DISCOVERY LABS AT THE MUSEUM OF THE EARTH: PUBLIC LABS FOR DISCOVERY AND INQUIRY
The Museum of the Earth, which opened in September 2003, is an 18000 square foot exhibit facility built by the Paleontological Research Institution (www.priweb.org) in Ithaca, NY. The core permanent exhibit of the Museum is "A Journey through Time," presented chronologically and insofar as possible through the lens of the geological history of the northeastern U.S. Three time intervals that are especially well-represented in rocks of NY State and the Northeast are highlighted in so-called exhibit "worlds." Each of these "worlds" contains a "Discovery Lab" at which visitors will ultimately be able to explore a wide range of open-ended experiences. Intended outcomes include that each visitor can approach the labs according to their own background and will have a unique learning experience each time they visit the Museum.
In the first year of operation the Labs have been oriented around the most essential core activities. The Devonian world "Fossil Lab" is particularly popular for its trays of Middle Devonian fossil rich shale, from which visitors are encouraged find and take home their own fossils. The Triassic-Jurassic "Dino Lab" features primarily fossils of Mesozoic vertebrates and, given its appeal to children, includes toys, children's books, and various paper activities. The Quaternary "Ice Lab" contains sediment from a mastodon excavation (the "mastodon matrix project"), at which visitors can find and sort specimens to be added to PRI collections. Goals in the coming year include: increasing the variety of potential experiences, including lessons on illustration, photography, identification, and other techniques associated with study of geologic specimens; more fully developing PRI research partnerships; and better integrating computer stations and other available technology.
Formal summative evaluation is in development, but it is apparent that well-trained museums docents are the most important ingredient for effective use of the labs. Many visitors will stay at the labs for 15 to 30 minutes if they are engaged in lab activities and often report that the labs are among their favorite experiences in the Museum.