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September 2011: Teachers Use Museum Objects to Help Students Learn about Real-World Problems

September 1, 2011
Two teachers converse at a table; musuem collections are visible in the background.

Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University

2009 National Leadership Grants for Museums

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David Heiser
Head of Education and Outreach
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
(203) 432-3777
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  Pictured: High school science teachers Lorraine Mancini and Vicki Climie discussed ways of aligning their proposed unit about water resource management issues with the state science standards.


"Any institution has to cultivate a relationship with the people around them – it’s a must. If you don’t have that and things get out of hand, you wouldn’t know where to go. In Peabody’s case we have this family of people—we have a relationship with education that’s accommodating. If people don’t have that, they should be encouraged to do it. The benefits there are just humongous."

 --Maxwell Amoh, Director of the Peabody’s Event Based Teacher Collaborative

Traditionally, the idea of museums supporting formal education has meant providing exciting field trips and programming for K-12 students. At Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, however, supporting K-12 education goes beyond reaching students and extends to educating teachers as well. For nearly 15 years, the Peabody Fellows Program has been providing continuing education and professional development opportunities for teachers.   

A New Direction for the Program

Now, thanks to a 2009 National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Peabody Fellows Program is taking on a new direction. Over the past two summers, the program has held institutes for science and social studies teachers. In contrast to previous years, these programs go beyond simply providing teachers with exposure to new content: they foster their ability to develop new and exciting curriculum that integrates museum objects while aligning with national and state standards for learning. Along with these week-long institutes, the grant is helping the Peabody Museum to establish a regional teachers’ association which will cultivate the museum’s relationship with educators while simultaneously making connections between teachers.

Teachers Collaborate to Develop Curriculum

At the institutes, teachers are given an introduction to event-based learning, a form of curriculum where teachers create lesson plans around a current event or real-world problem as a "hook". Rather than presenting teachers with pre-created curriculum, however, the Peabody’s summer institutes ask teachers to work together in small groups to design their own lesson plans which can be supplemented with museum knowledge and objects including learning kits of museum specimens to bring into the classroom. This focus on process-based rather than content-based professional development is a unique opportunity for teachers, explains Maxwell Amoh, Director of the Peabody’s Event Based Teachers’ Collaborative. "Teachers normally work individually on their own units, but when they got here they realized that we didn’t create a lecture program to talk at them, but that they needed to form their own groups and work diligently to produce something."   

Teachers were "gushing about their experience" in focus groups at the end of the week, says Amoh. "When you look at the evaluations, one of the things that they liked most about both institutes was the collaborative work and the conversations that started but are also continuing in many cases. They loved the chance to just have a week to work together on something and to learn from each other about what they do." "We realized that they don’t get that opportunity ever, really, unless they make it happen by themselves and what teacher has time to really do that?" adds David Heiser the museum’s Head of Education and Outreach.

Sharing the Museum’s Resources and Knowledge

At the end of the week, the teachers leave with more than just a new set of lesson plans. A major focus of the institutes has been in developing ongoing relationships between teachers and museum staff. "We’ve been trying to establish a sense of family, says Heiser, "people come out with a name. They’re known as a Peabody Fellow--and once a Peabody Fellow always a Peabody Fellow." 

Work with the teachers has continued throughout the school year, thanks to the unique resources the museum is able to provide to educators. "What we have here at the museum are two things that we don’t think they can find easily elsewhere. One is the access to objects and specimens. The second is we’re part of a university. We’re part of a network of knowledge that your average science teacher may not be able to tap into. At any point these teachers who we have formed relationships with know that they can contact us and if we don’t have an answer we can steer them in the right direction," says Heiser. To date, teachers have made requests for objects to supplement learning from blue morpho butterflies to cheetah paws to teach about nature and demonstrate scientific processes.

Long-term Relationships Promote Participation

These close relationships with teachers not only benefit schools, but the network of Peabody Fellows has become an important resource for the museum as well. "We found out that we can call on these people in a time of need to help us out," says Heiser. When the Peabody abruptly lost one of its key project managers for the grant program, the museum was able to look to its fellows for assistance in making sure the program kept up its momentum. "What we ended up doing and what worked beautifully was to hand-select two teachers who we had worked with in the past to come in and serve as advisors as we were finishing the planning. I can’t tell you how well that worked," explains Heiser.

Word of mouth from Peabody Fellows has also helped to fuel the success of and interest in the program. "We do the normal, traditional sending emails and brochures and all that, but the bulk of teachers who come to participate are actually recruited by teachers who have been in the program." says Amoh. Heiser also notes that, "[Teachers] really talk up what it is that we do at the grassroots level and really work within their districts to spread the word about the curricula that we’ve helped to develop and encourage the use of the kits that we’ve developed. We see a real benefit to developing this relationship with teachers and clearly teachers are getting something out of it too."

To further these relationships, the museum is currently working to establish a regional teachers’ association which will bring together educators to share curriculum ideas and resources. Keeping the dialogue going will be the most important outcome of the grant project, says Heiser, "When we see the level of commitment that people have to the museum after having gone through these programs, we want to continue to make that a two-way street."

National Leadership Grants for Libraries