How Museums are Engaging with Students Remotely

Education today looks radically different than before the pandemic. Museums are no exception to this. Here's how museums across the country have pivoted to serve students.

By Hana Beach

Doors might be locked at museums around the country, but that’s not stopping them from finding new ways to connect with the public during the pandemic.

Art museums, zoos, aquariums, science centers, and other cultural and educational institutions are bringing their collections to young people in new ways, supplementing the online curriculum offered by schools and giving families fun, educational activities to share.

Museums Are Leveraging Digital Tools to Build Community

“These are unfortunate circumstances, but we are really excited about this challenge. It has encouraged us to be more creative about our digital access and offerings, and really allowed us to connect with the community in new ways,” said Sarah Henderson, K–12 learning specialist at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The museum is a frequent partner of Iowa BIG, an XQ school.

The museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, offered online services even before the pandemic, allowing viewers from around the country to learn about Czech and Slovak history and culture. 

Video tours and online lesson plans were always popular, but now they have new relevance. So when the shelter-in-place orders came in mid-March, museum staff immediately began shifting services online and thinking of new ways to make the museum experience a virtual one.

One of those projects was an ongoing robotics class with students from Iowa BIG. The museum had been planning an exhibit beginning in May on the centennial of Czech writer Karel Capek’s landmark science fiction play, “R.U.R.,” which introduced the word “robot.”

In conjunction with the exhibit, students at Iowa BIG were designing robots and examining their larger impact on humanity and how they can be a force for good. Students now meet online, and the project continues.

The museum also started an online book club focused on robots, where participants watched a Youtube clip of “R.U.R.” and shared their ideas about the impact of automation on society. The book club is open to everyone online and on social media

In addition, the museum started an at-home build-your-own-robot challenge, which can include anything from art projects to actual working robots. Henderson said this can be a perfect project-based-learning activity for teachers to use as part of their online learning lesson plans, as well as a good family activity.    

The museum’s next endeavor is to arrange online concerts. Young people will perform from their homes, and the concerts will be shown online at local senior facilities. The concerts will be a great way for students to showcase their creativity, provide entertainment for older people who may be feeling isolated while sheltering-in-place, and bridge the generational gap during these historic, uncertain times, Henderson said.   

All these programs should help students, teachers, and their families feel a little more connected, not just to their communities but to the world beyond Cedar Rapids. “Now, more than ever, we have to show students we care about them,” she said. “I can’t imagine how isolated some students must feel right now, especially those who are at-risk. There’s so little they have control over. This gives them the power to affect some kind of change, and connect with others in a really meaningful way.” 

More Examples of Museums Creating Remote Learning Opportunities

At the Grand Rapids Public Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, shifting to virtual offerings has been a priority, said Kate Kocienski, the museum’s vice president of marketing. The museum hosts an XQ school, the Grand Rapids Public Museum School, and serves as a major cultural and historic resource for western Michigan.

“This crisis came on so quickly, it was really important to us to think about community needs during this time,” Kocienski said. “We’re a big part of the community, and we want to be there for people.”

To answer this larger communal need, Grand Rapids Public Museum has drastically expanded their virtual offerings, which provide amazing supplemental educational materials. The museum’s upcoming events include:

  • A livestream of the lake sturgeon that live in the museum’s aquarium. The lake sturgeon, a threatened species, is the largest and oldest fish in the Great Lakes. To accompany the livestream, the museum also offers watershed curriculum and other material about the role of sturgeon in Great Lakes history, from the Native Americans to the present.
  • An online database of nearly all 250,000 artifacts in the museum collection, ranging from 400-million-year-old fossils; to ornate 19th century carpet sweepers manufactured in Grand Rapids; to flapper dresses from the 1920s. It’s easy to spend hours exploring the collection and reading histories of every object.
  • Community galleries, in which members of the public can create and share on social media their own exhibits using items found in their homes. One family even made a Star Trek-themed gallery!
  • Virtual discovery kits, which combine artifacts from the museum with lively, engaging lessons intended to spark curiosity. So far, the museum is offering kits focused on ancient Egypt, fossils, and music.
  • Scavenger hunts that use riddles and questions to lead students on a journey through the museum collection.
  • Astronomy activities, in conjunction with NASA and the museum’s planetarium. Students can learn to spot the International Space Station in the night sky, identify constellations from their backyards, and listen to an astronaut’s tips for living in a confined space.

The museum will add more online offerings every week and is intended to support the education and spark the curiosity of young people.

“We are really committed to delivering content digitally during this time,” Kocienski said. “It’s been really fun putting this all together…And these activities aren’t just for teachers and students. They’re great for families looking for fun things to do on the weekend. Not just now, but any time.”

If you want to visit a museum virtually 

Here are some other museums, zoos, and science centers that are offering online activities for students and families during the pandemic: 

Or check out your local museums to see what’s on offer. Still looking for great material? A longer list can be found here.

Do you have any tips on how communities can support students during school closures? Fill out our Blog Contributor Form.