Go back to article: Museums theme – Science vs technology in a museum’s display: changes in the Vienna Museum of Technology with a focus on permanent and temporary exhibitions and new forms of science education

Theoretical basics

Primary schools nowadays already often organise field trips to Science Centre institutions (museums, botanic gardens, zoos, etc.) that provide expert knowledge and special didactic competences, especially by offering opportunities for autonomous, hands-on science learning. So far, though, the role of these institutions in supporting primary education has not been used to its full potential.

Partnerships between Science Centre institutions and primary schools aim to encourage these organisations to cooperate more closely at the regional level. They provide a framework for the development and implementation of joint educational programmes based on primary-school curricula as well as teachers’ needs. Such programmes generate supplementary teaching material and suggestions for lesson plans that complement a visit to the respective Science Centre institution and help the children to achieve more sustainable learning. In their respective regions, the participating schools become ‘mini competence centres’ that encourage other school types and grades to participate.

Accompanying evaluation research formed an integral part of the project, allowing the participating Science Centre institutions, teachers and schools to reflect on their own work and assess their progress. By integrating the experiences of four additional science related research institutions, the basis was laid for expanding the jointly developed programmes and tested model partnerships to other institutions, regions and schools. The initiative can also be seen as a pilot project internationally as science education at primary level is generally regarded as a weak spot all over Europe.

Science teaching plays a rather minor role at elementary-school level both in Austria and in Europe. Nonetheless, scientific literacy is internationally regarded as a key skill required of responsible citizens of a world increasingly shaped by science, and the elementary school is formative for developing an interest in science issues. Acquiring basic science skills should thus be on a par with reading, writing and arithmetic in this age group. But rather than making children memorise science facts that are likely to be outdated in just a few years’ time, priority should instead be given to helping children understand fundamental science concepts and develop the skills they need to relate to scientific thinking. And although primary-school curricula do include science competences, present teacher training and current framework conditions often leave primary-school teachers feeling overwhelmed by science teaching.

It was with such thinking in mind that the Technisches Museum Wien and the University of Education Vienna (Kirchliche Pädagogische Hochschule Wien/Krems) agreed to collaborate between 2008 and 2010 on a project entitled, ‘Explorative learning – with all our senses (Forschend lernen – mit allen Sinnen). This two-year project aimed to create an encompassing pedagogical environment enabling the Museum and all participants to implement methods of hands-on science learning into the way they think, work and operate. Learning in different locations connected by lively communication on educational-science and pedagogy-discourse matters turned out to be both a challenge and a great opportunity. The different institutions involved – Museum, schools, University of Education – each regarded themselves as learning organisations constructively collaborating as equal partners in advancing the project by means of productive exchange. The University of Education’s didactics department helped teachers to implement a teaching focus based on a hands-on science approach while the Museum offered science lessons in the participating schools. Both measures contributed to added professionalism: a noteworthy result was the significant improvement in the children’s language and deduction skills, which is confirmed by the teachers. This may also be due to the fact that learning success is all the easier to assess the more articulate a child is in talking about a subject. Many school children also experienced a noticeable boost in motivation (a fact they are also keen to talk about), which is enhanced by the opportunity to learn in a variety of places.

Overall, the experiences with the six participating primary-school classes paint a clear picture of success for methods of hands-on science learning at non-school venues. Because of their structure, organisation and thematic focus, these institutions can offer different incentives and novel, surprising stimuli to children that schools usually do not provide. The reflection and communication element provided by the University of Education Vienna offered not only advice and didactic support, but also the opportunity to embed project activities in current science-learning theory. For the participating teachers, this proved to be a chance to take a close look at their own teaching. The Museum, in turn, benefited because the project forced the Museum staff involved to focus on a situation and target group not usually at the centre of their attention.

Finally, the participating University students (and teachers-to-be) benefited from the sustainable experience of learning about the concepts and methods of hands-on science learning and the close links between theory and practical application. The necessary theoretical discussion of the actual requirements for learning and teaching at a variety of learning locations can be seen as a contribution to the ongoing debate on the quality of teacher training. The didactic research accompanying the project consisted of regular evaluation sessions as well as a continuous review and reassessment process on the part of the project leaders. In addition, a bachelor thesis was written at the University of Education Vienna on key project questions.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170810/007