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Undergraduates as science museum docents: training students to be the teachers using peer led team learning.


* The Genomic Revolution

From June 2004 through January of 2005, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta hosted the traveling exhibit, The Genomic Revolution, described as the most comprehensive presentation on the complex subject of genomics. Originally created by the American Museum of Natural History, this exhibit presented cutting edge information on genetic research and how that knowledge is "impacting decisions about our health, our food, and our stewardship of the natural world" (The Genomic Revolution press release, 2004). In addition to displays featuring hands-on models, interactive stations, and short films, the exhibition also included a working laboratory where attendees could experience firsthand the techniques used in modern genetics research through short exercises in DNA extraction (see cover) and forensic analysis (Figure 1). Electronic polling stations were also placed throughout the exhibit space so visitors could voice their opinions on controversial scientific issues and compare their responses with the accumulated views of other attendees. By examining these scientific breakthroughs and their potential applications in areas like medicine, nutrition, and the legal system, visitors could evaluate their own reactions from scientific, technical, and socio-ethical perspectives.


As stated on its Web site, the mission of the Fernbank Museum is to "inspire life-long learning of natural history through dynamic programming to encourage a greater appreciation of our planet and its people" ( The museum is typically self-guided but because of the complexity of the topic and the functional lab within the exhibit, it was decided to staff The Genomic Revolution with a team of paid undergraduate interns. A docent (derived from the latin word docere meaning to teach) serves as a bridge between the museum and the attendees, acting as the face and voice of the collection and interpreting it for the visitors (Chin, 1995). Consequently it's a challenging job requiring a person to act as an educator, a public speaker, and a leader. The museum directors felt that undergraduate science majors would make especially effective candidates for this exhibit because of their backgrounds in the discipline, enthusiasm for the subject matter, and good communication skills. Exhibit interpreters have been shown to promote a more effective learning experience when used in science museums (Stronck, 1983). Additionally, at least one report has described greater student and teacher satisfaction with student docents compared with their adult counterparts, based on their interactions with elementary school groups (Cox-Peterson & Ramirez, 2001).

The Fernbank Museum of Natural History partnered with the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (a consortium of eight colleges and universities focused on neurobiology research and education []) to enlist and train undergraduate students as docents for The Genomic Revolution. Undergraduate students were recruited from schools in the metropolitan Atlanta area, including the Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University, and Spellman College. Eight of the nine students in the program were science majors (biology, neuroscience, biomedical engineering), ranging from sophomores to recently-graduated seniors, and all but one had previously taken at least some coursework in genetic fundamentals. Also, students were required to have at least a 3.0 GPA. From this group, two classes of docents were formed to staff the duration of the exhibit: one group of five students covering the summer to early fall, and a second group of four students covering the fall through the winter.

* Undergraduate Docent Training

Our challenge was to create a docent training program that would cover the genetic principles in the exhibit along with the communication and leadership techniques needed for their interpretation in a museum setting. The course content was roughly organized around the physical arrangement of the exhibit and included seven core sections (Table 1). Each section consisted of a major area of emphasis such as "Our Genomic Identity" or "Changing our Genes" which were further broken down into specific challenging or controversial concepts such as "Ownership of Genetic Information" within the section on "Our Genes and Our Future." Training took place over a week for each docent group, and included both classroom instruction and hands-on training on the exhibit floor to take advantage of teaching with the exhibit materials themselves. When students accepted the position as docent, they were given a copy of the exhibit text, a genetics reference packet assembled by the course instructors, and their discussion assignment for the first day.

Docent training practices often utilize presentations by scientists focusing on cutting edge knowledge in the areas of emphasis (Cox-Peterson & Ramirez, 2001). While this format is useful in communicating factual information, it fails to incorporate instruction in exhibit interpretation or pedagological concepts. As a byproduct, it demonstrates to the docents that the emphasis of an exhibit is in the scientific facts and the ideal way to learn is through memorization. We wanted instead to build training practices that emphasized the conceptualization of exhibit material and promoted personal reflection on those ideas as a learning methodology. This type of model would support recommendations by the National Research Council that educators such as docents should serve as facilitators of learning rather than transmitters of knowledge (National Research Council, 1996). To that end, we chose to model the basic structure of our training course after previously published strategies for instructing Peer Led Team Learning (PLTL) team leaders (Cracolice & Deming, 2001; Libarkin @ Mencke, 2002).

The PLTL system uses small group sessions to allow students to analyze challenging questions and problems as a unit outside of direct instructor intervention. Each group has a student leader who possesses good communication abilities, demonstrates knowledge of the material, and strong leadership skills which are all characteristics shared with docents. Previously described peer leader training workshops emphasized scientific principles, content knowledge, teaching strategies, and leadership dynamics, and by using a PLTL team leader model, we hoped to instill these same values in our undergraduate docents (Cracolice & Deming, 2001; Libarkin & Mencke, 2002). Instruction began with a general review of genetic concepts presented in a traditional lecture format. Our goal was to quickly review genetic fundamentals so students would have them fresh in their minds as we moved on to more complex and time-consuming topics. All further training followed the exhibit contents in Table 1 and included a short introduction to each section by one of the instructors followed by PLTL-style discussion workshops on that subject.

The small sizes of both classes perfectly suited the group dynamic of a PLTL unit and sessions were initially conducted with chairs arranged in a circle or organized around the appropriate section of the exhibit before it was open to the public. During each class session, students took turns serving as group leader while all other students actively participated in the discussions and questions. Thus, unlike classic PLTL, where a single student leads the group for the duration of the course, our students served both as group leaders and group participants. Within each exhibit section (such as "Nature vs Nurture," "Cloning," or "Genetically Modified Organisms [GMOs]"), students were assigned a specific controversial topic in which they used the exhibit displays to lead the group in a discussion covering the ethical and social aspects of each issue. For example, in the section on Cloning, student-led discussions on the cloning of livestock included the traditional means of selective breeding for traits (such as milk or beef production), how cloning could be applied to meet these needs, and the economic and cultural consequences of shifting our cattle production to this technology (Table 2). Student leaders posed questions to the group (such as "Would you eat cloned meat?") and allowed them to deliberate the answers, drawing from the exhibit information, their background knowledge, and their own personal beliefs. Student leaders were encouraged to communicate using vocabulary of an appropriate level and to demonstrate cultural sensitivity as these are two issues reported as major stumbling blocks for docent effectiveness (Cox-Peterson & Ramirez, 2001). All discussions were open-ended and allowed to continue as long as meaningful dialogue was occurring, typically lasting 35 to 40 minutes per section.

As the role of the docent is to present the content of the museum exhibits and encourage personal evaluation by attendees, students were instructed to focus on promoting group discussions in these sessions rather than achieving group agreement (Cross, 2002). Docents can then act to facilitate the exposure of attendees to new perspectives on these controversial areas while allowing them to synthesize their own opinions from that information. To that end, docents were encouraged to draw from their own science background, the information provided in training, and from the exhibit itself to illustrate and explain the genetic concepts within the exhibit. For each class session, students were also asked to search popular media such as newspapers, news Web sites, or television shows for stories relating to their specific genetic topics, and then present those stories as part of their discussions. This helped to relate abstract scientific controversies to relevant current events, and to stimulate both student discussion in the classroom and attendee discussion later on the exhibit floor (Mysliwiec et al., 2004).

Due to the controversial nature of some portions of the exhibit, we also felt it important to foster this same process in our students themselves during training through active discussion participation. While serving as group leader, all students were required to act in the professional manner of a docent and focus on the content of the exhibit rather than their own personal beliefs. However, when acting as discussion participants, students were free to express themselves in whatever viewpoint they personally held regarding the question at hand, especially in a manner that contributed to the discussion. We felt it important to incorporate personal expression and reflection on their own beliefs into the training so that students could experience firsthand what attendees might experience while viewing this exhibit. We felt this would also better prepare the students serving as leaders for some of the challenging questions that could be posed by attendees while at the exhibit.

In classic PLTL, students analyze problems through cooperative learning facilitated by the peer leader, typically independent of direct instructor interaction. For docent training, we felt it was important as instructors to be actively involved in each discussion as participants and observers. Through role play, we acted as "generic" exhibit attendees during each session and contributed challenging ideas not presented by the other students. In this way we hoped to expand the scope of interaction experienced during each turn as docent and directly observed the student's subsequent performance. As students were ultimately responsible for all the material presented in the exhibit, feedback (in the form of oral comments and suggestions) was provided by all instructors immediately following each discussion session for the benefit of all the students.

* The Undergraduate Experience as Docents

The group of undergraduate interns was composed of three males and six females ranging in age between 20 and 22. Three were from an under-represented minority group and the others were Caucasian and Asian-American. The undergraduate interns worked an average of 20 hours per week on weekdays and weekends. During weekdays, their interactions typically involved school-aged children on school field trips to the museum, whereas on weekends, exhibit patrons were predominantly adults and families. The undergraduate interns were placed strategically throughout the exhibit nearest the material thought to promote the most discussion by patrons. Also, the interns led live demonstrations in the onsite laboratory, where visitors to the exhibit could conduct their own genetic experiments, extracting DNA (see cover) or gel electrophoresis (Figure 1).

Assessment of our training program focused on students' own perception of their preparation as docents, since their success on the job was the best measure of our success in the classroom. Docents were given a survey developed by Dr. Joseph Hoey through the Fellowships in Research and Science Teaching (FIRST) program in Atlanta (Holtzclaw et al., 2005), which was further refined to reflect the unique qualities and techniques used in docent training. The survey was given to both groups of docents after they had been on the job at least two weeks in order to give them time to understand the demands of the job and how successful their training had been.

All nine docents reported enjoying the training sessions, working on the exhibit floor, and cultivating a greater understanding of genetic technology. We intentionally recruited students with science backgrounds (previous coursework in genetics, biology, or neuroscience), and a majority of students reported being knowledgeable in basic genetic concepts before the start of training. Students self-reported gains in understanding the more complex genetic issues presented in the exhibit such as Cloning. Survey responses generally suggested that our training program was successful in covering the core content presented in The Genomic Revolution exhibit.

We were also interested in how effectively the PLTL discussions had served as models of docent methodology. As part of the survey, we asked students how helpful the student-led group discussions had been in their preparation as docents in three of the exhibit topics. A majority of both classes felt that peer led discussions had been beneficial for the GMOs and Cloning topics, while fewer students thought this was the case for Nature versus Nurture. We had students tackle Nature versus Nurture presentations on the first day of training immediately following the genetics review lecture, and this may have been too early for them to focus on the style in addition to the content of that assignment. The Nature versus Nurture section of the exhibit was also much smaller in sire compared to the areas on Cloning or GMOs, so student responses may also reflect the time they spent in those sections on the job. A single student responded that covering these three topics was "very helpful" to "somewhat helpful" in his/her job as docent. Yet this student reported neutral responses to the questions on the benefit of PLTL discussions on these same subjects. While a majority of docents benefitted from PLTL-based discussions, this individual apparently did not. This underscores the need to account for multiple learning styles in any classroom, and reinforces the need to have an instructor introduce each section to supplement the discussions.

We were encouraged at the results when docents were asked what other topics they would like included or expanded upon, based on their experiences on the exhibit floor. Their answers included complex, thought-provoking concepts like "mechanics of a DNA sequencing machine," "the use of DNA to determine migration patterns," and "how to find genes ... and disease." These high-end concepts suggested that docents were able to comfortably answer the general questions they encountered from exhibit attendees. One of our greatest compliments was from one of the docents in a follow up e-mail, in which she commented that she was considering a graduate degree in genetic counseling, based at least partly on her experiences as a docent at the exhibit.

* Acknowledgments

The Genomic Revolution was originally organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York and presented at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta by Emory University and additional sponsorships. We would also like to acknowledge the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center) and The Fellowships in Science and Teaching (FIRST) program which is funded through the Division of Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. This material is based upon work supported in part by the STC Program of the National Science Foundation under Agreement No. IBN-9876754. Photographs are courtesy of the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

The authors would also like to thank Dr. Laura Carruth, Science Educator and faculty member of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience at Georgia State University, for her helpful comments on this manuscript.


Center for Behavioral Neuroscience. Available online at: htlp:// Accessed 7/3/07.

Chin, C.C. (1995). Interpreter's perceptions about the goals of the science museum in Taiwan. Presentation at the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, April 22-25.

Cox-Peterson, A.M. & Ramirez, A.Y. (2001). An investigation of student and adult docents during guided school tours. School Community Journal, 11, 7-26.

Cracolice, M.S. & Deming, J.C. (2001). Peer led team learning. The Science Teacher, 68, 20-24.

Cross, P. (2002), The role of class discussion in the learning-centered classroom--The Cross Papers #6. Phoenix, AZ: League for Innovation in the Community College.

Fernbank Science Center/Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Welcome to Fernbank: Two worlds of science in Atlanta. Available online at Accessed 7/3/07.

Fernbank Museum of Natural History. (2004). The Genomic Revolution press release. Atlanta, GA.

Holtzclaw, J.D., Morris, L.G., Pyatt, R., Giver, C.S., Hoey, J., Haynes J.K., Gunn, R.B., Eaton, D. & Eisen, A. (2005). FIRST a model for developing new science faculty. Journal of College Science Teaching, 34, 24-29.

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ROBERT E. PYATT is Assistant Director, Cytogenetics/Molecular Genetics Lab, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Nationwide Children's Hospital, Columbus, OH 43205; e-mail: TRACIE ROSSER is Research Project Coordinator, Department of Human Genetics, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322; e-mail: KELLY POWELL is Associate Director, Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Atlanta, GA 30303; e-mail:
Table 1. The Genomic Revolution Training Course Content

1. The Genomic Age
 A. History of Genetics and the Human Genome Project
 B. Basic Genetics
2. Our Genomic Identity
 A. Nature vs Nurture
 B. Genetic Similarities
 C. How Genes Work: Red/Green Color Vision
 1. DNA-RNA Protein
 2. Replication, Transcription, Translation
3. Our Genome: Map for New Medicine
 A. Genes and Chromosomes
 B. How Genes Affect Health
4. Choosing Our Genes
 A. Ethics of Genetics
 B. The Eugenics Movement
5. Changing Our Genes
 A. Genetic Diseases
 B. Gene Therapy
6. Reshaping Our World
 A. Genetically Modified Organisms
 B. Cloning
7. Our Genes and Our Future
 A. Privacy Issues and Genetics
 B. Ownership of Genetic Information
 C. Genetics and the Legal System

Table 2. Example PLTL Workshop Topics within the "Cloning" Section
1. Extinct Species
 Can we use genetic technology to bring back species that
 have died out? Efforts are underway in Japan to clone a
 woolly mammoth, but is that ethical given that the pressures
 that drove such species to extinction, such as loss of
 habitat, still exist?
2. Livestock
 Could cloning be used to improve beef and dairy production?
 The first U.S. auction of a cloned cow took place in
 2000, but would this reduce genetic variability in our herds?
3. Humans
 If the technology exists to clone animals such as sheep, is
 it only a matter of time before it's applied to people? Many
 governments have banned human cloning, but would this
 technology give infertile couples an opportunity to have
4. Medicine
 Could cloning be adapted to mass produce drugs?
 "Biopharming" or using animals to produce drugs could
 help reduce the costs of medicine, but is it ethical to genetically
 modify animals for this purpose?
5. Family Pets
 Can cloning technology be applied to return our lost pets?
 While the technology does exist to clone cats, is this an ethical
 application of this scientific technology or money spent
 on research?
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Author:Pyatt, Robert E.; Rosser, Tracie; Powell, Kelly
Publication:The American Biology Teacher
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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