Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Learning Curves

Image from Wikipedia

Victoria Arbour, over at Pseudoplocephalus, recently highlighted a visit to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and reflected upon the fact that many people quite often visit a museum to, well, visit a museum, entertain the kids, take a few photos and generally have a good time.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but Victoria was questioning the role of museums and suggested that without stopping throughout a visit to take things in, to want to learn and ask questions, to explain things to children, then what does the museum experience actually provide?

Those of us who frequent museums on a regular basis know exactly what Victoria is referring to and I bet that all of us have similar experiences to hers. Firstly, I suggest that this is simply how museums are visited today. A lot of the time, they are simply a place to tick off the list and say “been there, done that”. And this is the same for all museums and not just those that house our beloved dinosaur skeletons.

For instance, we recently visited the RAF museum at Hendon and came across the same apathetic attitude to the exhibits there. The planes on display are, indeed, wonderful and exciting and the exhibits excellent, but there was seldom any discourse between parents and their children. Most of the time, the parents were walking around, taking photos while the kids ran around – no discussion about anything, no parents explaining anything. Of course, not everyone is the same and I delight in listening to parents taking the time and patience to explain things to their children and of course, more often than not, the children respond in kind.

School visits have always been a decent learning tool in my opinion and I have fond memories of my own museum trips. However, the problem today is that, quite often, the amount of children involved on a trip is considerable and they are often only managed by a couple of teachers. Sometimes there may be a couple of volunteers who help with the overall control of the group but controlled education and interaction in such situations is difficult and some children can sometimes feel left out of things , since teachers are so concerned with health and safety issues these days that education suffers as a result. And I am not blaming the teachers for this – the situation simply exists.

And yet throughout all of this, the willingness of both adults and children to learn often shines through. I’ve been approached a couple of times to do a couple of talks on dinosaurs and vertebrate palaeontology for a couple of local societies. This is small potatoes compared to my more esteemed colleagues but I still prepared thoroughly, providing samples and casts of fossils, as well as images and diagrams and, of course, notes for me to refer to throughout.

I was nervous at first but, after the initial early stages had passed, everything became a lot easier and the meetings passed off really well. On both occasions, the question and answer sessions were most entertaining and I was really pleased and, I have to say, pleasantly surprised with the depth of knowledge displayed by some in the audience – and over a broad range of subjects as well.

I hope I’m not sounding too condescending here, it’s just that I wasn’t expecting to be discussing the physiology and metabolism of dinosaurs in such detail and I certainly did not expect to face questions regarding the biomechanics of dromaeosaurid claws. Not my strongest subject so, after some pretty intense discussion, I referred them to Manning (2009) and got out of it that way!

Children have been a delight to work with on the odd occasion that I have done so. Once a year, the local county has an open day that publicises the virtues of different clubs and societies and there are many different exhibits and demonstrations that are all designed to get people involved.

I’ve represented a local geological society a couple of times with a group of colleagues who engage the public to get them interested in geology and palaeontology and to join the society. With stands displaying images of field trips and various meetings backed up with specimens of both minerals and fossils on show, the day always proves to be stimulating and rewarding.

The kids are always great though. We provided a sand pit and hid various fossils in the sand so that they could “excavate” their own fossil. These were all fossils provided by members of the society and were mainly scrappy non-diagnostic bits and pieces that we all picked up over the years, along with the odd sharks tooth.

But the children loved them! They were fascinated by the fossils and quite often asked about what they had found, what part of the animal it was and how old it was. You could see that they were absolutely delighted with their bit of ammonite or belemnite and we genuinely felt that they really had got something out of the experience.

Some older children engaged in questioning us about the fossils and minerals on display and it was again encouraging that they displayed a terrific understanding of the prehistoric past and were thirsty for more. A couple of them were with us for a couple of hours and you could tell that they had reached, without doubt, their happy place. Future geologists and palaeontologists perhaps? I would like to think so.

In the end I suppose we should be grateful that there are both adults and children alike who do indeed want to quench their thirst for knowledge. And if that quick trip to a museum, or maybe that visit to an open day such as I’ve described above, does indeed inspire one person to perhaps become a scientist of the future, then that can only be a good thing.


Biomechanics of Dromaeosaurid Dinosaur Claws: Application of X-Ray Microtomography, Nanoindentation, and Finite Element Analysis Phillip L. Manning, Lee Margetts, Mark R. Johnson, Philip J. Withers, William I. Sellers, Peter L. Falkingham, Paul M. Mummery, Paul M. Barrett and David R. Raymont Anatomical Record Hoboken NJ 2007 (2009) Volume: 292, Issue: 9, Pages: 1397-405 DOI: 10.1002/ar.20986


Albertonykus said...

So there's some hope after all! XD

Traumador said...

One of the other problems is parents lack of knowledge, so that if a kid has a question they don't know what to answer.

I've personally taken up eavesdropping tour guiding, and jump in to answer ANY question I hear at a museum where I can at least steer the asker to some sort of educational outcome. You'll get weird looks for a sec, but most people tend to appreciate the info once they overcome the shock of a stranger listening in on their (outloud) private pondering.

Mind you I'm also the outgoing man with no dignity (I almost always have my puppet on my hand in museums for taking photos) so I have no problem launching at strangers ;)

Mark Wildman said...

Ha! I'm glad you said that because I've done that too. I guess it's a little rude to butt in on someone else's conversation but the feel good factor as your chosen respondent continues on with his tour, now better informed than he ever knew he could be, is just perfect!

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