The Michigan State University Museum, in partnership with the Michigan State University Children's Garden, Potter Park Zoo, and several local nature centers, hosted the BIG Lesson program. The BIG Lesson had many goals, one of which was to encourage teachers to use community resources such as museums, zoos, and nature centers as classroom extensions. The BIG Lesson was a unique school-museum partnership because it promoted using the Garden, Museum, Zoo, and nature centers as the students' classroom for a week.
The evaluation, designed collaboratively between RK&A and BIG Lesson partners, was intended to determine the program's impact on participating teachers—both direct impacts on teacher practice as well as ripple effects, particularly those on children's learning.
RK&A employed four data collection strategies: online standardized teacher questionnaires; case studies of individual teachers, including participant observations and in-depth interviews; and telephone interviews with teachers. These methods allowed us to study the degree to which the program supported teachers in integrating community learning resources into their classrooms and the degree to which the program created and sustained collaborations among BIG Lesson partners.
A majority of teachers successfully used BIG Lesson sites as extensions of their classrooms and created rich learning experiences for their students. While collaborating with other teachers was a novel experience for many, those who worked together found that planning and teaching with others facilitated their learning, which greatly contributed to the success of their BIG Lessons and to the program. The extent to which teachers collaborated with each other varied, as did the extent to which teachers collaborated with BIG Lesson site staff. Teachers new to the BIG Lesson often requested existing museum programs, while experienced BIG Lesson teachers often collaborated with site staff to create original programs, which suggests that as teachers become familiar with a site, they are more likely to see the potential of that site as a community learning resource.
By using community learning environments as their classrooms for one week, BIG Lesson teachers demonstrated the value of this new model of in-service teacher training. RK&A's evaluation demonstrated that continued exposure to learning resources in the community enhances teachers' use of those resources, provides rich personal learning experiences for teachers, and augments student learning as well.