The American Museum of Natural History usually calls to mind dinosaur bones and whale skeletons, not graduate schools. But that may soon change, as this month the museum will begin taking applications for a new Master's in Teaching program. In fact, the institution has been home to the Richard Gilder Graduate School since 2008, offering PhDs in comparative biology. The new Master's program will focus specifically on training teachers in the Earth Sciences.
We recently talked to the museum’s president, Ellen Futter, about the new program and the role museums have to play in improving science education. (The interview has been edited for length.)
The LC: How did the new Master's in Teaching program come about?
EF: It’s a combination of two things: First, the museum itself has for some time been engaged in training teachers and in doing education - in fact, we are chartered by the New York State Board of Regents ... In the last number of years, for example, we’ve been training around 4,000 teachers a year, not for a degree, but often for certification - and that’s on site and online.
In the last year, New York State received Race To The Top funding, and as part of that put out a request for proposals for a new Master's in Teaching program, inviting not only the traditional education schools but also others including us. We submitted for funding through that program and were awarded it to the tune of $2.6 million.
The LC: What is the goal of the program?
EF: Well, I think the goal in the most immediate is to train New York State teachers in Earth Sciences. Having said that, the larger goal is that this is a pilot that we would hope would endure and it’s to address both a national crisis in science education, which includes low rankings for U.S. students compared to international students, and the fact that this is one of – if not the – area where teachers are least well-trained and empowered and prepared to teach. Science is fundamentally an inquiry-based exercise and not rote memory, and if you don’t really know how to teach and do science it’s impossible to teach it well and to excite students about it…
We think we have an enormous advantage because the museum is a place where we have collections of 32 million specimens and artifacts, much of it out on the floor, but much of it behind the scenes in our collections. We have 200 research scientists and a cadre of museum educators, and we’re going to bring all of this to bear in training these teachers.
We’re going to have two summer residencies for them working with scientists, with collections, with our educators, and we’re also going to have a two-year induction program to help them while they’re doing their teaching, to enable them to be successful and to keep them in the field.
The LC: Are there some ideas or best practices that museums in general can employ to support teachers outside of the realm of field trips?
EF: Absolutely. In fact, the days when the role of a museum in its relationship to schools was just a field trip – which was, in the old days, often a day off from school – has changed dramatically.
We now have very formal partnerships and collaborations with schools where we work, with the teachers before they bring their class in, going over the material, produce teachers guides and the like, then we have exercises for the students to do while they’re there, and there’s also an ongoing discussion often after they return to the classroom…
For example, we had our genomics exhibition some years ago and built into that exhibition what was kind of the coolest laboratory ever created, including the capacity to sequence both students’ and visitors’ DNA.
So, we would work with the teachers to prepare for the class’s visit before they came, when the students came into that laboratory we got samples of their DNA, and then when they went back to the classroom we sent them sequences of their DNA over the internet.
So, that shows you how this can be an ongoing dialogue rather than a one-off visit, which completely transforms the educational impact and role of the museum...
The second example is a program we started seven years ago with seven other major science-rich institutions in New York City in addition to the American Museum of Natural History, and we lead it, - the zoos, the gardens, the science centers, etc. - and it’s called Urban Advantage, because the idea is that for all the disadvantages of urban education, or challenges, there’s one great big advantage: We have these extraordinary institutions in our midst. And if we call upon them in formal ways working with schools, it can be transformative. This particular program is built around the eighth-grade exit project, which is a requirement that students need to complete in science in order to be promoted to the next grade.
We work with the teachers, we work with the students, both training the teachers with how to work with the students on a project that’s inquiry-based, the students come to the different institutions to do their work and work with our trained experts, and then in addition we send passes home with the students for their families to come back to the respective institutions.
We’ve now been at it long enough that NYU has been able to do an external evaluation that shows that students who have participated in Urban Advantage perform better on standardized tests in the area.
The LC: Can these programs be extended to other museums throughout the country?
EF: Starting with Urban Advantage, which was founded here in New York City, we’re trying to take that one national. Denver now has embraced it, it’s being evaluated in Miami and Boston and other cities as well. So, Urban Advantage is a model that we created here, but hope can be a template that can be extended beyond New York.
The Master’s program is institution-specific, but I think it is something that could be extended and I should say that in our case it builds on something that we began a number of years ago. We are the first - and I believe still the only museum, in the western hemisphere at least - to grant PhDs, which we are doing in Comparative Biology. And we’ve long been one of – if not the only – doctoral and post-doctoral programs of any museum in the world. So we have long been at this. The Master's program builds on the doctoral program and it all becomes a larger part of what we do.
Not withstanding that, I do believe that the community of science-rich cultural institutions has a very substantial and growing role to play in addressing the crisis of science education in this country, including in the formal ways that I’ve outlined.
The LC: What are the barriers to other museums instituting programs like this?
EF: Well, every institution is different, it depends what its culture is, it depends on the role that the various participants - whether they be educators or scientists - want to play. I just think it’s very institution-specific. But I do believe that as a whole, the sector has resources and capacity that can be utilized and drawn upon to address the crisis, and that the sector wants to.
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