Museum sector: Schools programme developer

What were you doing before you became a schools programme developer?
While doing long-term supply teaching following a PGCE in secondary science, I took on a part-time job as an explainer at the Science Museum, a place I love.  I felt like a child in a sweet shop, and it was so easy to enthuse pupils and family groups about science and help them understand difficult concepts.

Everything was designed to make science learning easy.  I remember setting fire to methane bubbles, making children into human circuits that lit up light bulbs, and getting people to sit on the ‘chair of doom’ which was a seat made up of 500 nails which luckily spread the force so no-one got injured!

What does your current role involve?

  • I develop activities for secondary school groups who visit the Natural History Museum. These are free, bookable workshops and shows for schools.  I work in a partnership with other programme developers at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, the Manchester Museum and the Hancock Museum in Newcastle. We consult with teachers to guide this process so that everything we do is relevant to schools. 
  • I adapted Oxford’s Great Debate workshop to our museum setting, and we now have a debating workshop where GCSE students pretend they are characters from Victorian England, and who present evidence from the displays to argue for or against Darwin’s theory of evolution; all in our magnificent galleries with a sometimes bemused public walking by.
  • I’ve developed a science show where students can plunge their hands into custard or build a mountain range on a big screen, and for this I was allowed to get a massive volcano made, with a nightclub smoke machine in it so it can erupt at the show’s finale.
  • I’ve worked with our paleontologists to devise a GCSE workshop where students sieve, wash and microwave a clay sample to reveal beautiful, minute, microfossils under the microscope, from which students can work out the geological age of the clay. Students generally feel they have done some ‘real science’, one saying it made them feel ‘soooo smart’.  Our A-Level biology days enable students to go behind the scenes and meet our research scientists and see the collections first hand.  
  • We have a team of science educators who make it possible for us to run a sustainable programme for the large numbers of groups who visit us. I train the science educators in how to deliver and maintain the programmes.  I also take enquiries from teachers, provide marketing information to publicise the activities, and support other museum departments with secondary science advice, such as those who design exhibitions and our website.

Skills needed for the job
You need to be able to pick out all the strengths of a museum setting and use them to support curriculum concepts and skills, and to enthuse and inspire the pupils. You need to be able contain children without the walls of a classroom which sometimes feels like trying teach in a shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon.  An ability to write engaging tours and show scripts is useful.  Additionally, it helps if you can devise fascinating laboratory practicals and stimulating debating activities.   You need to get used to having everything you do checked before it goes ‘out there’ and the whole idea of your work needing to be ‘on-brand’.  It’s also important that you’re able to develop activities which are easy to hand over to someone else. Also, getting along with others is a vital skill.   

What are the best bits?
Watching students transform into historical characters, and seeing them engrossed in a debate workshop are great parts of the job.  I love listening to students discuss abstract, difficult concepts about how theory relates to evidence and thinking we’ve helped achieve that.  It’s also good to read feedback forms that show students are now thinking about studying science later on, or that they never realised science was so much fun.   

It’s fantastic to work in an institution which is an international leader in the scientific study of the natural world. I work alongside world-renowned researchers to enthuse students about science and the natural world; 70 million specimens and even a giant squid. I come to work everyday to what I think is the most beautiful building in London. I love the fact that when I phoned a colleague up today, she answered with a sing-song ‘Parasitic Worms!’. I love the fact that this is normal. I also love not having to do planning and marking in the evenings and weekends (maybe this is the best bit of all!)

What are the worst bits?
The museum employs about 800 people so despite your best efforts to ensure good communication a random set of  200 chairs may just suddenly appear in the space in which you were planning to run a workshop in an hour.  

What are the difficulties and how do you overcome them?

I’m always aware that my work is very much ‘on show’ and therefore so are any problems that occur which is a bit worrying. Also, sometimes it feels as if there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all your work.  These challenges are mostly overcome through building relations and gaining support for what I’m trying to achieve from the many different museum teams. I’m extremely lucky in that I’m surrounded by helpful, positive people who really believe in the museum’s work. I hugely value this as I know it’s not the case in so many workplaces.

How can interested teachers find out more?
Visit Gem (Group for Education in Museums) for jobs, and get on to their email forum as jobs are often advertised on there. You’ll also get a good idea from this forum of the types and range of activities offered to schools across the museum sector.


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