Full STEAM Ahead: Developing STEAM Resources for Families and School Groups

Sponsor: Museum of London Docklands IMG_1949
Sponsor Liaison: Paula Dias De Brito
Student Team: Ian Gelman, Tommy Maloney, Krysta Murdy

Our team collaborated with the Museum of London Docklands to develop STEAM-based learning resources for families and school groups. We ascertained the current state-of-the-art for STEAM at museums across London, created fifteen activity proposals from gallery exhibits and STEAM learning outcomes, then designed, prototyped, and tested three activities for the museum’s activity trolley. Based on this testing, we made several recommendations for future development of family activities. We also developed a resource for KS2 teachers to lead self- directed visits through the galleries with school groups. Finally, we recommended how museum professionals might better integrate STEAM into their museum programs and activities.


Final Report (MoL-FinalReport.pdf)

Final Presentation (MoL-FinalPresentation.pdf)

Executive Summary

Culture, history, and art-centered museums have begun to increase their focus on STEM learning (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Recently, there has been a greater emphasis on integrating art into STEM, thus creating the STEAM approach (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics), a more designed-centered approach to science, technology, engineering, and math. Within this context, the Museum of London Docklands (MoL Docklands) is seeking to enhance its use of this innovative method in order to bring a cross-disciplinary approach to the interpretation of its collection.

MoL Docklands is a recently founded social history museum striving to carve out its niche in the museum world. Since its founding in 2003, they have developed a focused exhibit space documenting the River Thames, the development of London’s docks, and the people who have inhabited and worked in the area. The collection extends from the mid-1600s to the present, creating a narrative that permeates through the gallery. The museum attracts more than 200,000 visitors per year, and its award-winning school program engages over 25,000 students and teachers.

In general, the museum recognizes that the current text panels in their permanent galleries do not fully explore the importance that science and technology have had on the development of London, the Thames, and the docklands. Working towards these goals, our team came to London to help develop innovative methods for engaging families and school groups in STEAM learning based on the museum’s collections. To aid us in our work, we created three overarching objectives to guide our research and development:

  • Objective 1: Ascertain the current and best practices for engaging both families and students in STEAM learning in museums,
  • Objective 2: Prototype and test activities for the museum’s activity trolley,
  • Objective 3: Prototype and test a teacher resource for school groups.

Our process for achieving Objective 1 was twofold. First, we presented an overview of the broader museum learning community’s efforts and perspectives on engaging family and school group audiences. Then, we developed a common framework of goals and terminology which we used throughout all stages of this project. In order to accomplish our goals, we explored the current states of both family and school group learning in museums by considering three different perspectives:

  1. MoL Docklands’ perspective, including current and past methods used by museums to engage families and school groups;
  2. The views and expectations of the families and school groups themselves; and
  3. The ways other museums have previously approached STEAM concepts.

Having a working knowledge of these perspectives facilitated our resource design in better engaging and educating visitors in STEAM through the MoL Docklands’ collection. While in London, we sought to expand on our research by conducting visits of eight museums (the Museum of London Docklands, the Museum of London, the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Institution, the Horniman Museum and Gardens, the Science Museum, the Museum of London Archive, and the Tower Bridge Museum) that have extensive experience working with families and student groups for STEAM learning. While visiting each museum, our team took the opportunity to observe and participate in programs similar to those that MoL Docklands wishes to develop and to collect sample resources that would aid us in the design of our own. Our team also participated as volunteers in a Family Fun Day event hosted by the Royal Institution. This gave us experience running similar activities and was important to reflect on when developing our own activities and volunteer resources.

Upon completion of the tasks outlined in Objective 1, we identified six key themes to categorize our findings. These themes summarize the overarching takeaways that we learned through our museum visits, interviews with volunteers and staff, and through our experience facilitating activities at the Royal Institution. We applied these findings to aid in the development of our resources for Objectives 2 and 3. From this, we concluded:

  • Facilitated interactions in museums assist in learning;
  • Object handling possesses benefits and pitfalls;
  • Personal connections spark understanding;
  • Provided information must be adaptable;
  • New concepts inspire curiosity; and
  • Gallery connections reinforce museum material.

With this new knowledge, we toured MoL Docklands once again in order to derive a list of fifteen possible activities based on different exhibits in the galleries. Our team chose three to prototype for testing on the activity trolley—Puzzle Packing, Ship Shapes through the Ages, and Stinky Sewers. These activities were chosen based on feasibility and on their relatively low level of complexity. Our team developed activities and produced working prototypes and volunteer packs. These prototypes were tested at the MoL Docklands during May Half Term. Upon completion of prototyping and testing, our team presented recommendations for the museum’s design team to consider in future development of family activities in general, as well as the three prototype activities. Upon completing our testing, we presented our activity prototypes and recommendations for the future development of family activities. We stressed:

  • Proper trolley placement in the museum;
  • The need for activities to scale across increasing amounts of people and groups;
  • How to overcome language barriers through design;
  • Maintaining a strong connection to the galleries; and
  • The importance of testing the relevance and adaptability of narratives and background facts.

The third objective of our project covers the design and testing process of a teacher resource pack for school groups. The overall goal of the resource is to create a tool for teachers to use during self-guided tours of the museum. We conducted a preliminary review of the school curriculum for students in the London schooling system from ages seven to eleven, also known as Key Stage 2 (KS2). Based off the findings from Objective 1, the initial review of the KS2curriculum, and a review of additional materials identified in interviews and museum visits, our team created a preliminary design for activities designed to work alongside classroom lessons.

After creating the resource, our team was able to test with a group of 60 students and 6 chaperones from the Thomas Gamuel Primary School. This, however, was too large a group to go through the museum together, so it was split into three groups of 20 students with 2 chaperones each. Each member of our team observed one subgroup interact with the teacher resource throughout the museum. We observed the chaperones’ interactions with the students and the students’ interactions with each other and the activities. From our observations and from chaperone feedback, we found:

  • Retaining student engagement was difficult, but interactions were meaningful when there was focus;
  • Students interpreted the resource uniquely in ways we did not expect;
  • Students responded positively to new concepts that were well explained;
  • Resources should build a coherent a visitor journey through the museum;
  • Wayfinding should always be considered in teacher resource designs to aid gallery connections; and,
  • Scientific explanations must be concise and entertaining.

Our research and development process guided our group through a comprehensive study and confirmation of how families and schools learn in museums. We saw new opportunities for STEAM fields and the benefits for museums therein. Throughout the entirety of this experience, there were many themes that remained present throughout each objective.

From these findings, we present a collection of general advice directed towards museum professionals looking to integrate STEAM concepts into their museum programs and activities. First, museum professionals should tour their galleries frequently, examining each display for STEAM connections, and maintaining a list of possible activities to develop fully. We also believe activity trolleys are versatile tools that aid in the delivery of family activities in museums. Finally, we encourage the museum community to continue freely sharing ideas to further innovation in these areas.