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Reporter's Notebook: Volunteering at the Museum of Science

When you take your children to the Museum of Science, chances are you'll encounter at least one museum volunteer while you're there - the men, women, and teens in red coats and aprons that are at almost all Museum of Science exhibits, activities and special programs. And chances are at least one of them will help your children with a special activity, show you where the bathrooms are, or recommend a particular exhibit to see.

I've been a museum visitor plenty of times, but I've often wondered what it was like for someone wearing the red coat. So when the opportunity to spend the day as a Museum of Science volunteer came up, I jumped on it. The most important thing I learned? There is no doubt that the museum values and appreciates its volunteers, and there is no doubt that its volunteers are integral to a positive museum experience.

I arrived for my shift not quite knowing what to expect.

I was quickly put at ease by the Manager of Volunteer Services, who gave me a tour of the volunteer offices - a beautiful, 6th floor space with an incredible view of the Charles and a bulletin board chock-full of information about the museum, its exhibits, and special events taking place. I learned about the annual recognition party, and the card that each volunteer gets on his or her birthday. I learned about the hours of training involved, including a half hour orientation at the start of each shift. I learned about the Volunteer Board of Directors, and staff members whose job it is to provide volunteer training and guidance.

Finally, I was given my red apron, and I knew I was part of something special the minute I put it on.

My assignment? Assisting in Design Challenges, a hands-on activity center where visitors are given materials with which to design, build and test prototype solutions to a given problem. I met with the Design Challenges educators and several interns working in the department, who gave me an overview of the morning’s project. We then set up the tables which held the various parts and pieces of the project, and I even got to try one out myself, so I could better understand the morning’s challenge. I was told to expect anywhere from 100 to 275 visitors. It was a rainy school vacation morning, after all.

Then, we were on! Up with the gates, in with the people, and for the next two hours it was nonstop teaching… helping… encouraging… handing out magnets when kids cleaned up their projects. Even though I was a bit hesitant to jump in, I had nothing to worry about. The seasoned staff and experienced interns were right there by my side, providing guidance and assurance every step of the way, all while working with an endless stream of visitors who wanted to try the experiment.

I couldn't believe it when they said it was time to close the gates - how could two hours have already passed? But there we were, cleaning up the tables, putting items away in their bins for the next time this challenge was on the schedule. My shift was over, but the Design Challenge staff was already thinking ahead to the afternoon, when they would open the gates to offer another project to another group of visitors, with another volunteer to train.

Interested in volunteering? Parents, grandparents, teens (ages 14 and up) are welcome - no science or teaching background is required, as the volunteer department will work with you to match your interests with the needs of the museum. Volunteers support the Museum in activities that range from interacting with visitors (Design Challenges, Discovery Center, Eye Opener, Meet & Greet, for example) to providing administrative support for the staff. Volunteers are asked to commit to one day a week (for a 2-hour shift), for at least 4-6 months. You can find an application on the website, as well as additional resources and contacts if you have questions.

Photo © Nicolaus Czarnecki

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