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Education a focus of museum
VMNH will expand programs in new facility
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Dr. Dennis Casey (left) and Dr. James Beard stand beside a rocks display at the museum.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

By JEFF WRIGHT - Bulletin Staff Writer

While the Virginia Museum of Natural History already has a strong focus on education, the ability to further expand that focus will become a reality soon, a museum official said.

Dr. Dennis Casey, director of education and public programs at VMNH, said education is a major initiative of the institution. That is why the new museum will have two classrooms dedicated to education programs.

"The new museum is much more educationally adapted," he said.

The Virginia Museum of Natural History will hold its grand opening for its new building on Starling Avenue in Martinsville on March 31. It will replace the Douglas Avenue facility that has housed the museum since its inception in 1984.

At the Douglas Avenue site, all programs must be done in a conference room. With the new classrooms, Casey said, the museum will be able to educate more people in a specifically designed setting.

In addition to the classrooms, there will be a "consolidated place" for the museum's teacher resource center, Casey said.

The center offers education kits which teachers can check out to use in their classrooms. Seven kits provide teachers with audio and visual material, teaching guides and technology resources that cover subjects such as fossils and insects, he said.

Also, the new facility will include a distance-learning center. The "classroom connected by virtual space," as Casey describes it, will give the museum the capability to participate in and facilitate presentations.

Eventually, the museum may be able to be broadcast to other museums, universities and schools via two-way video, he said. When the center is not being used for presentations, it will serve as a computer lab.

One of the main ways that the museum strives to reach its goal of providing quality education to the community is by cooperatiing with area educators through the Education Advisory Committee, Casey said.

The committee is comprised of teachers, administrators and faculty from schools in Martinsville and Henry, Patrick and Pittsylvania counties. The museum meets with the committee any time new exhibits or educational programs are being considered.

"Communication (with the education community) is essential for us to be successful," he said.

Not only is the museum able to help provide a higher quality of education for students by supplying the community with materials and personnel, such as curators, the education community can help the museum by providing input on exhibits and the learning experience at the museum, Casey said.

It is largely because of the committee's role in planning museum exhibits and programs that VMNH can provide something other than "a canned museum experience," he said.

The relationship between the committee and the museum presents "a very nurturing experience for both," said Betty Capps, a teacher in Patrick County schools. Capps, a member of the committee since last summer, said that before the museum asked her to be part of the group there was no representative from Patrick County.

Because of her involvement with the committee, Patrick County schools now have access to information they previously did not, she said.

The commonwealth provided $13 million for construction costs of the new 89,127 square foot museum, but "to have that kind of education in our home town" is invaluable, Capps said.

People would have to go to "Virginia Beach or Richmond or four or five or six hours away to find the type of facility that we have here," she added.

The mission of the museum stretches far beyond Henry and Patrick counties, however, said Ryan Barber, director of marketing and external affairs at VMNH.

The museum launched a major marketing campaign recently to "basically just let people know we exist and that we are "˜the' museum of natural history in the commonwealth," Barber said.

The target area for the campaign is a 250-mile radius from Martinsville, which includes a little more than 27 million people, he added.

In addition to the educational programs geared towards children, the museum also provides professional developmental programs for educators.

This summer, the museum, along with the Virginia Department of Education and other state agencies, will once again sponsor the Virginia Science Standards Institute at Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, Casey said.

The institute, which provides training and resources for fourth- and fifth-grade teachers, has taken place every summer since 1995.

 

 
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