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published: March 2004
analytic scripts updated:
October 28, 2010

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License
Museums and the Web 2003 Papers


White Gloves and the Web: Collections in the Classroom

Karen Elinich, The Franklin Institute Science Museum, USA



By inviting teachers to put on white gloves and step inside the collections, the online exhibition and interpretation process becomes most meaningful for education. Museum professionals have ideas about how teachers want to use primary objects in their classroom practice, but the reality often departs from the expectation. Involving in-service educators in the process maximizes the impact of the effort.

Practicing teachers have helped The Franklin Institute Online develop an educational context for two- and three-dimensional objects from its collection of historical science artifacts. Currently, a new initiative is underway, motivated by teachers' expressed needs to personalize the historical objects. The Franklin Institute Awards program assembles case files for every nominee. To date, over two thousand case files have been created and preserved. Each case file represents a microcosmic portrait of scientific achievement.

Teachers are supporting the digitization prioritization process, helping to identify the cases that have strongest value for classroom usage and connections to standards-based curriculum. The list of possibilities includes most every noteworthy scientist of the past 175 years including Marie Curie, Alexander Graham Bell, Orville Wright, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Thomas Alva Edison. Each case file includes letters, journals, diagrams, drawings, and a concise account of a life spent in service to scientific achievement.

Keywords: education, collections, historical science artifacts, teachers, classroom, practical application, science inquiry.

"The worth of a museum is in its use."
John Cotton Dana

The usefulness of museum collections for K-12 education is often most clear in curricular areas related to the humanities. For the sciences, the practical application is sometimes less evident. In fact, the difference actually lies in the interpretive process rather than in the nature of the collection.

At The Franklin Institute Science Museum, a steam-powered coining press had been on public display for years. This coining press holds the distinction of being the first "powered" press used in the United States. I had walked past it every day, noting its significance in the evolution of the currency production, but never detecting a practical application for classroom teachers. I had seen school groups walk past and barely notice this large artifact.

Fig.1: The first "powered" coining press to be used in the United States. Thonnelier invented the press in France in 1833. It was operated by steam, while earlier presses were operated by hand.

Today, I have a totally different perspective on the steam-powered coining press, thanks to the interpretation provided by Patricia Knox, a teacher from North Canton, Ohio. When we invited Pattie to help us develop an online interpretation for an artifact from the collection, Pattie immediately selected the steam-powered coining press. Perplexed, I asked if she was sure after all, it's not the most visually interesting device. Pattie persisted, explaining that she knew exactly how the press would connect with curriculum for early elementary school teachers and students. Pattie capitalized on the odd appearance of the press to engage her students' natural curiosity and to invite their guesses about its function. Pattie then developed activities that connect the press with math, science, and language arts. Basically, the press becomes the thematic centerpiece for a few days of cross-curricular learning in her classroom.

Fig.2: This activity encourages inquiry about metals and conductivity. http://www.fi.edu/pieces/knox/hotmoney.htm

Fig.3: This activity connects the science with language arts as kids practice spelling the names of the coins. http://www.fi.edu/pieces/knox/coinspell.htm

Pattie's interpretation of the steam-powered coining press has become a benchmark for our decisions about online presentation of artifacts. Before our experience with Pattie, we prioritized high-profile areas of the collection and focused effort on offering deep access. After working with Pattie, we shifted our strategy, placing importance instead on the breadth of our holdings. Pattie didn't need every coin-related artifact; after the successful completion of her unit, she was ready to move on to the next idea. What she and other teachers did value, though, was an object for every idea.

This idea fundamentally parallels the average school visit experience to our physical museum. Teachers or adult chaperones skim the exhibits, selecting sometimes deliberately, often at random just a few places to linger before moving on to the next exhibit. Teachers are the curators both during the physical visit and, back in the classroom, while using our online resources. It follows naturally to invite teacher participation in the online museum interpretation process.

Of course, Pattie's interpretation is not the only possible classroom application. An interesting step would be to have other teachers suggest their own ideas for using the coining press in their classroom activities. Unfortunately, we haven't yet found another teacher who wants to work with the coining press.

We have, however, had a team of teachers "adopt" our collection of historical timepieces, developing online educational connections between the artifacts and current classroom needs. This gave us the opportunity to observe multiple teachers working with the same objects. Interestingly, the teachers expressed some level of concern that they would be "competing" with one another and that they would be "repeating" what someone else was already doing. While we encouraged a collaborative solution, we also offered assurances that we actually did want to see repetition because it provides multiple perspectives on the same object.

Fig.4: "Clocks Teaching Time" is a gateway to the historical timepieces as well as the educational resources that connect the objects with classroom use. http://www.fi.edu/qa00/attic3

Fig.5: Online access to this escapement from 1675 has great value for teachers in today's science classroom.

"Helping children at a level of genuine intellectual inquiry takes imagination on the part of the adult." Dorothy H. Cohen

Both the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993) and the National Science Education Standards (1996) suggest that students learn both through inquiry and about inquiry. Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning (2000), in particular, encourages science educators to create environments for learning in which students are prompted to wonder about some aspect of the world around them, challenged to develop specific questions, and then allowed to gather evidence that will help them formulate ideas and understanding.

The dynamic intersection of standards-based learning and high bandwidth access to the web in classrooms provides both a challenge and an opportunity for museums. Can the museum meet the challenge of providing digital access to the breadth of its collection not just the most popular, famous objects? If the museum can meet the challenge, though, then the opportunity is vast for interpretation, education, and outreach. In fact, the museum can re-establish itself as a vital community resource where students learn both about someone else's scientific inquiry and also through their own personal inquiry. Through imaginative use of the web, museums can become present in every teacher's classroom and present in every student's inquiry.

Historical science artifacts offer a rich context for inquiry. Each object holds an encapsulated story of science or engineering. By learning the story behind the object, students uncover the human side of science. The cumulative collection of artifacts within a museum's holdings represents a diverse portrait of scientific endeavor. By learning about an object in a museum, students learn about inquiry. Since the museum elected to receive the object, it is fairly safe to assume that the story behind the object is of some significance. While teachers are essentially the curators of their own classroom collections, they ultimately place their trust in the museum and conclude that objects on display are worthy of student inquiry.

"The world looks so different after learning science."
Richard Feynman

Museum objects are often conceptually opaque, and, as a result, the common reaction from students is "what's that?" or "what did that do?" In other words, every student begins to inquire when they encounter a curious object. The science museum collection, therefore, is a treasure trove filled with inquiry starters exactly what teachers need in today's standards-based science classroom.

An award-worthy scientist is likely to be a character study of inquiry. When students learn about an individual's journey through science, including the mistakes, side-steps, and breakthroughs, they learn about inquiry and the real process of science.

Since 1832, The Franklin Institute has recognized over two thousand individuals for their scientific achievement. Each of the awardees has an associated case file. Efforts are underway to provide online access to these cases as they represent a tremendous educational resource. The case files contain two-dimensional documentation of the nominee's worthiness including letters of recommendation, biographical sketches, pictures, drawings, pamphlets, scientific articles, patent applications, etc. Online access to these documents will provide teachers with the stories behind the science. The connections between the museum and the curriculum will be seamless.

With so many stories from which to choose, prioritization becomes critical. We are involving teachers in the process, helping us to determine the most useful resources. The case files call for a new balance between breadth and depth of presentation. Would teachers find it more useful to have a little information about a lot of scientists? Or would it be more useful to have the complete story for fewer scientists? A complete presentation of a case file would be an extensive exhibition, thoroughly detailing the scientist and the scientific process.

"Who dares to teach must never cease to learn."
John Cotton Dana

Those of us who provide services for teachers often hear that teachers are misunderstood and that outsiders don't fully understand or appreciate their profession. This may or may not be true. What's more certain is that teachers don't understand or appreciate the fine points of museum curation and interpretation. So, when we invite teachers to come behind the scenes at the museum with us it is usually quite an eye-opening experience for everyone.

Once the white gloves are on, the challenge of keeping the teachers "on task" begins. As with any educationally curious adults, a visit to the museum's collections storage area becomes a "candy shop" experience for the teachers and they are inclined to wander and gape. Our strategy has been to have a focused task and an ambitious timetable. For example, we may have just two hours to photograph every aspect of a few objects. The teachers' tasks are always self-determined by their pre-selection of objects that interest them. We always want them working in areas that interest them and have relevance to their classroom practice.

The teachers understand their role to be supportive of the museum staff during the digitization process, with museum staff being responsible for the actual digital presentation of the object and its story.

After the object encounters, we ask the teachers to "take the objects home" with them and think about how they will use them in their classrooms and to be alert to moments during the school day when the objects come to mind. Subsequently, the teachers develop activities, lesson plans, online interactives, and other classroom-ready resources that they want to use in their own circumstance.

During this phase of resource development, the role shifts and the museum staff become supportive of the presentation of the teachers' educational resources.

The end result is a collaborative presentation of museum piece and classroom resource. While not always aesthetically perfected, the presentation is certifiably useful for education, since it results from in-classroom testing and development. With the web, the museum's worth is guaranteed when, as in this case, it becomes so decidedly useful.


Unisys Corporation deserves special acknowledgement for their generous support of the educational activities described above. As The Franklin Institute's Corporate Partner, Unisys has championed the educational application of technology resources. Special thanks to Carol A. Parssinen, Senior Vice-President at The Franklin Institute under whose leadership the Center for Innovation in Science Learning programs flourish. Thanks also to staff members who make these projects succeed: John Alviti, Barbara Bottaro, Alyce Callison, and Jay Treat.

Special thanks to the teachers who have dared to wear the white gloves and take an educational leap of faith with us over the years. Currently, the courageous volunteers are: Paulette Dukerich in Texas, Terry Hongell in New York, Steve Hughes in Pennsylvania, Patricia Knox in Ohio, Janice MacKinnon in DC, Stephanie Stevenson in Florida, Carla Schutte in Florida, Ann Sowd in Ohio, and Ken Wester in Mississippi.


American Association for the Advancement of Science, (1993). Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Oxford University Press. http://www.project2061.org/tools/benchol/bolframe.htm

Bazley, M. (2002), Bottaro, B., Clark, L., and Elinich, K. Think Globally, Act Locally: The Role of Real Teachers in Community Science Issues. Museums and the Web 2002. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2002/papers/elinich/elinich.html

Dana, J.C., (1999) and Peniston, W.A.. The New Museum: Selected Writings. American Association of Museums.

National Committee on Science Education Standards, (1996). National Science Education Standards. National Research Council. http://books.nap.edu/html/nses

Olson, S., (2000) and Loucks-Horsley, S. Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning. National Research Council.

Rutherford, F.J., (1991) and Ahlgren, A. Science for All Americans. Oxford University Press. http://www.project2061.org/tools/sfaaol/sfaatoc.htm

Weil, S.E., (2002) and Pachter, M. Making Museums Matter. Smithsonian Institution Press.

Weil, S.E., (2003). 5 Meditations. Museum News, January/February 2003, 27-31, 44-47.

Relevant Online Resources

"Powered Coining Press" http://www.fi.edu/pieces/knox

"Clocks Teaching Time" http://www.fi.edu/qa00/attic3

"Pieces of Science" http://www.fi.edu/pieces

Online Museum Educators http://www.fi.edu/educators.html

"inQuiry Attic" http://www.fi.edu/qa98/atticindex.html