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Educators Qualitative Research Report
November, 2001

Objectives | Sample and Methodology | Executive Summary | Conclusions and Implications | Detailed Findings | Appendix



As part of the development of the ten-year Strategic Plan for 2002-2010, The San Diego Natural History Museum is conducting several primary research studies. This report details the learning from qualitative research conducted among educators in the San Diego area. Other reports will cover learning from conservation and environmental education experts, minority consumers, and minority community leaders.

  • The objectives for this particular study were to ascertain perceptions about the Museum from the educators and obtain reactions to various current and possible future programs.

The findings from this qualitative study will be analyzed together with findings from other primary and secondary research. Together, they will provide valuable input to the strategic planning process for the San Diego Natural History Museum.


Sample and Methodology

This study consisted of eight, thirty minute long individual telephone interviews moderated by Katie Feifer, the Director of Planning and Research, and Andrew Lasher, Research Project Manager at Campbell Mithun. Participants for the study were selected and recruited by San Diego Natural History Museum personnel. Please note that because the sample was selected by the Museum, there may be bias introduced into the findings to the extent that the sample is familiar to, and may be favorably disposed towards, the Museum.

The sample included two college professors, two high school teachers, and four elementary or middle school teachers.

During the phone discussions, topics covered included current usage of the Museum, as well as reactions to various programs such as docent tours and outreach classes, science workshops, and guided nature walks. Reactions to ideas such as distance learning, teacher training and use of movies, tapes and library loan kits were also obtained.

A copy of the discussion guide used for this research is appended.

Interpretation of Qualitative Research
The findings from qualitative research are subjective and directional. The research is best used to generate hypotheses and insights that can spark ideas, provide an aid to judgment, or be used as input for quantitative evaluation. Qualitative research is neither representative nor projectable. Thus, great care should be used when drawing conclusions based on qualitative research.


Executive Summary

  • Usage of the Museum ranged between once and five or six times a year.
  • Reasons for using the Museum were focused on the desire to supplement curriculum. Elementary teachers also wanted simply to expose their students to the Museum and to science. At the college level, teachers wanted to encourage students to use the Museum to facilitate class work, with students going on their own most of the time.
  • Several barriers to Museum usage were noted; including logistics and associated cost of attending, proximity to the Museum, and student perception that the Museum was "boring'.
  • No single program was the most preferred by this sample. Two that were well-liked were the Guided Nature Walks and the Self-Guided In-Museum Visits. As the grade taught increased so did the preference for the self-guided tours. Several of the teachers, particularly in the elementary and middle school grades, also liked the science workshops.
  • As the grade taught increased, so did interest in electronic forms of communication between the Museum and teachers, including website usage. Elementary school teachers were far more interested in receiving flyers and catalogs than email alerts and were less likely to use the Museum's website.
  • While expressed interest in distance learning and web-based instruction seemed high in this research, interest was tempered by caveats: the classes needed to be relevant, designed with students in mind, and be affordable for schools.
  • There was strong interest voiced in teacher training and development, though some of the positive response might have been simply due to teachers giving the "expected" positive response. Still, teachers were clearly interested in improving themselves and their knowledge base, while wondering about the cost and the actual content of the classes for them.
  • The literacy block formed a barrier for usage of the Museum among elementary teachers especially. They were hopeful that the Museum could come up with ways to help them integrate more science into the curriculum via the literacy block. Suggestions included more hand-outs and essays, more information for students to read.
  • Across the board, teachers preferred to have their students visit the Museum, versus having outreach programs. The wealth of material, access to scientists and the hands-on/interactive experience the Museum offers, was deemed critical for exciting and motivating students.
  • Teachers expressed interest in programs and tools that would be relevant and involving for students, such as movies, and those which made their teaching jobs easier, such as library loan kits.
  • Teachers liked the Museum's emphasis on Life and Earth Science. For the most part, they were comfortable with the Museum's maintaining that focus.


Conclusions and Implications

It was apparent from this small sample study that the needs of teachers from the Museum at the elementary, secondary and college levels are quite different. Thus, one key question facing the Museum is whom to target within the education community, or how to best serve multiple targets within the education community.

For example, guided tours and science workshops are of more interest to those in lower grades. "Low tech" ways of communicating are still preferred by those teaching elementary grades. Helping teachers work science into the focus on literacy, now consuming their work, is of interest to those in lower grades as well.

Teacher training and development was desired by all; however it is probably more likely to be utilized by teachers at the college and perhaps high school levels, presuming the course offerings are relevant to their needs.

While the Museum was occasionally criticized for being "boring" and for having exhibits that were "worn out" and "tired looking", the overall sense one got from the teachers was that they, and their students, were aware that the Museum was a gold mine of stimulating exhibits, specimens, and people. At all levels, the teachers got most excited about the Museum when explaining ways in which the Museum made the science come alive. This occurred in numerous ways: discussions with passionate scientists, tours with knowledgeable docents, experiencing the relevant concepts in ways that were "hands-on" or interactive. Clearly, future efforts which engage students and their teachers with physical stimuli and a degree of passion will be the most popular and useful.

While outreach efforts by the Museum were not as popular among this sample as bringing students to the Museum, the popularity of the Guided Nature Walks suggests that there would be interest in engaging students in the field. The current Nature Walk program contains barriers for some teachers: the time commitment required chief among them. Perhaps solutions can be sought which allow students to learn about our environment in our environment, within the constraints imposed by school systems.

The barriers to usage of the Museum heard in this study are not new. Time, cost, planning, and lack of emphasis placed on science in the pre-college grades are only a few. Another, only hinted at in this study, might be the unfamiliarity of teachers with what the Museum has to offer their students. Outreach to teachers, in ways that are inexpensive to them and convenient, may re-invigorate their interest in using the Museum, and go a long way to increase utilization by students at all grade levels.


Detailed Findings

Current Museum Usage

Current usage of the Museum and its offerings varied among the sample from one teacher who participated with her students in five or six events a year, to once a year or so. The majority of this sample utilized the Museum about once or twice a year. The purposes for visiting the Museum or making use of its programs also varied, particularly between K-12 teachers and those in college.

What united them was the goal of supplementing the curriculum, particularly in Earth Science and Life Science. The Museum's focus on Life and Earth Science meant, however, that the high school chemistry teacher in this sample hadn't taken students to the Museum or made use of its programs in a couple of years, because he felt the Museum's offerings weren't relevant to his curriculum.

Other reasons for using the Museum varied. Among elementary school teachers, a main reason for bringing children to the Museum was simply to expose them to a Museum, and to the wide variety of exhibits and specimens that were available.

  • "I want to do things that their parents wouldn't do with them."
  • "For many of my kids, it was the first time they'd been to a museum, and it opened their eyes..."

Teachers, particularly elementary teachers, were very aware that the Museum exhibits augmented their curriculum in ways that they couldn't: in a sense, the Museum had done all the "prep" work for them.

At the high school and college levels, the Museum was used mostly to facilitate class work. Students typically were asked to roam around the Museum on their own, with sheets of questions or worksheets provided by the teachers. One biology professor claimed to make the Museum an integral part of his curriculum each year, writing new materials for traveling exhibits when they came.

While there were many reasons given for using the Museum, teachers also spontaneously mentioned several barriers to increased usage of the Museum. Among them:

  • Parking for parents
  • Cost of docent-led tours and workshops, outreach programs
  • Restrictions on number of field trips allowed per year
  • Student resistance ("it's dead things and rocks")
  • "Worn-out", "used up" kind of feeling at Museum
  • Proximity: Physical distance from the museum

It should be noted that despite the mentions of certain barriers to using the Museum, the overall perception of the Museum among this small sample of teachers was generally quite positive. They all felt the Museum had a lot to offer them and their students and that, for the most part, it did an excellent job of engaging the students and teachers alike.

Several of the elementary teachers spoke favorably of some of the Museum's programs spontaneously. Those mentioned included Door to the Desert, Guided Nature Walks, the exhibit on pathogens and a lecture (or workshop?) with entomologist. When asked about current offerings specifically, teachers elaborated even more.

Teacher Expo
Most of this sample was unaware of the Teacher Expo. Of the few who were, only two had attended. One found the experience helpful, to the degree that she wished it was offered two or more times a year. She cited the difficulty in freeing up her schedule in order to attend as an obstacle to overcome. The other teacher found it less helpful. She felt that most of the material available could have been sent through the mail, and she saw no point in her physical presence.

    "It was nice to have, but most of the information could've been sent through the mail... the hands-on person was providing useful information, but that was for the upper grades..."

The idea of a Teacher Expo seemed more appropriate for K-12 than for college educators. A couple of teachers noted that their interest in attending would be low because they already had so much to do.

Self-Guided In-Museum Visits
Reaction to this way of using the Museum was generally determined by age of the students. Teachers of lower elementary grades preferred not to take themselves through the Museum. Two reasons were proffered: first, the teachers didn't feel they had enough knowledge to run a tour themselves. Second, they felt it was easier for their children to focus if they had a section of the Museum to themselves, as they did when a docent provided the tour.

    "I don't like to do it, because there's too many people... they have these huge groups of three and four year olds... I would rather we have a section to ourselves."

    "I'm not knowledgeable enough... I'd rather have someone else do it."

As the children aged into middle school and high school, and certainly among college students, self-guided visits were the way to go.

    "It's our preferred program..."

    "It's an excellent method for college-level classes."

One reason why upper grade level teachers preferred to have their students guide themselves was because it forced the students to think more for themselves and seek out information on their own. Teachers also noted that self-guided visits allowed them to structure the tours around exhibits that were relevant to current class subject matter.

Further, as one middle school teacher commented, the self-guided tours were easy to organize compared to other options.

In-Museum Docent Tours
As might be expected, usage of, and reactions to the docent tours was almost the opposite of usage of and reactions to the self-guided tours. The elementary grade teachers tended to prefer these tours, whereas high school and college teachers did not.

The docent tours were well-regarded for the quality of the docents, particularly their ability to engage the children and their knowledge.

    "I love them. They are so good with the kids. They have so much patience with the kids. And they have a wealth of knowledge. I'm very impressed with them."

    "It's another effective way to teach students; there's less reading involved, and the docents hold their attention well."

The teachers who didn't utilize docent tours in the Museum had several reasons. Again, they preferred to customize the agenda to better match their curricular needs; and they wanted to keep their costs down.

Docent Outreach Classes
Awareness of this program was not universal. Among those in this sample who were aware, only two - elementary school teachers - had made use of docent outreach classes. They were very pleased with the program. The program was lauded for having expert, knowledgeable speakers, and for providing a unique experience for students.

The only drawback noted by one user was that their classroom facilities were somewhat small, which made the experience less pleasant than it could have been. Overall, though, the two teachers who used this program were quite excited about being able to reach their students in this way.

In-Museum Science Workshops
The science workshops were of little interest to college professors. They seemed hard-pressed to see the relevance for their students.

Among teachers in high school and below, however, reaction was quite different. Most of the teachers in this sample were aware of, and had participated in the science workshops in the Museum. On the whole, they believed that these workshops were an excellent learning opportunity for children. They liked the "hands-on" nature of the workshops, and the ability of the scientists to hold the children's interest.

One third grade teacher who hadn't been to a science workshop spoke of the experience she and her class had of meeting and interacting with an etymologist. The interaction with an actual scientist was apparently exciting and mind-expanding for students and teacher alike.

    "I had no idea they did that much research. It was mind blowing, all the masses of specimens. The kids were so excited. They got to meet real scientists, see how their lives are impacted by the science they do... after they had that meeting, several of the kids told me that they wanted to go in that direction for their careers, whereas before, the only interest in careers in science came from a couple of kids who wanted to be astronauts..."

While not occurring under the auspices of a science workshop, this teacher's experience certainly spoke to the benefits of having children interact with real scientists at the Museum.

Off-site Science Workshops
No one in this sample had participated in an off-site science workshop, and there seemed to be little awareness either of the existence of the program, or what it entailed. For these reasons, most in this sample had a difficult time envisioning how this program could be relevant to their needs.

Guided Nature Walks
Most of this sample was aware of the availability of these programs, and had availed themselves of the walks, either for personal or professional benefit. Those who had participated felt that the experience was excellent. They enjoyed being outdoors, and felt that the walks provided another "hands-on" experience. The guided aspect added to the experience because the teachers felt they couldn't provide as much information and knowledge as the guides.

    "We love the canyon hiking. We love being outdoors... I couldn't do it alone with them (the students)."

    "One year we went to the Nature Center at Tecolote, and now we go there a lot... Mary is so good, she has so much common sense..."

What limits participation in the Guided Nature Walks, according to this sample, are the logistics. Arranging transportation and finding time to take a whole day away from the classroom are problems that many teachers, especially in the elementary and high school grades, find difficult to overcome. At the college level, the professor can simply urge students to go on their own. In high school and below, though, the logistics can be quite "a hassle" as one teacher put it.

Future Role of the Museum

Desire for electronic communication appeared to be related to grade level taught, at least among this sample of teachers. Those in the elementary and middle school grades tended to prefer to receive communication from the Museum via mail. Several teachers had limited or no email or Internet access. Further, they liked being able to browse through a catalog at their leisure, wherever they might be.

    "Send me something in the mail... I like to have it in my hands."

At the high school and college level, the teachers were open to receiving email alerts, especially about new programs they might be interested in. There was some concern that the email alerts not come too frequently or look like "spam". Either of those situations would cause teachers to feel less favorably toward the Museum.

Few in this sample had visited the Museum's web site to date; few claimed they would do so in the future. Some of the teachers said that they simply preferred to talk to humans when they wanted information. Others said that they might check the web site if they were prompted to do so, but that it would not be a site they would visit spontaneously. One college professor claimed to have surfed the Museum's website and found it a good source of useful information for him personally.

Again, the teachers of lower grades appeared to be less likely to avail themselves of the Museum's website than did those teachers in the upper grades.

    "I don't have a lot of time to cruise the Internet... besides, we won't even get Internet access again at school until May."

All but one of the teachers in this sample said they'd be willing to consider distance learning, or web-based instruction from the Museum. However, each person's interest was tempered by the caveat that the course offerings would need to be relevant to their curriculum, and handled very well. These comments, plus others, indicated that the interest expressed was lukewarm, at best, and that "selling" distance learning might be somewhat difficult.

    "I'd participate, but the topics need to be made directly relevant, and designed with children in mind."

As well as wondering how the distance learning classes could be made relevant, a couple of teachers objected that they believed effective instruction from the Museum needed to be more "hands-on":

    "I might participate in distance learning, but I can't imagine what they'd do. I want to be able to actually hold the stuff.... I want there to be more emphasis on the organic, hands-on elements."

There was widespread interest among these teachers in using the Museum for teacher training and development. It was hard to be "against" anything that developed a teacher professionally. Importantly, this sample thought that the Museum had the expertise to be a good source of learning for teachers.

    "Absolutely. I use it as training for me. Because we, as teachers, then turn around and teach other people. Here at my school, we reach a diverse population...I would love to get a brochure with courses I could choose from."

    "The Museum can serve an important role due to their diverse areas of expertise. They can add a lot of training value.... I would personally take advantage of it."

    "Yes, it could be a very active and relevant role.... It's an awesome resource."

Questions were raised about the cost of such classes, and who would have to pay for the training. Another potential barrier, raised by elementary school teachers, was the emphasis on literacy. Teachers are apparently so focused on literacy that they have little time for other things, including science.

    "Teacher training? It would be awesome. I'd be open to it, but the district's focus is literacy. I'd love more focus on science..."

As noted above, teachers in the elementary and middle school grades are being forced to focus on teaching literacy, often at the expense of science. There was great interest, therefore, in finding ways to bring science back into the curriculum, perhaps through literacy. Teachers made several suggestions for ways the Museum could help science be made more integral, within the focus on literacy. Among them:

  • Help teachers and administrators find ways to work science into the "reading for information" part of the literacy block.
  • Have materials available for students that promote literacy, such as hand-outs, essays, general knowledge tools..

Teachers were relying on the Museum to come up with ideas and programs to help them; they were at a loss to figure out for themselves how to make the Museum's offerings more relevant to the literacy block, although they definitely wanted that to happen.

Across the board, teachers preferred bringing their students to the Museum versus outreach. The Museum was seen as a tremendous resource that few students would become exposed to on their own. The exhibits, specimens and scientists available at the Museum were thought to be tremendously exciting and eye-opening to students of all ages. Further, at the elementary school level, teachers knew that their students simply liked to get away and visit places.

    "The way I like to teach is the messy way, getting your hands in everything - you can change a lot of minds that way. That's why I like coming down to the Museum."

    "I'd prefer to go to the Museum. The people at the Museum are great... the students have no idea before they go, and once they get exposed to it they're more likely to go back. It introduces people to all the scientists, and the specimens ...

    "It's more stimulating for the teachers and the students."

The only barriers mentioned by teachers regarding field trips were their cost and logistical considerations.

Other programs that the teachers said they might avail themselves of included large screen movie experiences, and for a few, library loan kits and abstracts of lectures available on the Museum's web site. The benefits of movies to students were well understood: teachers believed movies could bring to life scientific concepts in a way that engaged students.

Library loan kits had been used, and would be used by a few teachers, especially those in high school. The attitude among those interested seemed to be "the more learning tools, the better". College professors appeared to believe that the kits would be more appropriate for teachers in K-12 than for college professors. Among some of the elementary educators, interest was minimal. Some didn't really understand what the kits offered them. Others spoke of logistical issues: being able to physically take out and return the kits.

    "A teacher here has done a lot with it. I'd love to do it. The barrier has been getting there to return and to check things out. I think, 'what if there were a catalog to order from?'... the fear I have is that we'll sign up and never use it."

Tapes of lectures were generally not seen as a useful tool, at least as the teachers envisioned them. Video or audio tapes were believed to be boring, un-involving, and not motivating to students.

    "For students, it must be very engaging... interesting, utilizing hands-on, interactive exhibits, and the content must be closely tied to our school material."

A couple of teachers thought they, themselves might listen to, or watch a tape of a lecture, for their own edification. However, most believed that viewing or listening to tapes was the least hands-on, motivating way to involved students in natural history.

Teachers at the elementary and secondary levels continued to want the Museum to stress Life Science, as well as Earth Science. They view those areas as well within the domain and expertise of the Museum, as well as a good fit with the curriculum the teachers need to cover. At the college level, teachers expressed a greater interest in having the Museum also cover Physical Science. They need to touch on all the strands. All are necessary. The more science subjects are represented, the more educators can benefit from them.... But if a choice needs to be made, I would choose Life Science. It's the most interesting, and the most relevant to students' needs."

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