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Pandemic closures prompted hundreds of museums, art galleries and zoos around the world to launch virtual field trips in the last year. Online “trips” let kids peek in on polar bears in the Antarctic, walk through exhibits in natural history museums, or visit art collections in Paris — and helped teachers give students a break from the monotony of remote learning.

Most of these virtual field trips were like their in-person predecessors — a fun, if educational, break from class, not necessarily connected to the learning standards kids are expected to meet by the end of each grade.

But a program offered through a museum in Utah sought to offer a different kind of virtual science field trip.

With their research assistant notebooks in hand, students could virtually conduct in-depth science investigations on archaeological field sites for the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU), study changes happening in the Uinta Mountains, and examine real dinosaur fossils from the world-renowned Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.

The program, called Research Quest, was designed for middle school students. It uses digitized objects from the museum’s collections and the real-world research and investigations of scientists and educators who work at the NHMU, said Madlyn Larson, director of education initiatives at the NHMU. Through a video, students meet with the Museum’s archaeologist Glenna Nielsen-Grimm; Mitch Power, professor and curator of the Garrett Herbarium; paleontologist Carrie Levitt-Bussian; and they engage in live talks with special guests, like astronaut Scott Kelly.

“Research Quest was kind of envisioned as this bridge that could give teachers and students a way into authentic science investigations, using real data and real objects,” said Larson.

The curators and collection managers here are actively conducting research on things likely to get kids interested, from dinosaur bones to climate change, said Jim Breitinger, the senior manager of marketing at the museum. Bringing that work to life in the classroom is “at the heart of Research Quest,” he said.

Teachers can create an account on Research Quest and select investigations appropriate for their grade level. The series of activities within each investigation are designed to take up to two to three class periods.

Each investigation forces students to analyze data, gather evidence, conduct science experiments and have discussions like real-world scientists — guided by the people who work at the museum.

“They see that this is a real place,” said Larson. “There’s this real scientist who studies this and she’s giving them some direction. Her videos are used to provide background information, a connection to a real world scientist, she models thinking and she provides some direction for the students.”

The program, Larson said, gives “learners more autonomy” so that “teachers are less of facilitators of activities in the classroom and more of evaluators of learning in their classroom.”

“If the students are busy with the investigation, which has got scientist-led videos and interactives and notebooks, it’s all turnkey,” Larson added.

The program, launched in 2013, isn’t new. It was designed in partnership with the Utah Education Network, and each of the investigations are aligned to meet Utah’s English language arts and Science with Engineering Education curriculum standards. Lessons meet Common Core and Next Generation Science standards, according to Larson.

Over the past several years, interest in the program, which is free to schools, has grown. During the pandemic the program saw users logging in from across the U.S. and world, Larson said; nationally, it is now being used by more than 500 teachers. The team said they are expanding, thanks to grants from the National Science Foundation and others, and are planning to partner with other natural history museums across the country.

This story about virtual field trips was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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Javeria Salman is the digital news producer, and she reports and writes the Future of Learning newsletter. She covers K-12 education issues through the lens of innovation and technology, and helps manage...

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