Recreation & Destinations

A New App to Explore Natural History

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Now, there’s a way to learn about natural history without even stepping foot inside Rockford’s Burpee Museum.

Children regularly tour Burpee Museum of Natural History for a closer look at artifacts including Jane, a 21-foot juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex. But with this new app, museum director Anne Weerda hopes to reach children wherever they’re learning – regardless of whether they’re on a field trip to Burpee.

Anne Weerda wants you to love the natural world.

“You can’t ask someone to love something, or to save something, if they haven’t developed a relationship with it,” says Weerda, the executive director of Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford.

The museum has always invited people through its doors to explore, but now it also has a way of taking its wonders to the community outside its doors, through a new augmented reality app, the only application of its kind.

Developed by Trekk, a local tech-driven creative service agency that donated 100 percent of the time it spent creating the app, this technology currently has three major components used inside and outside of the museum building.

An in-house feature includes informative videos that play when certain items in the museum are scanned. Another allows for a massive 3-D animated image – such as a dinosaur – to pop up in the room.

“It’s like the ultimate pop-up book,” says Weerda.

An augmented reality feature can be used anywhere. Place a North American Beaver skull on the floor of a classroom – through the app, of course – then enlarge it and allow students to virtually walk inside the skull to look at it from all angles.

There are currently nine objects that can be viewed in this way, including several dinosaur bones and some items from the museum’s collection of Native American artifacts.

Home to Jane, a juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex whose 21-foot skeleton is the centerpiece of the Diary of a Dinosaur exhibit, Burpee Museum is a place where visitors can roam through time right in their own backyard. Permanent exhibits include the two-story Carboniferous Coal Forest, where visitors can experience a prehistoric landscape and tropical rainstorms; The Survival of the Smallest exhibit, where “every insect tells a story;” or the Ordovician Sea, portraying the ancient sea that covered the region during the Ordovician Period.

Weerda plans to continue bolstering what’s available in Burpee’s app, using more items from the museum’s collection that teachers can showcase in their classrooms. Currently, this emergent technology is only available on Apple’s iOS operating system, but Weerda hopes a majority of the features will be available for Android users by spring.

Also available on the app is BurpeeCast Kids, a podcast in which kids ask questions by recording them via voice memo on any smartphone and emailing them to the museum. A scientist at Burpee might answer them on the next episode.

The podcast has covered topics like entomology and dinosaur fossils, creating a dialogue between children and scientists. Hosted by Weerda, upcoming episodes will cover Native American history and geology, all aimed at listeners age 5-15.

Weerda notes that listeners of all ages find the podcast entertaining, and parents who listen with their children have enjoyed it as well.

Long-term, Weerda envisions virtual fossil dig sites popping up in school gymnasiums across the globe.

“Kids can walk around and interact with the different specimens,” Weerda says. “They can tap on a virtual paleontologist’s shoulder and ask them a question… and they can experience it at their own pace.”

Bringing the Burpee lab into a school, Weerda imagines the app might inspire a whole new way of teaching.

“It kind of blows the doors off of this concept that the museum has four walls,” Weerda says. “I think that we need to think about the museum as a much larger entity. We can work with kids not just on the one day they come on a field trip, but on every day that they’re learning about anything related to natural history.”

Weerda has been working hard to make Burpee that resource.

Volunteer support is always needed, and interested people should be prepared to jump in and get their hands dirty preparing fossils or working with specimens.

Some volunteers help out in Utah and Montana, where Burpee has exclusive access to dig sites on federally owned land. The museum’s crews have spent several years pulling dinosaur bones from deep within the Earth. Exhibits on “Homer” the Triceratops and Jane the Tyrannosaurus demonstrate just a few of Burpee Museum’s fascinating finds.

“Burpee Museum of Natural History is the only institution that’s allowed to pull vertebrate fossils from this space,” Weerda says.

Encouraging education for learners of all ages, Burpee also provides programs for the tiniest explorers.

ZooBabies, for children under 6, and Explorers, for kids 6 and up, ignite a curiosity and encourage interaction with hands-on learning about animals and nature. The Sprouts Learning Laboratory allows kids to dress up as scientists and interact with various instruments and specimens, crawl through tunnels and experience science up close.

“It’s really important to us to expose kids to their natural world so they can develop a love for it and then a desire to preserve it,” explains Weerda.

She personally collects monarch larvae and gives them to families who are interested in raising the caterpillars, allowing people the opportunity to experience the metamorphosis of a butterfly firsthand.

“This is how you teach kids to love their world,” she says, “by having these super-cool experiences at home.”

Whether it’s at home, on a dig site, in the classroom or at the museum, the team at Burpee is committed to making learning fun. Getting youngsters involved and excited about the world around us encourages these little learners to grow and evolve.

“At Burpee, we are trying to blow the doors open with creativity,” says Weerda. “There is so much that can be done here, and we’re just scratching the surface.”

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