been an ice age lake during the last interglacial period.  The number of fossils, their preservation, and the unique high-elevation location make this one of the most significant ice age fossil sites in the world.  The IADC was established during the dig in 2011 to educate the public about the fossils being excavated just a half of a mile away.  The initial exhibits were designed by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science which was also responsible for the fossil excavation.

As the paleontologist and program director, my role has been to design and lead the education program at the IADC.  The school-aged students that visit the museum range from kindergarten through 12th grade.   These students arrive at the IADC through a variety of means including school field trips, summer advantage programs, summer camps, Girl and Boy Scout groups, Sister Cities programs, and as part of home-school education.  Like all museums, the IADC educates both indirectly though exhibits and directly though programming largely based on displays.   In order to foster community relationships and ensure a successful program, I reached out to educators from local public and charter schools within the region typically served by the IADC, and asked for their input regarding exhibit styles and the content they would like to see in both exhibits and educational programming.

I began by designing a questionnaire with Google Forms where I asked respondents to rate various exhibit styles, including replicas/actual fossils, fleshed out models of animals found at the dig, and various forms of technology, on a 5 point scale.  I then asked them to rate potential exhibit and program content on a 5 point scale.  Participants were also given the option to write their own suggestions for each of the categories.  I emailed a link to the questionnaire to each of the principals in the region with an explanation of the project and a request to pass the information along to their teachers.  While the response wasn’t overwhelming, I was able to receive responses from teachers in each of the school districts and from all grade levels.  Despite the majority of teachers choosing not to participate, I feel confident that the responses received represent the educational needs of the region as teachers within the same schools do not vary significantly in their curricular decisions.

Although exhibit design is currently on hold as we look to expand into a larger facility, the information I gathered regarding content has proved invaluable as I continue to design new programs.  By sending out a questionnaire, I was able to inform local teachers about the free education program and develop closer community ties for the IADC.  While I do not advocate museums designing exhibits based solely on education standards and curricular decisions by teachers, this study gave me insights into areas where the needs of the community can be incorporated with the goals of a museum. Research has shown that collaboration between science museums and schools produces better learning outcomes for students.   Teachers have a deeper understanding of how their students learn and the topics they find engaging.  Utilizing this information translates into an education program that is valued by the community.  This is reflected in the response to the collaboration between formal educators and the IADC.  Since implementing the suggestions from teachers, participation the education program at the Ice Age Discovery Center has increased by 50% and teacher feedback has been universally positive.

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