Initial Publication Date: January 30, 2015

Engaging Students Before, During, and After Visits to Informal Science Education Centers

Laura A. Guertin ( is an associate professor of Earth science at Penn State Brandywine, Media, Pennsylvania. She is the 2009 recipient of the GSA's Biggs Award for Excellence in Earth Science Teaching.

Many of us had classroom field trips to museums and aquariums when we were students in grades K-12, where the typical visit was designed as a scavenger hunt to complete fill-in-the-blank worksheets. Surprisingly, there are very few published suggestions or guidelines that support teachers and university faculty who wish to go beyond the show-and-tell of looking at museum displays. Yet the importance of an effective science learning experience in informal environments is emphasized by the National Research Council (NRC, 2009) and National Science Teachers Association (NSTA, 2012). There exists a wealth of opportunities for student engagement before, during, and after visits to informal education centers. Here, I provide suggestions that are easily adaptable to various grade levels and useful to instructors wanting to move beyond the traditional model of a classroom museum visit. Although I use the term "museum" in this article, I am referring to all types of informal science education centers, such as science and natural history museums, zoos and aquariums, botanical gardens and arboreta, visitor centers of national parks and wildlife preserves, and planetariums.

Faculty can start by fully exploring a museum website to review the current/permanent displays as well as upcoming exhibits, seminars and workshops. Knowing the museum schedule may determine the date of a classroom visit and, perhaps, which topics are covered in a course at a certain time during the semester. Teachers may require students to read magazine articles and/or papers from scientific journals that relate to the content of specific exhibits and the research of the museum scientists. Perhaps there is a book for students to read that connects to museum research or an exhibit. Either strategy activates prior knowledge and primes students for learning.

Contact the education coordinator for the museum to discuss learning goals for the visit. The coordinator may schedule a phone appointment or face-to-face meeting to share highlights in the exhibits, as well as provide existing education materials developed for exhibits and museum brochures ahead of time. In addition to the education department, some museums have resident scientists who can be most helpful. Museum scientists can provide behind-the-scene tours of collections and may be able to provide a seminar or other presentation in the museum auditorium. If the class will be at a museum over a lunch period, museum scientists may be willing to have lunch with the students for small, informal discussions about science, their career pathways, etc.

Back on campus after the museum visit, it is important to make every effort to integrate information and displays from the museum in to the course content so that students don't view the trip as an add-on to the curriculum. Teachers may require students to look for additional journal articles relating to the science content presented in the displays. If a museum scientist is not available during the day of a visit, a Skype session can be used as a follow up, to provide students opportunities to ask questions. Finally, instructors can ask museum staff about projects available to students (photographing exhibits, documenting collections, developing outreach materials, etc.) for undergraduate research and internships, not only to continue student engagement with the scientific content, but to assist the informal science center in fulfilling their mission of science, education, and outreach.

In 2009, I taught historical geology at the same time that the original Tiktaalik roseae fossil was at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia for a limited time. This coincided with the publication of the book Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. I assigned the book to my students to read as part of the course. I also contacted Dr. Ted Daeschler, one of the vertebrate paleontologists and museum scientists that was part of the Tiktaalik expedition, and coordinated a class visit to the museum. The students had a private lecture in the museum auditorium by Dr. Daeschler about the expedition and the significance of limbed vertebrates, and then we had a tour behind-the-scenes and were able to view the actual Tiktaalik fossil that the students had been reading about. One of the students was so inspired by her museum visit that she arranged an internship with the museum education department and completed her senior honors thesis with the creation of an online supplement to the museum's bicentennial exhibit in Google Earth with a series of educational activities, targeted for middle school science educators and students (her work is accessible at:

So, during our visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences, students were able to receive a solid scientific background on a unique fossil specimen, and they were able to hear from one of the expedition scientists about the process of fieldwork and the relevance of the discovery. Although students had time to explore the museum on their own, this structured visit, along with advanced preparation and significant follow-up, allowed for deeper engagement with the science content and educational resources available at this informal science education center. I encourage faculty to consider communicating with museum staff and thoughtfully plan the preparation and follow-up for museum trip with students, in order to have the largest impact on student learning.


National Research Council (NRC), Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments, Philip Bell, Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W. Shouse, and Michael A. Feder, eds. Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2009.

"NSTA Position Statement: Learning Science in Informal Environments." National Science Teachers Association, 2012,