The museum is no longer just a place to take students for a quick educational experience. There’s a growing belief that the home of historic artifacts and archives is worth much more than a mere field trip.
This week at Pierre’s Cultural Heritage Center, educators learned how museums can be resources that contribute actively to everyday learning – both inside and outside of the classroom.
“I like to think of museums as the information powerhouse,” said Jay Smith, museum director. “There is so much information locked into the photographs and the collections. Everything we have here can be used as an educational tool.”
Recently, the Cultural Heritage Center became a Smithsonian affiliate. As such, the museum had the opportunity this summer to host a week-long Smithsonian workshop aimed at teaching educators mission-based learning techniques and how to better utilize museum and technology resources.
Kim Skerritt, program educator at the Smithsonian EdLab, said a summer grant was developed to kick off the new relationships between the Smithsonian and its affiliate museums.
“We’ve done a lot of workshops in D.C. with educators, but this is the first time that we’ve done workshops at affiliate museums,” she said.
Skerritt spent Monday through Thursday at the heritage center working with a handful of teachers from across South Dakota. She said the Smithsonian will continue working with museums and teachers during the school year to explore ways of taking learning outside of the classroom and into museums and communities.
The workshops focused on an educational approach referred to as “mission-based learning.” Missions are essentially relevant, meaningful challenges created by teachers for students to solve. Missions find connections between classroom curriculum, museum resources and community issues, while also utilizing digital technology tools.
Explaining how museum resources, such as exhibits and archives, can be utilized is an important part of the workshop, according to Skerritt.
“There are so many resources out there that teachers don’t get exposed to,” she said. “Part of it is showing them how relevant museums can be. We’re exposing them to resources available in the museums and pairing them in a meaningful way with the technology tools that are available.”
Skerritt said the workshop differs from usual professional development classes by putting teachers in their students’ shoes and having them solve and create missions while embracing their own creativity.
“Traditional professional development might work for maybe 10 percent of teachers, but every teacher teaches in a different way,” Skerritt said. “We wanted to create an environment where we’re giving you the tools, but you need to figure out how to use them in a way that makes sense for you.”
Participating educators said utilizing museum resources and digital tools would help to transform their classrooms – whether it’s replacing outdated PowerPoint presentations or developing new projects.
Teacher Deb Smith from Lyman High School came up with a mission in which her English students will examine the information on headstones in graveyards and make up their own fictitious characters with detailed histories.
Alyssa Anderson, a seventh-grade language arts and eighth-grade journalism teacher in Chamberlain, will have her students do mission-based projects relating to the Titanic. Language arts students will explore museum resources and create digital tours, and her young journalists will write newspaper articles on how the Titanic has changed history.
John Gross, a computer science and English teacher at White River High School, created a project for his sophomore speech class in which students will gather information about communities that no longer exist.
Dave LaRoche, a junior high school social studies teacher at the Pierre Indian Learning Center, developed missions for his students examining how culture is affected by environment and what life was like on the early reservations.
“Mission-based learning will make classes more hands-on and hopefully more interesting for the students,” LaRoche said. “You can give students a project and they’re given a lot of freedom to run with what they’re interested in.”
Ronette Rumpca, curator of interpretation for the museum, was able to apply tools used in the classroom to a museum mission – creating prompts at exhibits that get people thinking and analyzing each artifact.
“As visitors go through the museum, they can have kind of a directed experience,” she said.
Jay Smith said the museum is always available to assist teachers and students, and he urges educators to voice their needs.
“As soon as museums and teachers are successful in this dialogue about being a resource, then we’re going to start seeing special, really direct relationships foster and grow,” he said. “Who knows where that will take us?”
The museum director said he hopes that as a result, students will become more museum savvy and learn to appreciate the value of the artifacts that have been collected, preserved and interpreted.
“I think museums help build better citizens, and this is just another way for us to fulfill that unspoken part of our mission,” Smith said.