Online Science Education in a Pandemic and Beyond

Cicadas drawing
Kirsten Hammons, Collections Intern
May 15, 2020

Humans have a natural inclination to learn and museums have long embodied this desire. Nothing, not even a global pandemic, can stop that. Though museums around the world have closed their doors without a reopen date in sight, this period of uncertainty does not mark a gap in the story of human innovation. Instead, the pandemic has provided the opportunity to create a new normal that allows us to do the things we love in creative ways. Museums are no different; at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, science education has continued using online tools.

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Although the mode of delivery of the Museum’s mission has changed, its essence has remained true. Creating a positive relationship between people and nature has always been the goal and will continue to be the goal, even as people and nature begin to change around us. By sending a daily newsletter the Museum provides the public with the tools to learn from their own home. It presents science in new and relevant ways that are conducive to online connection. Given the right tools, anyone can be a community scientist. Engaging with the world close to home can help us understand that nature isn’t separate from us, but that we are all interconnected. We can connect with nature by simply stepping out our front door.

The Nature Museum is more than what you see at the physical museum in Lincoln Park. Behind the scenes is the scientific collections: The Chicago Academy of Sciences preserves over 300,000 specimens and artifacts from the Midwest and across North America. These specimens and all of the information about them is uploaded into an online collections management database system, called Arctos. Through Arctos, the Academy makes this data readily available for anyone who is interested, at any time. Arctos, and other online biodiversity data aggregators, enable natural history museums to continue providing uninterrupted use of their data. Scientists can continue to analyze the geographic range of a species or track population changes even as the collections facility is closed. And you can explore the collections too! Arctos is free and open to everyone, so search your favorite species and see what you can find.

Another readily accessible online tool for exploring nature is iNaturalist, a community science app that allows people to share their observations and connect with others. Observing nature around us is a great way to feel connected with the world even when we feel uncertain and disconnected. You can explore the plant and animal species found by people around the world and try your hand at identifying species you find in your neighborhood or joining a project to look for specific species. You can test out your research skills or use their Seek mobile app to help identify the species you find.

Inaturalist map

Nature and science are in every part of our daily lives and I’m finding that now is a great time to reflect on that. As a college senior studying environmental science, the transition to online classes wasn’t an easy one. In my Environmental Politics class, the transition led to a lot more reading and discussions over Zoom. We read The Poisoned City by Anna Clark about the Flint water crisis. This crisis wasn’t just about the chemical compounds in the water, but it was a crisis of an economic and political nature as well. All of the institutions of human life intertwine with nature and cannot function without having some effect on it. Right now, less people are driving and flying, so pollution levels have gone down. Staying home has allowed me to tread a little lighter on the planet. But at the same time, I am constantly washing my hands and using disposable products, increasing my water and plastic consumption. There will always be side effects that we cannot predict, but it is important to try to be mindful of the damage we cause to the planet and, in turn, mitigate the damage to ourselves. This isn’t the most typical science education, but it is an important one. Learning about how you fit in the world and its ecosystems can lead to understanding the world better.

Science and nature permeate all aspects of our lives. Museums provide a springboard for curiosity by engaging people and building their confidence for independent exploration. This may be a scary time, but I’ve found it is less scary with the opportunities to learn and connect with the world around me in new and exciting ways, and I urge you to take advantage of the tools that museums and other organizations are making available. You never know what you may discover next!

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