Secretary Lonnie Bunch on What the Smithsonian Is Doing to Help Virtual Learning

Committing to our educational mission means reaching people where they are

Bessie Coleman, the first African American to earn a pilot’s license.
The “Summer Road Trip” uses Bessie Coleman, the first African American to earn a pilot’s license, as inspiration to build a paper biplane. National Air and Space Museum

Growing up the kid of two educators meant that our dinner table was more than a place for shared meals; my parents would dole out family wisdom, quiz us on current news, and expect us to opine on any topic from Socrates to Sojourner Truth. They ingrained in me early the importance of education.

That’s why, when I think about how the Smithsonian can be of value to our public, the answer is clear: education. And as our country’s educational practices and structures have been disrupted by Covid-19, we must redouble our efforts to support audiences to learn and grow. During the pandemic, we have stepped up our offerings for learners of all ages—supplementing school curricula, presenting lecture series and creative programming, providing digital tours and online exhibitions.

At the same time, we recognize that we have a particular responsibility to direct our energies to where the need is greatest: in K-12 education.

Since becoming Secretary, I’ve prioritized the goal of integrating the Smithsonian into every classroom in the country. This fall, as schools resume with a mixture of in-person and remote learning, we recognize that for many young people, their classroom is their home. Committing to our educational mission means reaching people where they are by increasing our digital resources, working with school districts to develop effective distance learning tools, supporting educators and families in an unfamiliar situation.

The rapid transition to online learning that Covid-19 demanded has cast into stark relief the disparities always present in our education system. Many young people, especially those already underserved, do not have access to a computer or reliable internet access. This summer, the Smithsonian has committed to bridging the digital divide, providing no-tech educational resources to young people across the country. Through a partnership with USA Today, we distributed 75,000 “Summer Road Trip” learning packets that offer hands-on activities to help kids explore STEM, the arts, and history.

Soon after the Smithsonian was founded, Joseph Henry, its first Secretary, said the institution should be measured “by what it sends forth into the world.” The start of the school year is the perfect opportunity to recommit to that ideal. To send forth into the world the thrill of an unexpected discovery, the courage to have our assumptions challenged, and the tools to imagine and build something new.

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