ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
We continue our series on museums today with the field trip. These days schools are feeling pressure to keep kids in the classroom to prepare them for standardized tests. Many school districts are also facing budget cuts, and that means a trip to the museum can seem like a luxury, one they can't afford. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, some museums are trying to make their exhibits reinforce classroom basics all to keep the students and the field trips coming.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: The Speed Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. Dozens of eighth graders shuffle their way into the museum's auditorium. They're here to see a show of American decorative arts from colonial times to after the Civil War. It's called "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."
Unidentified Woman: What you see today is the original. There are no copy. What you see that is gold is really gold. What is silver…
BLAIR: Docent Mary Tongay(ph) is trying to wow the kids about the Gilded Age, something they're learning about in social studies. The idea is that seeing fancy furniture and dishware from this period of American access will help bring their text books alive.
Ms. CYNTHIA MORENO (Education Director, Speed Museum): We're very booked up for school tours who are specifically coming to see the exhibit.
BLAIR: Cynthia Moreno is Director of Education at the Speed Museum. She and her colleague Bryan Warren say these days, teachers are being very careful about what they select as a field trip, so Moreno and Warren are constantly coming up with ways to lure them.
Mr. BRYAN WARREN (Associate Curator of Education, Speed Museum): We have bus subsidies, which we can help pay for some of the transportation. We offer free admission for kids that are on free and reduced lunch. And we also meet with principals because they are the primary decision-makers for budgets. And of course we want to make a case for arts visitations as part of their student's practice.
BLAIR: It's hard to quantify on a national level just how many fewer field trips schools are taking to museums. Elizabeth Babcock, Director of Education at Chicago's Field Museum, says they used to see over 300,000 students a year. But that number has dropped considerably.
Ms. ELIZABETH BABCOCK (Director of Education, Chicago's Field Museum): There was even a point where we were below 200,000 about two or three years ago.
BLAIR: So the curators at the Field, a natural history museum, got serious about designing field trips so they include skills that kids will be tested on in school.
Ms. BABCOCK: If we're teaching a class on archeology, we'll put in there the math that's required to do proper sampling that an archaeologist has to know in order to do their work. Or if we're teaching something for younger kids on evolution, we'll ensure that they work on a timeline so they get the sense of scale of the numbers of millions of years that we're talking about.
BLAIR: Some museum educators believe field trips may become a casualty of the increased pressure schools are facing, but not Elizabeth Babcock.
Ms. BABCOCK: I actually think that this has been a wonderful time for museums to do a better job demonstrating the relevance that they have to the challenges facing education in our city, in our region, nationally. We've really had to take a step back and say, you know, those old models of museums as a field trip destination are wonderful, but they're not sufficient.
BLAIR: Cynthia Moreno at the Speed says she's fine with tailoring field trips so they help schools teach to the test, but she doesn't want the real value of museums to get lost in the process. At the end of the day, she says, museums should be about wonder and discovery, not reinforcing math skills. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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