DINOSAURS ARE recognized as one of the most ubiquitous groups of fossil organisms found in the classroom curriculum. While there are many resources (books, videotapes, posters, etc.) available to the classroom teacher, an actual visit to a natural history museum with dinosaur and related paleontological exhibits is out of the reach of the majority of schools unless located near large urban centers or near universities. Advances in distance learning technologies now provide the opportunity to reach audiences unable to visit museums during the course of the school year. These technologies also lend themselves to the evaluation of various pedagogical techniques that bring scientific content to widely dispersed audiences.


In March of 1996, the Milwaukee Public Museum was involved in a pilot program with schools in Milwaukee and Ashland Wisconsin interested in tapping into the content and human resources of the Museum. This collaborative effort was designed to allow the participating schools and the Museum to evaluate the effectiveness of distance learning technology in creating a "museum without walls." For the purposes of this project, we are adopting the U.S. Department of Education's definition of distance learning as being the following:

"The application of telecommunications and electronic devices which enable students and learners to receive instruction that originates from some distant location. Typically, the learner is given the capacity to interact with the instructor or program directly and given the opportunity to meet with the instructor on a periodic basis."

It is the rapid advance in communications technology, coupled with the need for content providing institutions (museums, universities, etc.) to serve their audiences (schools, libraries, families, etc.) that led to the Musem's interest in this project. Although many places are now wired to interact with each other, there is a profound shortage of accurate and current scientific content to be placed into the pipeline. Paleontology, with its broad public and educational appeal, is a science that can only benefit from being delivered by as many ways as possible.
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In September of 1995, the author was contacted by Mr. Tim von Hoff, the Director of the Northern Wisconsin Educational Communications System. Mr. von Hoff was interested in using teleconference technology to bring a paleontologist to the first and fourth grade students in his service area, located almost 300 miles north of Milwaukee. Since the Museum was not wired to have two-way teleconferencing on-site, Hi Mount Elementary, a Milwaukee Public School with this capability, was enlisted to serve as both a telepresence site as well as a full educational partner. Mr. Bob Bayha, the Technology Coordinator for Hi Mount, coordinated the telepresence activities in Milwaukee.

After preliminary planning occured via telephone and the post, three live, interactive teleconferences between participating teachers and the Museum's content expert were arranged. The focus of these initial teleconferences was to get all participants comfortable to the strengths as well as weaknesses of the technology, to begin collaborating on curriculum themes that would link the classroom activities of the two groups of participating students, and to explore the content resources that the Museum could bring to the task of meeting the educational goals of the teachers and students.


Although each participating school had used dinosaurs to explore curricular themes for the first and fourth grade students in their districts, it quickly became apparent that the depth of exploration into scientific content was, at best, shallow. It was decided that a paleoecological approach to these studies would best serve all of the interestsof participating parties, as well as lend itself to the proposed telepresence interaction.

At the pre-student telepresence meetings, content and curriculum ideas/activities were explored. Strategies for getting the participating students to engage in self-directed learning, as well as in peer-to-peer exchanges, were also explored. Woven throughout were the paleoecological considerations of studying dinosaurs and other extinct life forms. The Museum assisted with the development of curriculum ideas and supplied an original videotape on dinosaurs for classroom viewing.

It was interesting to note that, although the targeted student audiences were quite different in social backgrounds (large, urban city vs. small rural town), the needs of the educators were quite similar. The one significant exception was that the Milwaukee students were able to arrange a series of guided field trips to the Museum in order to interact with the content expert and experience the interpretive materials surrounding the paleontology exhibits. This difference in experience between the two groups of students was built into the subsequent telepresence, with the idea that the Milwaukee students could take on the role of "reporters" for the students in northern Wisconsin. This sharing of experience would be evaluated in the context of fostering student exchange of experiences and ideas.


On the appointed day, groups of 1st graders and 4th graders met each other for the first time over the telepresence lines. By this point, individual teachers had gone through a month's worth of activities with their respective students, all linked with the unifying theme of paleoecology. The telepresence exchange took the form of sharing classroom project activities and their results, answering questions that both groups wanted to put to the paleontologist (located at the Hi Mount site), and simply having the kids communicate with each other about their impressions of the course of study and what they felt they had learned about the science.

Each telepresence session lasted one hour, with a combined total of approximately 45 students participating in each session. The exchanges were engaging, energetic, content-rich, and fun.
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Although rough in some spots (pacing is an important consideration in any live interaction with younger children), there was uniform consensus by the students and teachers that the program was a success. The students not only got the primary content provided by the Museum, but they also got the opportunity to interact and share with their peers in widely separated geographic parts of the state. The students from Milwaukee could talk about their visit to the Museum, and the students in Ashland got to meet a real paleontologist and place a pre-recorded video tour of the Museum into a fresh context.

The Museum is now exploring a broad Distance Learning Initiative, which includes the ability to conduct these sessions from the institution itself, rather that having to rely on the remote hardware located at the Milwaukee schools.

Dinosaurs and the science of paleontology were perfect vehicles for this pilot program. The Museum and the schools capitalized on student interest while exploring and subsequently evaluating the use of a relatively new interactive system for the delivery of scientific content.