Boston’s Museum of Science keeps the learning going online after coronavirus closure

Infographic showcasing some of the Museum of Science’s upcoming April programming. Graphic courtesy of the Museum of Science.

By Sara Magalio
BU News Service

BOSTON — When the Museum of Science shuttered its doors abruptly in mid-March, responding to the spreading COVID-19 virus, museum educator Karen Powers made sure to save her desk plants from imminent peril before her hasty, indefinite departure. But she didn’t grab much else. 

Powers has not been back since, and she, like many members of the education team, is now creating online content for the museum’s “#MOSatHome” initiative using solely what’s around her house and stored in her head.

“Not having our toys, all of the props that we use in our presentations has been a challenge,” said Powers, the museum’s presentation coordinator. “Alas, I don’t have a lightning machine at home.”

Closed to the public on March 12, the museum has been committed to turning out online content on an array of topics including dinosaurs, weather, physics and the COVID-19 virus. While staff worked quickly to get its online suite of content fully operational two weeks after closing, the lack of resources at their disposal in their homes as compared to the museum presented a significant challenge.

“We got very late notice about not being able to come back to the museum. It was a Sunday night when we were all contacted and told to not come in to work next week,” Powers said. “We did not have a lot of time to think about, as a team, what we should bring home with us. So right now we are trying to figure out what valuable science content we can put out as the live presentations team, just with what we have in our houses.”

Eric O’Dea, senior education associate, explained the last day with all of the staff in the building was Friday, March 13, and by that Sunday evening they received word that they would not be returning to work the next day. This required the museum’s multiple departments to work completely remotely to start getting online content produced.

“We split into teams, identified things that we could get done quickly and developed some content that would be compelling, that we could do online and that people could participate in from home,” O’Dea said.

That content included physics demos, panels of experts to answer questions and a new podcast.

“Some of this had been in the works before, but a lot of it had not been, a lot of it was brand new for us,” he said.

While the podcast had been in the works before the closure, O’Dea noted that it probably would not have been released until the fall if the COVID-19 virus had not shifted the museum’s priorities.

The education team quickly determined that utilizing the knowledge that they all have as scientists to create informative content, as opposed to featuring compelling objects and animals, would have to be their focus in continuing to engage with the community for the time being.

“Right now what we’ve been turning out for the most part are livestreams that we call ‘Ask a Scientist,’ because we all have amazing content knowledge, and science at its root is all about asking questions and finding answers,” Powers said.

Infographic showcasing some of the Museum of Science’s upcoming April and May content. Graphic courtesy of the Museum of Science.

Sarah Weiner, an education associate, also made the point that their love of science and education, coupled with their curiosity, has helped educators continue to produce content even with their limited resources.

“I think we are leaning on the fact that we have such a strong scientific base in our educators, and that we are more than just scientists; we love informal education,” Weiner said. “That’s what we were able to take with us, even if we couldn’t take our nice computers with good graphics. I don’t have a rainbow boa snake to show people here at my house, but we are still focusing on educating the public with whatever resources we have.”

Aside from a lack of equipment, the educators all noted that they missed in-person engagement with museum visitors, allowing for more casual, intimate conversation. While some of the recent online streams have had over 500 participants, Powers said that this positive response can also make fielding questions and engaging with individuals far more challenging.

“There’s that inevitable slight delay when predictions or questions from viewers are coming in through a Q&A box, and the moderator then having to share that with the presenter,” Powers said. “So it’s a learning curve, but I think we will all get used to it, and unfortunately I think we may have plenty of time to get used to it.”

O’Dea noted that practicing presentations with his colleagues has helped the team to work out issues before streaming for hundreds of people.

“We definitely figured out some helpful logistics from collaborating, like it’s helpful to have one moderator who is just looking at the questions and posing them to the panel but not answering them, so we can focus on getting as many answers to viewers as possible,” O’Dea said.

Team members also made the point that engaging with local school and youth groups, which is normally a large part of their education outreach, has changed dramatically, but they are still committed to connecting with students in whatever way they can.

“You have teachers who are trying to teach online, and it’s a struggle especially for younger kids,” O’Dea said. “If we can keep our mission going, provide some supplemental science education and give kids not just something to do, but something to learn while they do and stay excited about science, that’s what we’re really excited about.”

Weiner is one of the educators who has been able to continue interacting with school and youth groups through online presentations.

“During one of our ‘Ask a Scientist’ streams, I had a question from an eighth-grade science teacher and her class, and that was so great to hear. It’s so rewarding to see that we are still getting to interact with formal education in that way,” Weiner said.

Powers said that positive feedback from members and donors has also helped to reassure the team that their efforts are resonating with the community.

“We’ve gotten emails from members that were happy with what we were doing and had people who have donated with advancement after seeing our work online and thanking us for that,” Powers said.

“That’s really encouraging to see, because it’s really hard to not be able to see our audience like we normally do,” she continued. “I feed off of having an audience in front of me and their reactions to the presentations, so getting those little tidbits of feedback is so helpful and reassuring to know that what we have been doing so far online is being received well.”

In the future, O’Dea said the museum wants to produce more recorded content in addition to the livestreams and even get some of the over 100 animals who live in the museum in on the action.

“We still have some staff in the building who are maintaining the care of our animals, so we have been thinking about how to involve them and maybe get some live content from our animal center,” O’Dea said. “We also want to do more recorded shows that can be watched at any time. This could look like a scientist taking a recent science paper that we think is cool and breaking it down.”

Weiner said content creation is just the beginning of where the museum wants to take its online presence, and that the museum is creating online forums to discuss pertinent topics in a way that may feel less one-sided than a presentation livestream.

“I know that one of our goals looking to the future is to not just create content for the community, but to be a meeting place for the community too,” Weiner said. “We want to be a place where people can convene online for important conversations about COVID-19 and other aspects of life in Boston that are going to continue to impact all of us.”

When the museum reopens its doors, the education team expects that they will continue to keep up its online presence, as expanding their digital outreach was already a goal before the pandemic pushed it to a priority.

“We’ve been talking about doing these science videos for years, and it has just never been a priority. It’s sort of a silver lining in all of this, that we get to try all of this different online content and see the reactions of the public to it,” Powers said.

Powers is hopeful that the museum will continue to reach the community online, but she noted the uncertainty that the pandemic has brought makes it difficult to predict exactly how extensive the museum’s digital presence can remain. 

“It will be something we will need to see when we open up again, how much content we can keep up virtually while also resuming our normal operations,” Powers said. “We would have to have more staff for that, and who knows if we will be able to hire more staff. But if we can, we can reach not just the greater New England area, but the entire world with our content.”

This Infographic showcases some of the Museum of Science’s upcoming May programming. Graphic courtesy of the Museum of Science.

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