Smithsonian Perspectives

Through object-based education and other programs, the Smithsonian reaches out to teachers and students

The Smithsonian, in accordance with James Smithson's bequest, is devoted to the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." Characteristically, the Institution achieves this objective through its research and exhibitions, two activities that are at the heart of acquiring and imparting knowledge. In the past, "diffusion" consisted mainly of the publication of scholarly papers and books, and the exhibition of objects together with labels, text and catalogs. More recently, however, we have become deeply involved in school-centered education. The Smithsonian has developed educational materials and programs that, in effect, bring our museums and research institutes to the classroom--educational programs based on actual objects and other primary sources.

Traditionally, education has relied heavily on texts and lectures, questions and discussions. "Words" are at the core of the experience. Object-based education focuses the learning experience more on artifacts and primary documents in a manner that taps children's diverse learning styles while stimulating interest and providing a deeper understanding of the subject.

One Smithsonian project for schoolchildren based on this approach is titled "Of Kayaks and Ulus." It was created largely by the National Museum of Natural History for grades seven through ten. The project (originally presented in a kit, but soon available on the Internet) involves Bering Sea Eskimos and emphasizes the journals and collections of Edward Nelson, a famous 19th-century Smithsonian naturalist.

The kit contains a guide for teachers. It suggests, for instance, that students view ten "mystery" slides of objects from the Eskimo culture, then ponder how these objects were made and used. Further discussion usually elicits hypotheses about the environment in which the people who made these items lived, the natural resources they depended upon, their ability as craftsmen, and similar topics. After this process the class learns that all the objects, and many others, are at the Smithsonian in a collection amassed by Nelson. The teacher then produces an assortment of primary sources from the kit--reproductions of Nelson's letters, journals, photographs, drawings and field notes.

In subsequent classes, students read and analyze Nelson's papers, learn the Creation story of the Bering Sea peoples, see additional slides and complete written assignments. The guidebook allows teachers the flexibility to introduce related subjects, but the pictures of the objects and actual documents are the centerpieces around which the curriculum is organized.

There is a host of other examples of similar curricula developed by the Smithsonian. A popular one is a series of science kits featuring hands-on experiments for students in grades one through six. Created by the National Science Resources Center (a joint initiative of the Smithsonian and the National Academy of Sciences), they enable children to learn by doing experiments as well as reading texts. The kits are used in more than 20 percent of the nation's school districts, and similar curricula are now being fashioned for grades seven through nine. I observed classes using these materials in Anchorage, Alaska, and was very impressed with the students' performances and the teachers' skills. Other notable science-education projects are occurring in the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Zoological Park, and in conjunction with exhibitions in the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum.

Studies indicate that skillfully done, object-based education is a successful means of engaging young people and teaching a variety of skills and subjects. If these techniques are to be widely used in schools and museums, considerable resources must be invested in the preparation and distribution of materials and, most importantly, in teacher training. Teachers usually will not depart from conventional modes of instruction unless they are convinced of the utility of the suggested substitute and are confident that they can use the new techniques well.

The Smithsonian has been involved in a number of activities to inform teachers and to offer relevant training, especially in the Washington metropolitan area. Summer seminars for teachers, conducted largely within Smithsonian museums and research institutes, focus on how to use museum collections in the teaching process. Similarly, Smithsonian staff have worked with the National Faculty, a nonprofit educational organization, in extensive teacher training programs around the country, involving curators from the Institution and local museums, and distinguished university professors.

The Smithsonian also brings thousands of Washington-area teachers together at an annual Teachers' Night to display and discuss the materials and programs the Institution makes available to local schools. Finally, the Institution is beginning to use the Internet to share curricula ideas and lesson plans, and to present actual classes in an interactive mode.

The Provost has organized our various school-based educational efforts in a new Smithsonian Office of Education. The office is a symbol of the importance we assign to this mission and a means for its more effective accomplishment. I have confidence that object-based education has an important role to play in instructing our schoolchildren, and that the Smithsonian has the materials and the creative people to fashion excellent programs. The challenge is to organize and support these efforts.