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Smithsonian Natural History Badges


Smithsonian Natural History Badges

The National Museum of Natural History has been considering instituting a badge-type system for a year or so now, as part of a broad rethinking of how we engage with our audiences. We are in the midst of building an exciting new Science Education Center, which, when it opens in 2013, will be the largest dedicated education space in a natural history museum in the world, filled with 20,000 specimens and objects—making it the largest visitor-accessible collection in the world—along with working examples of the tools that scientists use. We are also leading the various Smithsonian units in developing a pan-Smithsonian consortium committed to lifelong STEM education efforts. We are committed to lifelong learning, and a well-thought badge system can help our audience engage with science over time, more fully comprehend the science skills they are gaining, and demonstrate to others the skills they have gained, all leading, we hope, to more informed and science-aware citizens. To that end, we propose a family of Smithsonian Natural History Badges that engage our audiences at the museum and online in a dynamic set of science activities that will expand over time.


What will participants gain?

As visitors participate in the missions that make up the badge program, they will build science, communication, and technical skills. Whether they embark on the Forensic Mystery Mission or the Dino Tracks Quest, they will be engaged in a tiered set of activities that encourages them to try more challenging projects, and acknowledges the science skills they are gaining. We envision four tiers of the system. At the first tier in the badge system they will learn important fundamental science skills, such as how to collect evidence and how to generate and read data accurately. The second tier of learning will introduce more advanced science concepts, such as understanding how to restructure environments using data or how to identify mystery specimens. At the third and fourth level, participants can choose to take part in the Naturalist, Lab Science, or Science Communicator strands. The names are not final, but the concept is that the Naturalist badges will focus on skills that replicate scientists’ field work, such as observing behavior in the wild. The Lab Science badges will build on skills such as using specimens to do in-depth science, and the Communicator participants will build on technical and media skills such as creating data visualizations, mobile games and videos to communicate ideas.


How will it work?

In the Education Center, people will develop skills by doing activities. At the end of an activity, they can talk to a volunteer or use a touch screen to take a digital survey that measures their level of understanding. If they demonstrate sufficient understanding, they get points and a recommendation for a next step activity. After gaining a certain number of points, the participant gains a badge, which can be automatically rewarded by the content management system.


Who is the audience?

A primary audience for the Smithsonian Natural History Badges will be visitors to our museum, who will be introduced to our badges through the Education Center. Our diverse audience of seven million a year will have opportunities onsite to participate in the badges system. Visitors can participate in hands-on activities during their visit and then continue to engage with us when they get home, by working on our website to gain more points and badges. Also, our successful teen programs would become part of this badge system, so that the youth are more clearly acknowledged and rewarded for their participation.


What, exactly, will people get?

In our grand vision, at all levels, badge recipients can be honored on our website. At the first two tiers of engagement, participants gain points, as evidenced by a digital certificate sent by email or printed. If they gain a badge at the first or second level, they get a digital badge emailed to them along with a real badge if they are at the museum. They also get their own personal spot on our website, where they can save, curate and create their own content. At the forth tiers, participants have an opportunity to take part in a mentorship at the museum and gain behind-the-scenes access. Some work will be displayed in the museum and the individuals who reach the forth tier will have special status at the institution as advanced citizen scientists.


What do we already have in place?

As part of the Education Center design and development, we are building some of the infrastructure to support this system, for example,

  • A personalization and content management system that will allow us to keep track of what visitors do both onsite and online and give recommendations.
  • Digital tools for people to use both onsite and online and a mobile app that visitors can use as their own Field Notebook to curate and create their own work and share their accomplishments and badges with others.
  • A range of activities that will form the tiers of the Education Center learning program.
  • Assessment tools for measuring the educational impact of our programs.

What we do not yet have, and are looking to this competition to help figure out and fund, is a fully fleshed-out, well-designed badge system. The badge system, if we are able to develop it, will fully connect the onsite and online experience and enable an online badge system, in order to reach a broader audience.


How might this grow over time?

We see a lot of potential for this to expand to the other Smithsonian museums, so that the badge system might grow to include art and history museums and international field stations, as well as Smithsonian partners, such as the Encyclopedia of Life. To that end, we are looking for a badge design that takes advantage of the name recognition of the Smithsonian brand, leaves room for partnerships and is expandable to a family of badges with infinite grown potential.

Participants can do a combination of hands-on and digital activities in the course of earning their badges.

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