SUTTON, Mass. — Sitting in the dark, knees crossed, looking up at the stars projected on the planetarium dome, the fourth-grade class might have been on a field trip to the Museum of Science in Boston.
But instead, they were having what Katie Slivensky, an educator from the museum, calls a “backwards field trip” in a portable, inflatable planetarium set up for the morning in the old gym at Sutton High School — a 50-minute lesson on the stars, moon and planets, tied to state learning standards for physical science, earth and space.
Over the last few years, many schools have eliminated or cut back on museum trips, partly because of tight budgets that make it hard to pay for a bus and museum admission, and partly because of the growing emphasis on “seat time” to cover all the material on state tests.
To make up for the decline in visits, many museums are taking their lessons to the classroom, through traveling programs, videoconferencing or computer-based lessons that use their collections as a teaching tool.
“Even if they can’t come to the museum, we can bring the excitement of science to the school,” said Ms. Slivensky, one of seven traveling educators at the Boston museum.
At the Museum of Science, where school visits have dropped about 30 percent since 2007, demand for the 14 school travel programs — from the $280 “Animal Adaptations” to the $445 “Cryogenics’ — is booming.
Annette Sawyer, director of education and enrichment programs, said the museum would do almost 1,000 travel programs next year, 400 more than four years ago.
On a sunny spring morning, the Sutton schools, about an hour from Boston, have brought in both the planetarium program and, for the kindergarten, “Dig Into Dinosaurs.”
“It’s $275 a bus, and we’d need three buses for a grade level,” said Michael Breault, the principal. “We pay for field trips and special assemblies from a magazine fund-raiser at the beginning of the year, and this year, we didn’t sell as many magazines.”
And museum admission costs $7.50 a head.
Money is not the only issue. Mr. Breault’s school recently adopted standards-based report cards, rating children on dozens of standards like “recognizes properties of polygons.”
Given the pressures to meet those standards, teachers said, the travel program’s efficiency is appealing.
“With a trip, there’s all the planning, the buses, the permission slips,” said Erin Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher. “It’s hard to be gone a whole day. We have a lot of things to get through to get them ready to go into fifth grade, and there’s never enough time.”
Ms. Sawyer said her museum is “agnostic by design” about the relative merits of bringing students to the museum or taking the museum to students.
“Of course there’s a question about whether the travel programs cannibalize museum attendance,” she said. “But I don’t think so.”
Still, travel programs cannot replicate the excitement of the Museum of Science, where students visiting the theater of electricity scream loudly when they hear the bangs and see the artificial lightning snaking through the air.
In New York, both the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History reported a dip in school visits, and a spokesman for the natural-history museum said it was concentrating more on teacher development, including printed and online materials that could be used in the classroom.
Even as they pour their energies into taking museum resources to the classroom, some museum educators worry about how the shift might affect long-term attendance.
“It’s such a conundrum to advocate as strongly as possible for the magic of the real thing, but also create greater access using the Web, hoping we aren’t dissuading people from feeling the urgency of coming to see the real thing,” said Dana Baldwin, education director at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, where school visits dropped more than 40 percent from 2007 to last year.
While it is difficult for art museums to take their wares on the road, her museum has developed handbooks, online materials and posters for in-class lessons. But, she admits, something is lost in the process.
“The experience of looking at art or posters in the classroom is so far removed from looking at art on a field trip to a museum,” Ms. Baldwin said.
At the Charleston Museum in South Carolina, Stephanie Thomas, the education coordinator, said educators began taking their programs to schools when gas prices went up. The mummy stays put, but the traveling educators have plenty of portable artifacts.
“We do a class on ancient Egyptian life, with a boys’ outfit and a girls’ outfit to put on, pieces of papyrus, a copy of the Rosetta stone, and some things that have been de-accessioned or are not in great shape, or come from someone’s grandparents’ attic, but we don’t know the provenance,” Ms. Thomas said. “We have an Egyptian headrest that’s chipped, but the kids don’t care that it’s chipped.”
The emphasis on specific learning standards for each grade, and No Child Left Behindassessments, has brought a fundamental shift in thinking about museum education.
“It used to be a given, like mom and apple pie, to take classes to the museum for enrichment, or as a reward for good behavior, in the spring,” said Ted Lind, deputy director of education at the Newark Museum, which had 84,000 student visits last year, down from 101,000 in 2005. “Now that there’s so much more pressure on time in the classroom, and learning standards, it’s all about how it will help students learn the curriculum. ”
No wonder, then, that for many students, the experience of wandering around a museum, exploring at will, has given way to formal lessons. In the Sutton gym, Ms. Slivensky began with basics. Star-watchers, she said, need to know time and direction. So which way is north?
“It’s up,” volunteered a tiny voice.
But are places north of Massachusetts, like Vermont, straight up in the air, Ms. Slivensky asked?
While the fourth graders discussed the night sky, the kindergartners passed around fossils, as Christina Moscat, the museum educator, asked them to guess what they were.
“I think this was a knee,” said Damian Weber.
Ms. Moscat identified the fossils, to much giggling. “You guys were touching dinosaur poop,” she said. “Only it’s not poop anymore, it’s stone. We call it coprolite, and it tells us what the dinosaur ate.”
Of 19 children in the class, only 7 had visited the museum.
“In this program, they get more focus on what paleontologists actually do,” Ms. Moscat said. “But they miss the wow factor of actually seeing that huge Triceratops skeleton.”