Teaching STEAM at the Museum

There can be great advantages to moving parts of teaching out of the classroom and into museums. Yes, you read that right! Museums can be an important player in the future of education!

PISA surveys from 2018 showed a declining level of achievement in science among many European primary school students. In other words, there was a call for action and with an increased focus on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), which have been given an A along the way: (Arts) has been added to the acronym, which covers arts, culture, and heritage. There is now an increased focus from national governments, at the EU level, and from business and industry on providing a skilled workforce to help promote growth and prosperity in the EU.

The undersigned was invited to join the transnational development project “STEAM Builders”, which aims to help motivate teachers and students across Europe to take up STEAM-related teaching. The reader may wonder what a cultural history museum, such as the Vesthimmerlands Museum, has to contribute to this context, both in general nad in relation to children with special needs, e.g., various diagnoses?

The following observations have been made over a 10-year period during approximately 2,300 educational sessions for kindergarten and primary school children, of which 500 sessions have been for children with special needs, e.g., ADHD, OCD, Asperger’s Syndrome, Autism, Down’s Syndrome, deaf children, etc.

Figure 1 Getting water for washing clothes in 1870 was a major task that required a good physique!
Photo: www.herregaardenhessel.dk


The museum as an aesthetically different experimental teaching space

The moment a teacher chooses to move their teaching out of the classroom, there is a small disruption to the daily routines and patterns of a class. Students and sometimes teachers are put on the outside, you are “away from home”, so to speak, and often in an environment that may be architecturally different from what you are used to.  It can be an environment that challenges and makes students curious. It can be historical environments such as reconstructions, open-air museums or museums with a very special architecture and aesthetic that both challenges and motivates pupils.

Figure 2 Interpretation of Mesolithic house based on archaeological material. Photo: Kim Callesen, Stenaldercenter Ertebølle, Denmark

Figure 3 An example of an aesthetic urban environment is: The Old Town, Aarhus, Denmark.
Photo: www.dengamleby.dk

Figure 4 An example of an aesthetic modern environment is: The Utzon Center, Aalborg Denmark.
Photo: www.kunsten.nu

It is in this space that the daily classroom hierarchy is put on hold for a while, as students engage in a different kind of classroom learning, often in the nature of mastery exercises, i.e., where students learn to master small crafts through role play or other activities. Here they are “set straight”, for what 12-year-old pupil is a specialist in logboat sailing, flintknapping or string-making?

Figure 5 A popular mastery exercise is to make a piece of string from lime bark and beads from a cherry stone, which changes students’ perception of a cherry stone from something you just spit out and throw away, to a resource that, through simple processing, becomes a treasured piece of jewellery.
Photo: Kim Callesen, Vesthimmerlands Museum, Denmark

It’s not unusual for students to be surprised by themselves and find out that they may not be very good at football, but they can make a strong string and a beautiful piece of jewellery. Classmates notice it too! Or the teacher who is surprised that students with various diagnoses want to dress up and take part in historical role-playing games! In this way, museums help to change not only the perceptions of teachers and classmates, but also the self-perception and self-confidence of pupils, which often get a big boost.

In a way, history is made very concrete and brought to life! This helps to connect pupils’ learning to their emotions, and insight emerges.

Bringing history to life can also be done through role-playing in recreated historical environments, for example in the construction of a medieval castle at Guedelon in France.

Figure 6 A medieval castle at Guedelon, France. Photo: www.guedelon.fr:


Encounters with applied science

Museums offer a unique opportunity for students to encounter some of the science that is often presented as theory in schools. Here, “half-life” is not just a concept, but one that is used to date skeletons, for example. Strontium is not just number 38 in the Periodic Table, for strontium isotopic analyses are a kind of geological GPS that can tell where a person has been or not.  This is how science becomes concrete.

Figure 7 Replica of a skull found. Interpretations of the skull’s appearance can form the basis for a conversation about: what “story” will your skull contain? Photo: Kim Callesen, Vesthimmerland Museum

It has become customary in many museums to offer the possibility of a physical meeting with an archaeologist, historian, or curator. The opportunity to meet the relevant professionals, as role models, can have a significant impact on pupils and give them a greater understanding not only of the profession but also of the role of museums in society.

The artefacts play an extremely important role in the presentation. Replicas and advanced computer programs can be good and relevant teaching tools, but in my experience, getting close to genuine objects is a great emotional experience for students. It is a great experience to hold a real stone axe, made 6,000 years ago, where the pupils become aware of something that is essential – to be able to wonder!  This is exactly where they ask the questions. How old is it? How can you tell? Who made it? How was it made? Etc. etc.

To reassure the reader, I should mention that museums often have study collections where the finds are without provenance, i.e., one cannot pinpoint the location with certainty. It is therefore possible to put objects in the hands of students, who are typically very cautious, almost reverent, with real objects.

Why do we need a museum? This is a question yours truly often asks the pupils whom the teachers herd into the exhibitions, and the pupils are of course polite and reply nicely that we should “look after the old things”, to which we often want to challenge them with “Why?” Museums should be a kind of “educational GPS” for students. To find your way, you need to know where you come from. This gives museum education an important place in students’ lives. Life must be lived forwards but understood backwards – in the everyday sense as well as in the STEAM context.


The museum as a social institution of knowledge

2 years of Covid-19, restrictions and isolation have revealed the need for shared experiences and recognition. This is where museums can come in, with professional, factual, aesthetic and learning programmes that support the social community in the classroom.

This could be through different forms of communication – For example, can puppet theatre be used in a cultural history museum? It has already been seen several times, for example at the Museu Imperial in Petropolis, where puppets of the 19th century imperial family play an important role in the presentation directly, but also as a social experience for the groups of children attending these shows.

Figure 8 At the Museu Imperial, Petropolis, Brazil, they use puppetry as part of teaching the youngest students. Photo: Kim Callesen Vesthimmerlands Museum

At the Museu Casa Do Pontal in Rio de Janeiro, an art museum, much of the presentation is done through music, song and dance. One is tempted to ask: “Can science be taught through music? Or is science musical?  Can you dance the solar system?” Teaching at the Museu do Casa Pontal is linked to a shared experience that is sure to make the lesson stand out in the memory – at least it did for yours truly!

Figure 9 At the Museu Casa do Pontal in Rio de Janeiro, music and singing are used as part of the curriculum with students. Photo: Kim Callesen, Vesthimmerlands Museum.

At the time of writing, the author is participating in the transnational Erasmus+ project “STEAM Builders”, which seeks to develop new ways to motivate students’ interest through Blueprints and Makerspaces. Specifically, the 7 participating countries/institutions will provide, among other things, building guides and related teaching guides for 35 models based on European cultural heritage. These range from Stone Age houses, ancient cranes, the Bastide – medieval town, and Pythagoras’ cup to Per Kirkeby’s Stehler and more. One might be tempted to ask whether cultural institutions should take over teaching?

Still, museums should not be schools! Museums are special aesthetic learning and exploratory spaces that help not only to provide students with academic and factual knowledge, but also to make students more aware of themselves as human beings in a historical context. Museums can complement the teaching that takes place in schools with other and new dimensions; perhaps museums can even help to create the researchers of the future? This requires museums to be good at drawing attention to what they have to offer, which in turn requires schools and teachers to understand that museums can be a part of teaching.


This article was written by: Kim Callesen, Head of Museum Education and advisor in teaching outside the classroom at the Vesthimmerlands Museum and Stone Age Centre Ertebølle in Denmark.