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A Junior Docent Program

How do we best utilize the energy and enthusiasm of teenagers to help further the mission of our museum? That might be a question asked by museum educators contemplating the development of new youth programs at their sites. The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, after asking this and other questions and researching existing programs, instituted a youth program – the Junior Docent program – in 1991. This program has evolved into one of the museum’s most successful educational programs. The description included here is intended to serve as an impetus and source of information for those considering starting such a program within their institution.

Program Description

The Junior Docent Program provides teens with a learning experience that increases their understanding of science and at the same time provides an opportunity for them to interact with the public and exposes them to science and education-related careers. The primary goal of this program is to promote a continued interest in science and science-related careers by middle and high school students, an age group that typically shows a sharp decline in math and science interest and abilities. A secondary goal is to provide the students with an opportunity to sharpen their communication and people skills.

These goals are achieved by: a) training the teens to act as educational assistants in the Museum; b) providing them the opportunity to work regular shifts in the Museum; and c) providing “continuing education” and field trips with scientists and science educators. Successful junior docents also participate in off-site events, sharing their knowledge with younger children at events such as Earth Day activities, the Discoverland Fair, and the Annual Zoo Day. During the first two years of the program, 25 teens were involved. In the last several years, this number has almost doubled.

Requirements for participants

  • 13 to 17, grades 8 through 12
  • completed application with 2 letters of recommendation
  • 2.0 grade average or better
  • personal interview

Training Component

Junior docents are trained to work at four different stations: dinosaurs, marine life, bats of New Mexico /their ecological role, and rocks and minerals of New Mexico. Each station has touch specimens and activities for visitors that illustrate scientific concepts. The junior docents have the opportunity to interact with visitors of all ages and from around the world, but they are trained especially to engage children and families in experiences that enrich their Museum visit. The training sessions and on-going continuing education are a mix of classroom presentations, activities in the Museum exhibit halls, and field trips.

Implementation of Program

Upon completion of the training, participants are evaluated to determine if each one is ready to begin shifts at the four stations. The evaluation is a roleplaying presentation, with the teens acting as the explainers at each station and the evaluators (program coordinator and other adult docents) serving as the visitor. Those participants whose presentations are not satisfactory are permitted to review written handouts and come in for practice sessions at the stations (with adult docents); after this, they are re-evaluated.

Once the teens have been “checked off” at all four stations, they begin working three-hour shifts in the summer twice a week. The program supervisor makes several “walk-throughs” to check on the young docents during each shift, particularly at the beginning of the summer.

Once a week, program participants get together to share some of their experiences and work out any problems which may be coming up at their stations. The second half of this meeting time is devoted to a scheduled “program” with different Museum staff members. During the summer of 1995, for example, the students interacted with a paleontologist, a zoologist, a biologist, a graphic designer, an exhibit fabricator, an advertising/public information officer, a paleontological preparator, and a biological preparator. In addition to explaining and showing the students what they do at the Museum, these professionals also discussed how they got into their careers and the sort of training required for each of their areas. Field trips with Museum staff (e.g., visiting the site of a bat colony and observing a bat flight or searching for fossils in the Sandia Mountains) sometimes take the place of the weekly meeting.

Benefits to Participants AND TO Museum

  • Some advantages of participating in this program are:
  • Learn new skills and receive on-the-job training
  • Become exposed to learning through experiential education
  • Improve communication skills and self-esteem
  • Make new friends while working in a “fun” environment
  • Learn first hand about various careers (in science, exhibits design, education, etc.)
  • Have direct interaction with positive role models
  • Develop a future recommendation (for jobs, acceptance into other programs, etc.)
  • Receive community service credit (e.g., for college applications)
  • Make a personal contribution to the community

The Museum benefits by having a well-informed core of teens to act as ambassadors in their schools and communities, and by promoting an interest in science and natural history.

Unexpected results of the Junior Docent Program

Because a number of youths have returned summer after summer (even before stipends were paid), the Museum has developed a group of “veteran” junior docents. Therefore, in the summer of 1995, a new aspect of the program evolved. A small group of students worked directly with one of the Museum scientists on an on-going basis. Working in the paleontology laboratory, six of the Junior Docent participants assisted a Museum paleontologist for eight weeks during the summer, picking vertebrate micro-fossils from bulk matrix that had been collected in the field. This was so successful that many more Junior Docents are now interested in that same opportunity. This points the way to finding new ways of involving youth within the Museum—beyond the initial objectives of the Junior Docent Program. It is rewarding for our Museum staff to see these teenagers develop into mature young people and become excited about their involvement at the Museum!

Madeleine Correa Zeigler is Educational Development Specialist for the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science in Albuquerque. NM. Ms. Correa Zeigler’s responsibilities at NMMNHS include grant writing, educational program development, coordinating the Junior Docent Program and the “Proyecto Futuro ” Program. She has been with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science for the past six years. Ms. Correa Zeigler has eight years’ experience in researching, developing, and implementing youth programs for museums and educational institutions and in developing curriculum for ESL (English as a Second Language) programs. She holds an M.Ed, in Counseling & Guidance and a B.A. in Languages (Spanish/French).

Correa Zeigler, Madeleine. “A Junior Docent Program,” The Docent Educator 5.4 (Summer 1996): 12-13.

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