BRADENTON -- Museums have struggled to provide an entire educational experience of its exhibits, often limited to a small placard of information. The South Florida Museum is on the verge of changing the museum experience with an interactive program that raises the level of education and experience to a whole new level.
The Pathways concept was born in the mind of Jeff Rodgers more than five years ago and technology has reached the point where concept is now close to reality. Rodgers, the director of education at the museum, brought the concept to Tricycle Studios Software Developer, out of Ybor City, a year ago and the development of the software is nearly complete.
The idea of Pathways is to show how every object in the museum is connected in some way and has various stories about their history and the science be
hind them. Rodgers simply asked the question of what if someone could select what they wanted to learn based on their own personal interests?
That question opens the door to limitless possibilities that the software will address. Eventually, every object in the museum will be programmed with a Bluetooth device where the public can begin any number of paths of education that begin with what they are most interested in by following the direction outlined on a tablet device.
The experience will eventually be open to all of the visitors to the museum and sometime after that, to the aquarium. But the initial focus is on student education.
Rodgers said a fourth-grade version of the experience is in the testing phase now and versions targeting other students may be completed by the end of the year.
Museum community engagement director Martha Wells said it will be an incredible experience for teachers, as well.
"Teachers will be able to see what the kids are getting out of the experience in the here and now," she said.
Rodgers said as students engage and complete the interactive experience, the information is stored into a library database so teachers can review each student's Pathway and how they progressed through the experience.
"This is our baby," said Rodgers. "It creates a lot of different ways kids can learn and pull it all together in one package. It's a tool. The student may start at one object of interest that will lead to another object that tells a whole different story. Two students may start at opposite ends of the museum and meet up at the same exhibit, but are learning two different things in how their initial object is connected to that one. It also creates an entirely different museum experience every time you come."
A public version of Pathways is a little further away in development, but Rodgers said it could be done within a year.
"That's something we can have a little more fun with," he said. "It will be very whimsical compared to the education focus for the students."
Wells said the museum worked in collaboration with the Manatee County School District to ensure the educational goals of the district would be enhanced by the student experience.
Mayor Wayne Poston recently attended a presentation of what South Florida Museum is doing with the technology and left impressed.
"It's a new way of using museums and how to bring student ideas to life," said Poston. "I think it's a project that we will be very proud of, and the city will do anything it can to partner with it."
While other museums across the country flirt with ways to better enhance the museum experience, South Florida Museum is the only one taking it to this level, according to Rodgers.
"No one else is doing this. We want to be good partners with the schools and the community who built this place. Museums have to adapt and evolve to a changing community, but it's important that the new honors the old."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.