The National Air and Space Museum announced Sept. 29 a $5 million sponsorship from GE Aviation that will allow it to expand and enhance its popular Explainers program.
The Explainers is a diverse group of local high school and college students — including three University of Maryland students — who engage with visitors at the museum through interactive learning demonstrations, said Maureen Kerr, the museum’s director of education.
She said students from every major university in the area, such as American University, George Washington University and Georgetown University, as well as about 20 metropolitan high schools, are involved.
GE Aviation has agreed to sponsor the Explainers program for the next five years, Kerr said. The gift will allow the museum to expand the program considerably and launch a formal Explainers program at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which is the museum’s companion facility in Chantilly, Virginia, offering content similar to that in the National Air and Space Museum.
“We’ll be able to hire more Explainers, and they’ll be on the floor more often, working with visitors more frequently in different locations in the building,” Kerr said.
The Explainers program began formally in 1996 and has grown in popularity considerably since then, Kerr said. The group helps visitors make sense of high-level concepts such as aviation and space flight and presents them with concepts they might not have given much thought before, said Marcus Johnson, who began working as an Explainer in 2013.
“Our job is to make the science accessible to everybody,” the junior economics major from this university said.
The Explainers enhance visitor experiences, said Michael Hulslander, manager of Onsite Learning at the museum. In fact, between the National Mall and the Udvar-Hazy Center, Explainers engage 500,000 people per year, Kerr said.
“We’ve got evidence that suggests that the Explainers program has been incredibly successful as far as the visitor experience goes,” Hulslander said. “Visitors tend to spend dramatically more time in an exhibition when there are knowledgeable Explainers in there.”
As a result of the sponsorship, the museum also will formally introduce on Tuesday a new Explainers feature: interactive video conferencing. Explainers located at the National Mall or Chantilly locations will engage with students in Cincinnati public schools and will be working primarily with fifth- and sixth-grade students.
GE Aviation is based in Cincinnati, which is why video conferencing will begin there, Kerr said. However, the museum staff sees Explainers working with even more schools at various grade levels in the near future.
“We’ll be working with students while they are in their classroom,” said Danielle Hoppel, a junior special education major from this university. “We’ll be doing it all from the museum floor, and the kids will be able to see and learn about concepts they would typically only see in-person at the museum.”
The sponsorship will also allow the museum to do community-based Explainers outreach programs. With more funding, museum personnel hope to see Explainers at community events, conferences and conventions around Washington, D.C., Kerr said.
“They’re quite a versatile group of students,” Kerr said. “There isn’t any place we’ve put them where they haven’t excelled.”
For Explainers such as Johnson, the sponsorship will provide some much-needed relief.
“It’s great because we’ve been severely understaffed for such a long time,” Johnson said. “Now, we have a chance to run a lot more activities at the same time.”
As a result of the GE Aviation sponsorship, the museum is looking to double the number of Explainers positions, Kerr said.
“We’re high on our Explainers program,” she said. “These kids are the face of the museum.”