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Of Kids,
Long-Distance Learning, and
Fred Rogers

Right: Pat McShea regularly shares the museum’s collections with students miles away.


In Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, which long served as Fred Rogers’ creative base, another far-reaching educational effort involving cameras and television screens is well underway.





In Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, which long served as Fred Rogers’ creative base, another far-reaching educational effort involving cameras and television screens is well underway. Because the Pittsburgh region stands to benefit whenever a homegrown product aims for a national market, this small but expanding enterprise merits some notice.

On more than 70 occasions during the past year, staff at Carnegie Museum of Natural History have conducted videoconferences with elementary, middle school, and high school audiences from New York to Texas. We market these class-length programs to schools via electronic bulletin boards, and topics for our classes range from moth anatomy
to dinosaurs.

As a member of the small team responsible for the development and delivery of these new programs, I quickly learned that, except for the half-second delay in voice transmission, the experience of facing a camera mounted just above the televised image of students who are watching your televised image on their TV monitors is pretty comparable to being a guest instructor in a classroom. In both situations, teaching strategies must be carefully planned
in advance and, depending on student interest, knowledge, and behavior, they sometimes have to be drastically altered at a moment’s notice.

A few times during these sessions, when audio and visual connections were established several minutes before the formal distance learning sessions began, we had the advantage of hearing candid student exchanges that we thought gave us clues about our audience’s attitudes and capacity to learn. “Did you come up with some questions like we were supposed to?” one sixth-grader asked her companion one late January morning as the girls entered their classroom and unknowingly passed close by the camera linking their Oyster Bay, Long Island classroom to equipment some 330 miles to the west. “No,” I heard the second student reply as I readied materials in the museum’s first floor studio, “I thought I’d just make something up during class.”

Forty minutes later, during the conclusion of a session about the real creature behind Groundhog Day folklore, the young procrastinator posed a question that left me admiring her intellect while stammering for some I’m-going-to-have-to-get-back-to-your-teacher-about-that cover. “You showed us a lot of stuff about groundhog adaptations,” she began, directing her question to me via the camera, “but how did hibernation evolve as a mammal behavior?”

On another occasion, when the audio and video link wasn’t established until exactly the time the videoconference session was scheduled to begin, the image that flickered onto the museum’s monitor was disarming enough to break all my concentration. Normally, we devote the first minute of every session to explaining how patience is required in order to deal with the half-second sound delay in video transmission. But on this late October afternoon, when a second grade class from an Ann Arbor, Michigan school suddenly appeared on the monitor wearing the hand-colored bat masks they’d assembled in a preparatory lesson, all I could think to say was, “Wow. You all look so cute!”

Like many other innovative ventures in the nonprofit sector of western Pennsylvania, the museum’s distance learning program owes its start to a local funding institution. A generous grant from The Grable Foundation has covered the cost of equipment, staff time, and the use of specialized phone lines capable of achieving the two-way digital transmission of image and sound.

But in spirit, at least, I can’t help but feel that such remotely televised educational programming also owes a debt to another Pittsburgh institution—Fred Rogers.

During the clean up after one videoconference with a third-grade class in Plano, Texas, a colleague who handles the program’s technical side shared an observation: “I don’t know whether you were aware of it, but when you made the unpacking of the bat skulls part of the program, you kind of had a ‘Mister Rogers thing’ going on.”

I confessed to awareness, even premeditation. As proof, I retrieved a personal reminder of the great man’s work from a nearby table. Under the lid of a small decorative cardboard box, the preserved remains of a chipping sparrow rested upon a folded handkerchief. Many years ago, a representative of Family Communications, the production company of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, borrowed the sparrow remains from the museum’s loan program to play the part of a dead bird in an episode whose story line explained death as a natural part of life.

I keep that sparrow nearby anytime my duty as a museum educator requires me to face a camera to reach a student audience. The lifeless specimen serves as a physical link to the pioneer who long ago proved that the quality products Pittsburgh sends out to the world do not necessarily have to leave town via trucks, barges, or on the backs of railcars.

Above right: The preserved sparrow that Fred Rogers borrowed and then returned wrapped in a new handkerchief and decorative box still inspires Pat McShea today.

Since its inception in 2002, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Distance Learning Program, made possible through a grant from The Grable Foundation, has reached more than 2,000 students and teachers as far away as Arlington, Texas. A recent grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation will support future videoconferences in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.


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