How the Ontario Science Centre provided virtual field trips for students during COVID-19

The Ontario Science Centre (OSC) has been delivering valuable programs to little and big humans for over half a century, and even in the midst of a global pandemic, it strives to continue its mission “to inspire passion for the human adventure of discovery”. We sat down with Lorrie Ann Smith, Vice President, Science Education to talk about the OSC’s history, mission, and the challenges of delivering online programming.

Before we begin

A gift from the provincial government to the people of Ontario in celebration of Canada’s Centennial, the Ontario Science Centre was one of the two first science centres in the world, opening to the public in September of 1969. Since its early days, the OSC has been “planning the gray space between formal and informal learning”, encouraging hands-on learning in STEAM subjects, and using interactive exhibits to create a different sort of museum space: one in which we are all encouraged to touch, to play, and to experience first-hand.

The pandemic sent the Centre into crisis mode from March through June, and they had to pivot quickly to create a virtual museum. With so much available content to choose from, it was not only challenging for staff to coordinate, but also for them to determine how much people could consume.

How did you come up with your virtual field trips?

After a lot of visitor research and evaluation, we’re undertaking a digital engagement strategy. We’re also trying to gauge what the online audience looks like now that it’s not just children and their parents, but everyone.

The Ontario government has mandated no field trips for schools in the 2020–21 school year—so since schools can’t come to us, starting in October we’re going to them. We’re redesigning Studio programs like Chemistry Concepts and Fun with Physics so they can be delivered virtually, with accompanying resource packages that include videos, PDFs, and editable slides that teachers can customize.

How have you been delivering your content?

The Connected North program has been using technology to provide immersive and interactive education for remote indigenous communities all across Canada for many years, and we have been able to use their delivery model to handle some of the more technical aspects of providing online programming. We’ve been utilizing the event and venue management software Artifax to manage the school bookings.

Are you working with other organisations?

We’ve been talking to local colleagues in the field at Harbourfront Centre, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Toronto Zoo, to share ideas and challenges, and to create a working awareness of each other’s resources that we can share with teachers.

What has been most challenging?

Beyond programming the content and creating the resources, one of the considerations we’ve encountered is privacy and protections from harassment online. The safety of our students and staff is important to us, so were only virtually going in to classrooms for now and not into people’s homes.

How are you handling the uncertainty of the future?

The future is such a question mark right now. How do we compete virtually when teachers could potentially visit any museum in the world? If teachers previously brought their students to the OSC for an experience that couldn’t be delivered in a classroom (explosions!), how do we differentiate our programming and provide unique experiences, now that students are stuck in those classrooms?

What's in store for OSC?

Though many questions remain, OSC is pushing forward, and working to make sure that no student misses out on those hair raising experiences —it just might look a little different this school year.

The OSC will reopen to visitors later this fall, but you can visit remotely from wherever you are through online resources for parents and kids, such as Science at Home, as well as resources for teachers such as STEM Education Toolkits.

Time to start on your Crochet Coral Reef project!

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