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Natural History Museums Rise to the Occasion Going Online to Virtually Engage Students


MANAGER OF VERTEBRATE LIVING COLLECTIONS Leslie Gordon with her lizard during a weekly livestream on the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County’s Facebook page. Online guests and students from all over the world have been checking in to check out the animals during the coronavirus pandemic.


Editor’s note: Due to recent stay at home orders, NHM’s Nature Gardens and Butterfly Pavilion and Spider Pavilion are not currently open to the public. 

BY LAURIE HANSON • December 8, 2020

This year is anything but typical for everyone including the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County.

Under normal circumstances, more than 200,000 students a year would grace their hallways and grounds to learn about the natural phenomena of animals and plants, many of whom could not adapt to an everchanging world.

Unlike those distant species, the museums have adapted during the pandemic by going virtual and mostly online.

The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles include the site by USC, the La Brea Tar Pits, and William S. Hart Museum. It is known collectively as the largest natural and historical museum in the western United States.

“While the museums’ buildings have been closed, we have opened new doors to natural history and to experiencing the museums online,” explained Rachel Fidler, Manager of School & Teacher Programs at NHMLAC. “All of our virtual school programs are crafted with care for learners and available for free on our museums’ websites.”

“Even though the indoor portions of our museums are closed, we’ve offered new ways to explore natural and cultural wonders safely outdoors and digitally from home,” Fidler said. “People of all ages can experience our museums online via digital exhibitions, livestream events, educational programs and activities to showcase our vast collections and experts.”

Students have joined online from across the city and counties of Los Angeles, the state, and even a few across the country and beyond its borders, according to Fidler. She went on to say that since their closure in March, the museums have had the opportunity to engage with more than 200,000 students, teachers, parents, and community members virtually.

“On our Educational Resources pages, parents, students, and teachers can explore our library of on-demand, grade-appropriate learning resources (such as videos, activities, readings, lesson plans, and more),” Fidler explained. “Teachers can register their classes for our live interactive programs and webinars.”

The museums’ new digital experiences and programs include the online, interactive exhibitions Spiky, Hairy, Shiny: Insects of LA and Rise Up L.A.: A Century of Votes for Women. Additionally, teachers and students can participate in virtual learning with lesson plans, educational videos and activities already provided.

On an added note, Fidler said that families and guests can now safely experience the Nature Gardens and popular Butterfly Pavilion and Spider Pavilion, with museum safety protocols in place.

Through a new partnership with Nickelodeon, videos of museum scientists and favorite animated characters can be found online at www.nhm.org. The community can also follow and catch up on the museums’ latest on social media @nhmla, including weekly Lunch with Live Animals live streams with experts from their animal care team, said Fidler.

There are live museum presentations where students get to meet scientists, visit with live animals, learn about the art of paleo puppetry or see real excavations in action in 30 minute programs with multiple classes presented at the same time based on grade levels.

These Programs allow students to have “Q & A’s” directly with museum staff and are live streamed on the museum’s YouTube channel.

In the museums’ virtual student programs, teachers can register their class in advance so students can join in a virtual classroom for a live, interactive program via Zoom, with program length grade dependent and ranging from 30 to 45 minutes. Topics include the endangered California Condor, Ice Age animals and fossils, finding clues from fossils, a virtual tour of the La Brea Tar Pits, a virtual mobile archeology experience, and a virtual mobile ocean experience.

There are also virtual educator workshops to help teachers build connections between their students’ curriculum and the museums’ collections and exhibitions. Learning resources for students that are grade-appropriate with activities are available and include videos, student activity pages, readings, teacher guides, photo galleries, and self-guided virtual field trips.

The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC) are a public-private partnership between the nonprofit Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History Foundation and the County of Los Angeles. In addition to county support, they depend on

revenue from admissions, their stores and cafe in addition to memberships. They also rely on donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations.

“Our donors’ generosity helps us fund groundbreaking research, deliver free virtual programming for all ages during our temporary closure, and care for the preservation of more than 35 million specimens,” explained Fidler. To make a gift of any size, please visit online at www.NHMLAC.ORG/join-and-give.

For Natural History Museum programs and learning resources, please visit www.NHM.ORG/educational-resources, and for La Brea Tar Pits Museum programs and learning resources, please visit www.TARPITS.ORG/educational-resources. For more general information about the museums, visit their website at www.nhm.org.