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Posts Tagged ‘education’

This summer my museum’s special exhibit is Mummies of the World, a fairly new traveller from American Exhibitions Inc.  When I first heard that we were getting this exhibit I was stoked, I mean really excited.  Since I’ve worked at TFI we’ve hosted two blockbusters about ancient Egypt (Tut and Cleopatra) and although these were fantastic exhibits with beautifully presented artifacts, they were seriously lacking in the wrapped-up dead people.  And I mean, c’mon, isn’t that the thing we living humans are REALLY interested in?  Okay, maybe just me and all the 10-year old boys out there…  Anyway, Mummies of the World boasts 70 human and animal mummies all sharing a well-designed 10,000 square foot gallery space.

Our Public Relations department did a great event for the press during the load-in process.  They got some uber-serious security guys to escort the exhibit cases and personally load in the mummies.  I am a little embarrassed to admit that all I could think of the whole time was what a great practical joke it would be to hide someone in one of the cases (wrapped in bandages, of course) and then have them pop out right after the Philly Tourism Board spokeswoman exclaimed, “Philly’s More Fun When You Sleep Over!” with a sign reading “FOREVER.”  But I guess that’s what working in a haunted house for 3 years will do to a person…

The "short guy" was probably 6'3"...

And I thought I had a weird job.

"With Love" campaign banner, cute!

When the education team met earlier this year to plan out what programs we wanted to offer, one of the ideas we kept coming back around to was how cool it would be to let people touch mummies.  Since the exhibit curators wouldn’t look too kindly on us prying open cases for guests we decided to take a slightly different route: frogs.  So in February we ordered an army of frogs (dissection specimen, we didn’t catch them…) and set to mummifying them in a variety of ways.

Buddy and his many mummified frogs

The specimen were dried, baked, salted, pickled and frozen and all turned out surprisingly well.  During the press event we were able to meet with Dr. Heather Gill-Frerking, the lead scientist/mummiologist (a special word made up by the exhibit) on Mummies of the World.  I was a little nervous at first, worrying she might take our demonstration the wrong way and think we were making fun of her work.  Fortunately she was thrilled.  Her own PhD dissertation examined mummies and she created a similar experiment with fetal pigs in the bogs of north Germany.  An anchorwoman from a local news station was really interested and did a fun spot with Dr. Gill-Frerking and the frogs.  More pictures from the event here.

The anchorwoman loved it 😉

We’ve had the “Mummification Station”, as the demonstration is now called, on the museum floor for a few weeks now and it seems to be a really big hit with our guests.  After the press event we ordered a kitchen vacuum-sealer and encased the frogs in freezer bags.  This way guests can still get a good idea of how the various mummification techniques look and feel.  The one specimen that I have some reservations about is the frozen frog, or “Flash” as he is affectionately known around the office.  Even though he spends the day packed in an insulated cooler surrounded by ice packs he still ends up a bit mushy by closing time.  This might be one of those instances where our imaginations are better than the real thing…

Meet Flash

The exhibit itself is really interesting and I definitely recommend it.  There are mummies from all around the globe– South America, Europe, Oceania, Asia and of course Egypt.  The exhibit focuses mostly on what scientific techniques and technologies are used to learn more about mummies.  It also talks about the history of mummification though you will have to look and listen closely to get the religious and cultural lessons in some galleries.  The art historian in me was a little let down BUT the exhibit is meant for a science museum venue so I really can’t complain.  I left the exhibit with a greater understanding of how other cultures handle their dead and some new science knowledge.  Oh and the gift store has some pretty hilarious merchandize like onsies that make your baby look like a mummy and “I ❤ my Mummy” t-shirts, I must resist it’s fun wares daily 😉

 

*Because they keep things under wraps!!!  Hahaha, of corpse that’s the answer!

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I recently had the great opportunity of teaching a “mini-course” for a group of 9th grade students from my museum’s magnet high school, Science Leadership Academy.   I had complete free choice over the course topic and lessons (well, it had to relate to science, of course…) and since we are currently hosting the exhibit “Leonardo da Vinci’s Workshop” I thought it would be fun to explore how Leonardo learned: though an apprenticeship.  Plus I got to use my art history background, a rarity in a SCIENCE museum! 🙂 

During the Renaissance (and well after) most jobs were learned by studying under a master– carefully observing, performing grunt work, taking on tiny jobs and, eventually, using those skills gained to apply for acceptance into a guild.  Artists like Leonardo had no need for formal schooling, (something he seemed to deeply regret) rather their entire apprenticeship was like a multi-year hands-on learning lab.  I wanted the students in my class to get a taste for the work an apprentice would do in a Renaissance artist’s workshop, to see that the master artist’s studio was actually more like a science lab/school/wood shop/barnyard than a quiet gallery and to learn how modern science helps us conserve the treasures from this time period.  All over the span of 5 class hours!

Eggs and vinegar for art class???

We started out by talking about some of the more… menial tasks an artist’s apprentice might do.  Things like stretching canvases, mixing paints, making brushes and collecting supplies.  We made plaster of paris “walls” to use as the base for a fresco.  The students used burlap to hold the plaster together– modern restoration work on frescos has found materials like straw and horsehair holding the plaster together. 

Grids make drawing EASY!

I taught the class how to use a grid to reduce or enlarge a magazine picture (math is your friend!) and we used National Geographic images to create a nature-inspired sketch for the fresco.  Next we transferred the image to the plaster using a real Renaissance technique.  Artists would first poke pinholes along all the lines on a to-scale draft or “cartoon” of their final painting.  They would post this cartoon on the fresco surface, often when the plaster was wet, (we created fresco secco, painting on dry plaster) then they dusted ground charcoal all over the pinholes.  The charcoal would leave a faint, erasable sketch right on the wall.  Guess what?  This technique is AWESOME and totally works!

Trade secrets!

After a discussion of what makes up paint (a pigment and a binder) I demonstrated how to make a simple tempera paint by mixing egg yolk with wetted pigment.  The kids got a kick out of separating the egg and a few brave souls even took on the difficult task of gently releasing the yolk from the little protein sack that binds it.  I found some great, historic pigments on Blick.com, I think that gave them a good idea of the palette limitations an artist would have to overcome.  Then we painted the frescos!

Hands-on learning

For the modern science aspect I showed them a few videos of art conservators using technology like x-rays, infrared cameras and microscopes to analyze centuries-old masterpieces.  We also explored a really phenomenal new google application http://www.googleartproject.com/  I put together an online gallery of images highlighting the topics we covered in class, link here.  On the last day I had all the students bring in their laptops (their school gives each student their own) and we perused the gallery together.  It was really rewarding to see the students pick out details in the paintings that related to our topic.  They were pretty good art historians, too!

My fresco in progress

I didn’t ask the students if I could put their work on the internet so I won’t post it here.  But I was really impressed with the work the class was able to do in such a short period of time.  Most of the students didn’t have an art background, but all of them definitely had an interest in learning more.  The thoughtfulness behind a lot of their questions really surprised me, and they were not pleased when I had to respond with “great question, but I don’t know that specific answer!” on a few zingers.  I have never taught 9th graders before so I think I learned even more than the students!  

Working at this museum and others has really shown me that apprenticeships did not end with the Renaissance.  Although I have formal training in my field I gain practical experience daily.  Being a good teacher is more than just knowing theory; as my first museum mentor told me, “the best way to learn how to teach?  Teach!”   Every time I get thrown in a new teaching situation like this I feel like I am the apprentice– learning through doing, reflecting on my mistakes, following the lead of my mentors and striving daily to reach “master” status.

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Games=Learning?

Yesterday the vice president of our education/exhibits shared some statistics with us:

The 2010 PSSA (state proficiency exam) shows that only 16.3 percent of 11th graders scored a “proficient” in science testing.  That means 83.7 percent of these students are NOT reaching the “proficient” standard.  83.7!  Looking at younger grades, 8th grade students scored a 25.9 percent proficiency and 4th graders pulled a 53.3 percent proficiency.  A quick google search of “PSSA scores, news” reveals a few databases and some success stories of schools who pulled their numbers up.  The District touts improvements in math and reading (as they should) but is completely mum on the science scores.  There are few (if any) articles that admonish the fact that 83.7 percent of this city’s young adults are scientifically illiterate.  Hmm.

These statistics lead to a discussion of our role as informal educators in a science museum.  Our mission, to inspire a passion for science and technology learning, is supported by our programming efforts.  Our VP explained that the mission is our “what” and programming is our “how” but what we’re missing is the “why”.  Why do we, the museum and educators, provide programming? 

Revealing the "fingerprint" of a star

We all mostly agreed that the museum is an alternative to formal education, to news outlets and the internet.  It’s a place where people can supplement their knowledge, test ideas and experience science phenomena first-hand.  We provide programming because being scientifically literate is essential.  Science helps explain the world around us.  It makes us think and question.

Biology- it's the science of us

One of the group members said something that really stuck with me– that most informal educators are in museums because they feel there is something wrong with the formal education system and they can’t reconcile that with their desire to teach.  For me this is not the case.  I work in a museum because I love museums.  But I love school, too!  As I learn more about formal education in our country I find myself becoming more and more interested in becoming part of the “cure.”  Sure, I love creating fun programs, interacting with guests of all ages and teaching others how to teach.  But what if my talents are better suited to the “front lines” of education?  It’s something to think about.

Dance, molecules, dance!

In the meantime I know my team and I can continue to try our best to get visitors excited about not just science but learning in general.  Afterall, if people aren’t excited to learn and to develop their mind why should they care about the subject– science, math, social studies, etc.  For me the “why” is because we need a society of enthusiastic learners who delight in critical thinking.  Brains on, everyone!

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Edutainment

Last night my museum had a midnight premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  The theater sold out the first day they opened ticket sales!  We did some programming for the event, what I fondly refer to as “edutainment”… educational entertainment, of course!

Care of "Magical" Creatures

My intern is probably the biggest Harry Potter fan I know (even more so than my sister-in-law, who will kick your butt at HP trivia any day).  See the cape she’s wearing?  All hand-sewn!  Anyway, she organized most of the activities for the night.  We had a “Care of Magical Creatures” class where she showed off our bug collection– both living and some really beastly preserved bugs.  A couple of volunteers helped people make star wheels and pointed out names of stars that HP characters were named after.  I did a “Potions Class” for people waiting in line– turning water to “wine”, making a liquid “disappear” and creating colorful fire. 

Franklin's Honeydukes

This is the second non-educational film I’ve done programming for– we had some creepy activities for the premiere of the last Twilight film.  At first I wasn’t sure if this kind of stuff is worth doing– people aren’t really there to be educated after all.  But then I realized this is a great way to introduce a captive audience to our programming and hopefully get them interested in coming back to the museum during the day.  It’s definitely not the most educational venture, (though I did make everyone say “sodium polyacrylate” several times for scientific effect) but given the choice between “fluffy” programming or no programming at all… I’ll take the fluff.

Mini Blast-Ended Skwert?

I didn’t stay for the movie because the theater was sold out.  Pat and I are planning on hitting up NCG when we’re home next week.  Their seats are so comfy and they have a flavored popcorn bar, how can you go wrong?

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As I mentioned a few posts ago, my museum is putting the finishing touches on the world premiere of “Cleopatra…” scheduled to open this Saturday.  I spent the past few days putting together and testing out a prototype for an educational program I’ll be running during the exhibit.

The idea is for visitors to get a better idea of what archaeologists do and how they work on an excavation.  All of the artifacts in the exhibit were excavated either from the desert or the harbor at Alexandria.  I also wanted to show how an archaeologist differs from a treasure hunter (careful, methodical excavation with the intention of recording all findings, etc) so a big part of the prototype is finding the right “digging medium”.  Too soft and they’ll sift right through, too hard and they’ll never find anything

Waiting for some visitors

So after much thought and research I settled on a mixture of sand and melted wax.  When the wax hardens the sand is suspended in it, created a nice firm medium to scrape/brush at.  *If you’re trying this at home, be prepared to say goodbye to one of your saucepans… I plan on getting these nifty crock pot liners to throw in our beat up crock pot at work*

I made “stone” walls from modeling clay and arranged/hot-glued them in a shadow box frame to represent the foundations of an ancient Roman dwelling.  Then I poured the sand-wax on top and let it dry over night.

Ancient Roman walls

I tested it on our visitors this weekend and received almost 100% positive results.  There are a few kinks to be worked out but nothing a little bit of tweaking won’t solve.  I definitely want to make sure more of the “walls” are visible above the sand-wax, makes it much easier to start somewhere.  I also want to make flipbooks showing real archaeological dig sites– a lot of kids have a hard time figuring out what we’re looking at (“these are weird dinosaur bones…”)

Progress after 1.5 hours of testing

This is definitely a “family” activity so I think it will only come out on the weekends, rather than our crazy busy weekdays.  I really like that visitors stay for a decent amount of time; it gives me a chance to find out what they know and to guide our conversations along those lines.  You would be amazed at how much kids already know about archaeology and how interested they are in digging around!  I had a really interesting conversation with a young visitor (~8 years old) and her dad today about archaeology in Philadelphia– a few years ago the city dug up the foundation of George Washington’s house before a parking garage was put in.  They were both excited to learn that archaeologists don’t have to work in the desert, sometimes they start in their own backyard!

Covered with dig medium and the floor plan

Final product should be out on the museum Floor in 2-3 weeks, I’m excited!

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