Using Exhibition Halls at The Museum to Teach Science
I work at a wonderful place, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I am an educator with a background in geology. I have spent 17 years at the Museum working with visitors of all ages. I work with teachers using the Museum halls to engage students in a wide variety of science topics.
As I stepped out of the car onto the dry dust gravel road in south central Wyoming I had the odd feeling of having been there before. The golden yellow scrubby grasses, the little silvery blue-gray sage bushes, it was all so familiar. But the first thing I noticed as I drove along the dirt road through the ranch land was a little cliff of rock! That was my clue! I had found the Bison Diorama site!
One of my favorite Exhibition Halls is the Hall of North American Mammals. It contains dioramas which are beautiful three-dimensional recreations of places all around North America, recorded in such amazing detail, from blades of grass to soaring mountain peaks, to the wide-open spaces of the plains.
When we look at the dioramas, our eyes take in the entire scene, from the grand massive muscle of the bison to the expanse of the plain, to the fleet footed pronghorn, and the prickly cactus under foot. This three dimensional recreation draws us in naturally. We are at home in this world, looking over, around and under the objects before us; our visual sense is fully engaged. We frequently, as perhaps in life, forget to look up. The Clouds! The dioramas have delicately painted clouds. Thin cirrus, puffy cumulus, and blankets of stratus clouds make us feel as though we were out on the plains of Wyoming, not inside a Museum in New York City.
These are not fantasy places. They are real. When I go on vacation I go on "treasure hunts" to photograph these places and I stand in the spots where Museum artists and scientists stood 70 or 80 years ago to design these dioramas. On that September day in 2005 when I stood at the site of the Bison Diorama it was perfect. Cottony little cumulus puffs of cloud populated the clear blue sky, just like they do in the diorama. These clouds are recorded in the diorama too. They are as accurate a representation of the real life setting as the rest of the scene.
The dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History offer wonderful opportunities for young people to engage in observation. The detail and the dimensions and the marvelous reality engage the students. The dioramas enable students to travel to these places, make their own observations of clouds, the wildlife, and the natural environment and record them for future reflection.
The visual magic of the dioramas was especially powerful for the ELL students participating in the NOAA Science Literacy for Grade 6 English Language Learnersproject. I had a big smile on my face when I took one group of ELL students to the Hall of North American Mammals and a boy exclaimed, "Wow! It's three-D!" He was hooked and ready to learn.
I developed a lesson plan called Expedition to North America that used the visual imagery of the dioramas to explore the clouds weather, biomes, and the geography of North America. This immersive visual experience with its focus on visualizations, observation, drawing, and plotting locations on maps using longitude and latitude was a useful way for ELL students to build language and vocabulary skills in science, to develop mapping skills, and to acquire content knowledge about weather and habitats. You can return to my homepage to view this lesson plan.