Palaeontology – the study of past life – is a key element of understanding biology, changes in life over time and responses to large scale environmental changes. Despite this, the extent to which schools can teach their students about the subject is often limited by access to teaching materials, in terms of both funding to buy physical resources and space to store them. Looking at digital collections of specimens residing in museums around the world could be a way round this, but then schools run into the problem that such collections tend to be research-oriented and not constructed or presented to facilitate public or educational use. Even if they are able to look at these databases online, complex structures and specialist language are unlikely to be accessible or engaging for school students (or their teachers and families who may be supporting them to complete their work) to explore. Trips to visit physical museums, while undoubtedly of great value, can bring their own difficulties, with aspects such as cost, logistics and time out of school to consider and aren’t an experience or learning resource that can be offered regularly.
In an effort to find a solution, the Virtual Natural History Museum is a novel engagement project that aims to consolidate palaeontological multimedia into a single educational resource. The website takes the form of a giant computer game museum which visitors can explore, just as they would a physical museum, viewing digital versions of fossils and other items you’d find in a museum as they go.
The virtual museum will be free to use and will run within website browsers, so no additional software will be required. This way, anyone with an internet connection will be able access world-class natural history collections and learn about fossils and past environments, from wherever they are. The website will mainly rely on the online research catalogues that museums produce for academics, bringing them together in one place and making them accessible.
The project is ripe for development for use in schools, as a resource for teachers to set homework projects and class-based tasks to explore the world of fossils, dinosaurs and more. In order to understand how the team behind the museum can continue to create this exciting new resource in a way that will best suit schools and teachers, we are engaging with teachers from primary and secondary schools, as well as science communicators, in research to find out where they should go next. The V-NHM project is hosted by the University of Bristol, with UWE Bristol leading this pilot research to inform its future development.
We’re doing this by running an online survey which allows educators to try out the museum and give their thoughts, conducting focused interviews with teachers to further explore their perspective on the virtual natural history museum concept, and giving primary and secondary schools students the opportunity to test the museum concept and give their feedback. Their insights will be invaluable in directing the future of the virtual museum, and school students participating in the study are enjoying the opportunity to be involved with and contribute to real life research.