Undergraduates as Science Museum Docents: Training Students to Be the Teachers Using Peer Led Team Learning

Article excerpt

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* The Genomic Revolution

From June 2004 through January of 2005, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta hosted the traveling exhibit, The Genomic Revolution, described as the most comprehensive presentation on the complex subject of genomics. Originally created by the American Museum of Natural History, this exhibit presented cutting edge information on genetic research and how that knowledge is "impacting decisions about our health, our food, and our stewardship of the natural world" (The Genomic Revolution press release, 2004). In addition to displays featuring hands-on models, interactive stations, and short films, the exhibition also included a working laboratory where attendees could experience firsthand the techniques used in modern genetics research through short exercises in DNA extraction (see cover) and forensic analysis (Figure 1). Electronic polling stations were also placed throughout the exhibit space so visitors could voice their opinions on controversial scientific issues and compare their responses with the accumulated views of other attendees. By examining these scientific breakthroughs and their potential applications in areas like medicine, nutrition, and the legal system, visitors could evaluate their own reactions from scientific, technical, and socio-ethical perspectives.

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As stated on its Web site, the mission of the Fernbank Museum is to "inspire life-long learning of natural history through dynamic programming to encourage a greater appreciation of our planet and its people" (http://www.fernbank.edu). The museum is typically self-guided but because of the complexity of the topic and the functional lab within the exhibit, it was decided to staff The Genomic Revolution with a team of paid undergraduate interns. A docent (derived from the latin word docere meaning to teach) serves as a bridge between the museum and the attendees, acting as the face and voice of the collection and interpreting it for the visitors (Chin, 1995). Consequently it's a challenging job requiring a person to act as an educator, a public speaker, and a leader. The museum directors felt that undergraduate science majors would make especially effective candidates for this exhibit because of their backgrounds in the discipline, enthusiasm for the subject matter, and good communication skills. Exhibit interpreters have been shown to promote a more effective learning experience when used in science museums (Stronck, 1983). Additionally, at least one report has described greater student and teacher satisfaction with student docents compared with their adult counterparts, based on their interactions with elementary school groups (Cox-Peterson & Ramirez, 2001).

The Fernbank Museum of Natural History partnered with the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (a consortium of eight colleges and universities focused on neurobiology research and education [http://www.cbn-atl.org]) to enlist and train undergraduate students as docents for The Genomic Revolution. Undergraduate students were recruited from schools in the metropolitan Atlanta area, including the Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University, and Spellman College. Eight of the nine students in the program were science majors (biology, neuroscience, biomedical engineering), ranging from sophomores to recently-graduated seniors, and all but one had previously taken at least some coursework in genetic fundamentals. Also, students were required to have at least a 3.0 GPA. From this group, two classes of docents were formed to staff the duration of the exhibit: one group of five students covering the summer to early fall, and a second group of four students covering the fall through the winter.

* Undergraduate Docent Training

Our challenge was to create a docent training program that would cover the genetic principles in the exhibit along with the communication and leadership techniques needed for their interpretation in a museum setting. …