The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a grant with total funding expected to reach $1.3 million this month to the Natural History Museum of Utahand the College of Education at the University of Utah to develop and evaluate an on-line learning environment to support student learning in the biosciences.  This pioneering project, titled Engaging Practices for Inquiry with Collections in Bioscience (EPIC Bioscience), uses authentic research investigations of objects from the museum’s digitized natural history collections to provide students, particularly traditionally underserved populations, with novel access to museum objects and engaging STEM investigations to improve critical thinking skills.


University of Utah Professor Kirsten Butcher works with a 4th-grade student to discover a digitized dinosaur bone during a Research Quest investigation. New investigations will include museum objects from the botany, entomology, and vertebrate collections.

Over the next three years, principal investigators Kirsten Butcher, Mitch Power, and Madlyn Runburg will lead an interdisciplinary team of educational researchers, museum educators, and scientists who will combine their expertiseto develop curriculum aligned with Next Generation Science Standards, a multi-state effort to create new K-12 science education standards that are “rich in content and practice.” The EPIC project will focus on middle school students 6-8thgrades. The new online learning environment will emphasize a major disciplinary core idea in life sciences — Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics. Over the project’s three-year period, more than 1,500 Title I and rural students in Utah will have the opportunity to engage in the development of the EPIC Bioscience investigations.  The investigations will eventually be made available to the public.

The EPICBioscience project represents the next major step forward in the museum’s Research Quest initiative. Through that project, the team learned that there is an extraordinary, but untapped opportunity in using digitized museum collections in education. Their work also demonstrated that data provided by natural history collections and associated research could be used to help students gain a better understanding of complex issues like biodiversity and global warming. Research Questwas developed with funding from the Joseph and Evelyn Rosenblatt Charitable Trust and the I.J. and Jeanné Wagner Charitable Foundation as well as input and advice from a national advisory team, teachers from around the country, experts in education, and others.

“The NSF grant is a wonderful validation of the work we’ve done to-date to engage students and teachers in collections-based research as a means to augment their curriculum with more authentic learning experiences.” said Madlyn Runburg, museum director of education initiatives.  “We’re enthusiastically exploring technology-based opportunities to continue our museum’s decades-long work to support K12 students and teachers. Research Questis the product of that work and now with the addition of EPIC Bioscience,we can expand our catalog of online investigations and better understand how learning is happening with these resources, a primary focus as we look to the future,” said Runburg.


Students from Midas Elementary in Riverton, Utah work together to discover paleontology. New EPIC bioscience investigations will encourage the same kind of collaboration.

EPIC Biosciencewill provide a series of online investigations for middle school students to encourage a deeper understanding of science content and advance their critical thinking skills as they engage in science practices to conduct collections-based research with digitized objects from the museum’s botany, entomology, and vertebrate collections. EPIC Bioscienceinvestigations will also align with the workflow of museum scientists engaged in collections-based research, providing students with activities in data collection, data analysis, interpretation of findings, and communicating results.  Mitch Power, museum curator of botany and professor of geography, will lead the collections content development.  The project will examine questions of how and when interactive features of a digital learning environment can better promote student engagement, meaningful collaborative discourse, and robust learning outcomes as middle school students conduct research using digitized museum collections.”

“Objects have inherent interest for students and provide a concrete context for study, with the result that scientific investigations centered around objects are able to motivate students and connect to their prior knowledge in meaningful ways,” said Kirsten Butcher, U professor of instructional design and educational technology. “Digitized objects from museum collections provide a vast educational resource that has yet to be tapped. EPIC Bioscienceis at the forefront of this effort, exploring the potential of digitized museum objects to enhance and improve science learning for middle school students.”

NSF’s support of EPIC Bioscienceoffers learning opportunities for the broader on-line science education community, too. The new curriculum will be evaluated by Next Generation Science Standards Peer Review Panel for alignment with science standards.  The investigations will be available online, for free use as part of the museum’s suite of Research Quest educational resources. Direct outreach will be made to teachers through national meetings and educator newsletters. Project findings also will inform educational outreach for collections digitization initiatives at other institutions and programs. In addition to conference presentations and white papers, a webinar workshop series will be presented and archived to support other digitization groups in developing and implementing effective educational tools.


About the Natural History Museum of Utah

The Natural History Museum of Utah at the University of Utah is a premier scientific research and cultural institution. It opened to the public in 1969 and moved into a spectacular, award-winning new home in 2011 at the Rio Tinto Center in Salt Lake City. The museum’s 30 scientists oversee active field research programs throughout Utah and elsewhere and help care for natural history collections of more 1.6 million objects. The museum offers innovative exhibitions and educational programs to thousands of residents and visitors each year, including timely and interactive temporary and permanent exhibits, numerous special events and other programs. The museum reaches 450,000 people annually on-site and in communities and classrooms statewide.

About the College of Education

The College of Education at the University of Utah creates a learning environment that fosters discovery and dissemination of knowledge to promote learning, equitable access and enhanced- learning outcomes for all students. The college prepares practitioners and scholars through cutting-edge research and practice, by leading innovation and collaboration and by promoting a culture of theory and data-informed inquiry and action.

Media Contacts

Patti Carpenterdirector of public relations, Natural History Museum of Utah
Office: 801-585-6369 Mobile: 801-707-6138

Lisa PotterScience writer, University Marketing and Communications
Office: 801-585-3093 Mobile: 949-533-7899

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