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Lessons Learned: How Lesson Planning Informs Interactive Exhibits

Ideum staff attended an educational workshop focused on The Bosque Education Guide to help support exhibit design for the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge.
Authored by
Becky Hansis-O'neill
Senior Producer

This month, three lucky Ideum staff members attended a workshop focused on the Bosque Education Guide. We (Becky Hansis-O’Neill, Jenny Kvapil, and Joe Donovan) were excited to attend because the content presented in the guide is directly applicable to our current project designing visitor center exhibits for the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge.

The Bosque Education Guide is a robust collection of educational activities for K-12 classrooms developed by scientists and environmental educators. At a hefty 695 pages, the guide explores and explains the ecology of the Middle Rio Grande Valley and the species that live there. The workshop, which was hosted at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park and sponsored by the Friends of the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, provided an in-depth experience of some of the guide’s cornerstone lesson plans. As participants, we were able to see how the lessons work and experience the thoughts, questions, and emotions that students might have while engaged in the lessons.

Much like a classroom teacher and informal museum educator, it is the job of an exhibit designer to take complex topics like science, politics, and social concerns, and make them digestible. In fact, many of our staff members started by working in museums or as teachers! We rely on this background to help us break down information and determine the logic behind the interactives that we design. Lesson plans are a great place to start the exhibit design process. Here are some of the ways lesson plans can help us design awesome exhibits:

  1. Lesson plans break down complex material and provide scaffolding. Before students can really dive into a lesson, teachers must assess what their students already know and provide the necessary scaffolding, or background information, to ensure that their lesson will be most effective. Similarly, guests come to museums with a diverse range of background knowledge. Exhibits, just like lesson plans, break down complex material, but are additionally challenged by visitors exploring in a nonlinear fashion. Lesson plans help us take these challenges into consideration when planning the informational architecture of an exhibit. Where can guests find scaffolding information and how can we engineer an exhibit so they find key information and are prepared to understand and engage with it?
  2. Lesson plans consider the audience. Just as lesson plans must be appropriate to grade level, exhibits must be appropriate for the audience and context in which they will live. Lesson plans help us consider reading levels, graphic selection, take-aways, languages, and accessibility so that our exhibit design can engage as many people as possible, meeting them where they are.
  3. Many lesson plans encourage social interaction. Lesson plans are written to accommodate a group of students simultaneously, encouraging team interaction and honing social skills. This aligns perfectly with Ideum’s core values - we love creating exhibits that connect visitors not only to the content, but also to each other. When we use a lesson plan as inspiration, we can design an exhibit or experience that encourages people to talk to each other, work together to discover information, and participate as active investigators, inquiring about the subject matter together, just as a group of students would.
  4. Lesson plans often revolve around models of abstracted objects or systems. Models are an important tool for understanding phenomena that don’t exist on the scale of an exhibit space or classroom. The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize the importance of students creating and evaluating models, and exhibits which include models or modeling help us meet these standards. We frequently create models of larger systems in a digital form, allowing guests to explore in a highly engaging way.
  5. Lesson plans present information in novel ways. Classroom teachers are constantly challenged to present information in a way that is exciting and different as well as accommodating different learning styles. Lesson plans can offer us wonderful ideas to incorporate multi-sensory opportunities to visitors. Combining imagery, sound, color, movement, lighting, or even smells, helps us convey a message in a captivating way and supports a diverse audience.
  6. Lesson plans are often evaluated for effectiveness. Lesson plans are frequently based on educational standards, which in turn are based on robust educational research. When we design an exhibit based on a lesson plan and aligned with educational standards, we are basing our exhibit on material that has been thoroughly investigated and evaluated.

While exhibit design and lesson planning have these six major themes in common, there are some distinct differences and challenges unique to exhibit design. Timing, for example, can be very challenging. Many guests that see exhibits may only spend a few minutes interacting with them, so we need to design them to be used and taken in quickly. Despite this key difference, lesson plans are extremely useful for exhibit designers. Teachers have already broken down goals, background information, tasks, and outcomes - a little creative rearranging and reinterpretation can produce great exhibits. Utilizing lesson plans as a foundation for exhibit design helps us create experiences that are easy to understand, audience-appropriate, and effective. In this case, we wanted to apply our new knowledge of the Bosque Education Guide to our current work.

Upon returning to Ideum, we immediately put our experience to good use, holding a design charrette with additional members of the Ideum team. We leaned on some of the lesson plans we’d just learned and worked through some exhibit concepts that were in need of refinement and we are pleased to report that it came together quite well! Our team members were more equipped to talk about subject material and had a better understanding of how to communicate that material to others. The Bosque Education Guide also gave us a common vocabulary to discuss the concepts we wanted to address. The workshop was the perfect opportunity to gather extra training for our Valle de Oro project, and we enjoyed the experience very much!