A new approach to biology

Today we enjoy instant access to a vast amount of scientific information. The news of key scientific discoveries – in fields such as health and illness, neuroscience, new planets, climate change and environmental damage – is rapidly disseminated to the general public. While the unprecedented availability of information represents a remarkable opportunity to extend and enrich our knowledge, we also require new tools to orient ourselves in the midst of an ocean of facts and the outputs of highly specialized scientific disciplines. In recognition of this need, Natural History Museums, which conserve scientific heritage of incalculable worth, have begun to develop new means of communicating with their audiences.  Their efforts are not only targeted at schools, but also at adults who wish to learn more about biology and ecology as part of a broader lifelong learning process.  Against this backdrop, the Digital Diorama project is designed to combine new communication tools with innovative educational methods, in pursuit of a dual aim. The first of these aims is to spread knowledge of the key biological and ecological processes at work in faraway natural environments. The second is to foster forms of learning that not only enhance users’ knowledge but also their competence in meaningfully relating biology themes to one another and to everyday life. Users are guided to explore these themes and reflect on their relevance to their own life contexts. While only a limited number of representative aspects and connections may be explored during the Digital Diorama experience, there is a strong chance that users will subsequently encounter the same themes in real life and apply the DD method to formulate new questions, linkages and interpretations.


Digital technologies

The Digital Diorama project involves digitalizing a set of dioramas from Italian Natural History Museums to produce interactive interfaces for IWB (interactive whiteboard): an electronic resource that encourages users to creatively generate and interconnect exploratory learning pathways, while interacting and actively collaborating with one another.

Alternatively, navigating the DD from a PC or tablet offers other advantages, such as the opportunity to carry out individual work with greater concentration, speed and freedom of choice.

In general, digital technologies may be exploited to offer learning aids and devices designed for active use. With the right tools, it is easy to make the transition from traditional modes of engagement to making more connected and creative use of a learning product such as the DD.

In sum, the Digital Diorama project offers truly innovative learning environments and the opportunity to creatively develop learning pathways that match users’ prior knowledge and personal interests.


The Digital Diorama

The goal of the Digital Diorama project is to raise awareness of the dioramas currently present in Natural History Museums, both as works of art and as representations of natural environments that many people are unfamiliar with. A further, and no less important, aim is to provide novel perspectives on the biological theme of life and the characteristics of living things, communicating them more effectively than conventional educational approaches in schools or in the media.

Another key feature is the project’s emphasis on relating the DD’s contents to aspects of everyday life. This is designed to enhance users’ sense of space, by evoking everyday actions (cats are predators just like lions and tigers) or concepts (we filter our tea in the same way that animals filter water) that audiences can easily identify with and readily associate with the contents of the Digital Diorama. In this way, learning about living things should become an integral and valuable part of users’ general knowledge base, whether they are schoolgoers or interested adults committed to lifelong learning.

The Digital Diorama is designed both for children, who are prompted by its novel technological and educational format to ask questions, reflect and engage in discussion with their peers… and for adults, whom it helps to develop an active interest in the unfolding of life instead of passively assimilating information provided by the media.


Project aims

  • Analyse key aspects of life and ecological relationships while situating them in an environmental context.
  • Link key ecology themes to everyday experience and events.
  • Compare local ecosystems with ecosystems in other parts of the world.
  • Enhance citizens’ knowledge of themes that have been developed by Natural History Museums but are often little known to the general public (e.g., evolution, the life cycle of certain animals, Planet Earth, the world’s cities, etc.).
  • Bring users into meaningful contact with distant natural environments, thereby helping them perceive themselves as “citizens of the world” and raising their awareness of our reliance on faraway environments for key ecosystemic resources.

Experiencing the dioramas

Few of us have first-hand knowledge of distant ecosystems, which – perhaps for this very reason – we perceive as highly attractive and filled with wonders. Yet, despite their appeal for us, we lack a clear image of these faraway environments. We speak of the conservation of rain forests and coral reefs, but in practice we know very little about such places. Thus, enhancing people’s knowledge of ecosystems – even to a limited extent – should foster a sense of responsibility and reinforce the perception that all human beings depend on all of the planet’s natural environments. In a nutshell, a more solid awareness of natural environments should translate into a commitment to protecting them, even when they are geographically distant from us.

This was not the aim of the earliest dioramas created almost two centuries ago in some of the world’s leading museums. At the time, dioramas were “erudite” representations targeted at a select and demanding audience of scholars and cultural elite. Today, in contrast, all the major museums in the world feature dioramas, with a view to immersing visitors in the exhibition and stimulating their active participation. Even today, however, the diorama experiences offered by museums are not always informed by state-of-the-art research in sustainability education, therefore running the risk of being ineffective.


Learning about ecosystems

Realising that our pets and houseplants are not the only forms of life around us does not automatically translate into an appreciation of natural environments as complex systems and vast networks of relations whose very complexity provides them with the capacity to survive disruption and harm (often caused by human beings).

Ad hoc instruments are required to bring people into direct contact with aspects of which they were previously unaware. For example, introducing children, senior citizens and beachgoers to the unfolding of maritime life enhances their awareness of how we all exploit and pollute this ecosystem, including through our everyday habits and behaviours. Inviting people to patiently observe animals that were previously unfamiliar to them and to explore the relevance of these species to overarching themes that are also of critical importance to human beings, means fostering stronger and more personal bonding with life on our planet.


Sustainability issues

Using virtual environments – which are ultimately representations of representations – to reinforce our bonds with the natural environments from which we all come and on which we depend for vital ecosystemic resources, is the key challenge taken up by the Digital Diorama project. The Digital Dioramas are learning resources that invite exploration and interpretation of transversal and strongly interrelated biology themes. By encouraging users to actively construct their own knowledge, the DD stimulate discussion – whether in the classroom or on line – at multiple and interconnected levels. They are therefore highly effective in promoting collaborative learning and the creative exchange of ideas.

The exploratory methods that are specific to the Digital Dioramas are those called for by experts in sustainability education. They offer an ideal alternative to the prescriptive methods with which science in general, and biology in particular, are still all too often taught in schools and disseminated by the media. Transferring the methods suggested by the DD to everyday life contexts can lead users to develop sustainable sociocultural attitudes and behaviours that are not based on rules but stem from individual creative choice.

If we are to authentically educate for sustainability, we should not confuse information with education and still less should we confuse the notionistic transmission of facts with teaching.

Change cannot be achieved within the constraints of existing systems (whether economic or educational); we should not continue to rely on the methodologies currently in use, but radically modify them. Our local and national institutions still lack the complex, systemic vision required to deeply transform themselves. Different strategies are needed to introduce innovative perspectives and methods into target systems such as schools. The Digital Diorama project, with its novel approach to exploring transversal themes, is an example of the type of alternative strategy that may be deployed.