institution: San Diego Air & Space Museum
category: Education Program
The intellectual, social, and emotional benefits of museum learning are well-documented; according to numerous studies, museum visits have the ability to motivate and excite learners of all ages while providing them with new
insights and experiences. A variety of factors, including fluctuating fuel prices and increased focus on testing have contributed to the reduction of student field trips across the country. This has raised the question: How can museums recapture these audiences, ensuring that their spaces and programs remain accessible to all young learners? Telepresence robots are one possible answer.
Telepresence robots are fully interactive tools that move, see, and speak on command through the use cameras, a microphones, and speakers. In the IMLS Sparks grant-funded project, Museum at Your Fingertips, Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC)
and San Diego Air and Space Museum (SDASM) partnered to test the ability of a telepresence robot, the BeamPro by Suitable Technologies, to provide meaningful and engaging remote tours to classrooms that lack resources to visit museums in person. BPOC tested the physical capabilities and limitations of the robot. SDASM developed an itinerary, wrote an interpretive script, and provided an educator for each tour. The two organizations collaborated on a companion website (http://sdasm-beam.bpoc.org:8080/login/, password: aerospace) that worked in tandem with the telepresence driver program to hold students’ attention, show their location in the physical museum space, and push location-based supplemental content from a docent-controlled app (http://sdasm-beam.bpoc.org:8080/docentapp/passcode/, password: 2001). Throughout the project, the team focused on the needs of its audience: students and teachers. The project team partnered with five local Title I schools for testing in ten classrooms, with students in grades three through six. They observed students during the tours and surveyed teachers afterwards.
During the classroom observations, students audibly “oohed” and “ahhed” as their teacher drove around the museum. Students actively asked questions and jumped at the chance to drive when it was offered. It became clear that the tours were succeeding, in large part, due to the knowledgeability and enthusiasm of SDASM educator and tour guide, Rossco Davis. Davis jumped over stanchions to spin propellers on replica airplanes. He asked students questions and gave them ample chance to ask their own. Davis’ boundless energy traveled into the classroom, confirming that a positive museum experience, in person or from afar, still depends largely on people. One student remarked on Davis’ account of historical events, “it’s like he is reliving everything all over again.”
The experimental nature of Museum at Your Fingertips helped developed a model of telepresence tours that can be replicated nationwide. Museum telepresence tours are technologically possible, educationally valuable, and easily replicable, provided you have the right staff; an energetic, engaging educator on the other end of the robot goes a long way towards making quality tours. Museum at Your Fingertips proved technology cannot take the place of human experiences, but it can make these experiences stronger and spread them further.