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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Smithsonian, VTMNH form partnership

By Suzana Muller,

VTMNH marketing intern

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 33 - June 18, 1998

A March 25 lecture titled "Using Objects for Learning" gathered teachers, educators and scientists to listen to Richard Efthim, of the Smithsonian Naturalist Center.
The talk was part of the joint project between Virginia Tech Museum of Natural History (VTMNH) and the Smithsonian Naturalist Center to promote object-based learning about our past and present natural environments. A Naturalist Center is organized similar to a library. All the resources and information to aid in research are available there.
The objects (collection animals, bones, rocks etc.) are organized in cabinets, as books are organized in shelves. There is a card reference stack to aid in finding specimens. There are also books on specialized fields to help complement research.
The VTMNH-Smithsonian partnership aims at joining the strengths of the two institutions: VTMNH's expertise in using inquiry to study the natural world and the success of Smithsonian's Naturalist Center program. In addition, the project goals are to engage more departments at Tech, schools and teachers, and to develop means of accessing the collections by electronic media in to reach a broader audience.
In his talk, Efthim reported the center's success in transforming learning into a dynamic self-driven process, which starts with the visitor's curiosity to find the answer to a question. The research inquiry is similar to puzzle solving. The visitor-scientist will start reaching out to familiar "corners" by comparing the sample to reference collections until the person finds a match. In this process, information can be gathered depending on visitor's level of curiosity or interest which can encompass many areas, such as zoology, biology, physiology and animal behavior. This is a more comprehensive and interactive approach than a lecture, where the listener is encouraged to be passive.
In an interactive process both instructor and student become interested and involved in the inquiry process, one learning the other creating the opportunity for learning. An interesting extension of inquiry driven learning is the use of collections in non-traditional manners, to promote learning in arts, languages or social studies. Although the Naturalist Center makes research objects available to the general public, the visitors receive a comprehensive lecture about how to handle the research material, in this way promoting the spirit of preservation for continued use.
The wear on these objects is minimal. Some specimens have been around for more than 20 years. However, in the near future visitors will have available the Naturalist Center's resources for consultation through digitized images and databases. In times of scarce financial resources, the Naturalist Center approach to education seem to be a new strategy adopted by museums to promote public education along with collection stewardship. Incentive of scientific inquiry, access to information and proper training have the potential to lead visitors to become stewards of the museums while providing information and knowledge to future generations.