Interview with Jeff Meade from the Smithsonian’s EdLab

We’re always interested in programs that are designed to help teachers incorporate new technologies and 21st century skills into classroom teaching.

So when I heard about Smithsonian’s EdLab I contacted Jeff Meade, their Mobile Learning Program Lead, and asked him to tell us how they are helping educators.

Check out what he has to say:

Can you tell us what is EdLab?

The EdLab is a place for educators to explore and establish new media practices for their classrooms. We provide workshops that put teacher in the creative role, solving missions, working in teams, and exploring digital and analog (non-digital) tools. We emphasize learning from failure, using the right tool for the job, building 21st century skills, and empowering teachers and students to make a difference in the world.

EdLab hosts weekend workshops during the school year and week-long workshops during the summer. Workshops leverage digital media to increase connections between Smithsonian museums, collections and experts to focus on authentic learning.

Signing up is easy- you can join us for free on the Postal Museum’s website.

What about educators who can’t attend your EdLab Workshops? How can they get involved?

We’ve started a new Living Archive of resources and teacher-inspired connections. Connections are mission-based learning plans embracing authentic learning experiences, peer feedback, product creation and sharing opportunities.

Teachers can check out ideas for activities they can do with their students or get in and share their ideas with us. A good way to get started is on the EdLab facebook page where we discuss current education issues and share what educators are doing in the classroom. We also showcase work being done by teachers on our blog.

Why was EdLab program started?

The why behind EdLab is the fun part.

Teachers are looking for new ways to connect with their students. EdLab enables us to help educators achieve their goals while helping them make sense of how museum resources can be used with students.

EdLab’s emphasis on digital media skills is not the only reason teachers come- teachers say they’re fed up with with students being disengaged from curriculum content and, well, the kids are bored. Bored students do not make teaching any fun.

What is the role of the Smithsonian?

We challenge teachers in EdLab workshops to make sense of the Smithsonian by connecting museums, collections or experts to real life and current events. The Smithsonian has vast resources that include millions of objects, nineteen museums, a national zoo, expert curators, international research facilities and partnerships with museums and education groups around the globe. The question is, how do we use these museum resources to enrich the content taught in classrooms, promote research and critical thinking skills and give students ownership over the largest museum institution in the world?

Museums and classrooms both face the same difficulty in making content about the here and now. Ideas don’t just live in a textbook or under an exhibit vitrine. They come alive when learners can not only increase knowledge, but do something with it.

That makes me think of the Smithsonian’s mission: to increase and diffuse knowledge. The increase part isn’t so tough, but the diffusion implies action.

Does the content connections need to take place only at the Smithsonian?

No! In fact, I’ll give you an example:

I was chatting on Facebook this weekend with a teacher friend in South Africa. She’s curious to hear ideas on teaching ancient civilizations to her 5th graders. Ancient civilization is one of those topics that you either just love (like me- I have a B.A. in Ancient History and religious studies) or just really don’t.

The problem is that we teach Ancient history like it’s in the past- Mesopotamia “happened,” then Ancient Egypt “happened,” then Greece and then Rome. So on and so forth.

I asked her if any of the key themes she teaches about ancient history are still relevant and unsolved today. Themes like social organization, economic systems, city planning and community design, religious influence, art and culture exploration/demonstrations…Funny thing is that we still haven’t figured these themes out yet, so perhaps we should ask the 5th grade what their solutions might be! Better yet, let’s give the 5th grade a chance to research their questions, reach conclusions, document their understanding, then share those ideas with others actively trying to solve the world’s problems.

Challenging 5th graders in this way and giving them an opportunity to share what they’ve learned with real people doing real work means that students are active community participants and even global citizens. Seriously, in the 5th grade- in Ancient civilization class!

And where do museums come into the picture?

Museums are great places to find a grounded bit of research. In a sea of information, its really nice to have a raft to cling to! Museums and cultural institutions are all over the world and half the time they’ve fallen into distant memory as random statues, historic houses, etc. Try taking a look around your community and see how many places like this really exist.

Washington DC is filled with monuments to people most folks today have never even heard of!! And these are supposed to be national American heroes! I’m not trying to discourage anyone from coming to the Smithsonian, I’m just saying that you have more resources available than you might realize right where you live.

What are the benefits in participating in EdLab programs?

For starters, our teacher participants come away inspired and feel that the content they are responsible for is exciting.

Seriously, science is not just something you study, it’s something you do. Science is action-oriented and becomes a civic responsibility that even the first graders counting worms on the playground can participate in. Students, on the other hand, feel like school is fun and actually has a purpose! Who would of thought?

Just as a reminder, how can educators get involved?

  1. We welcome any educator who is able to attend our workshops to attend! Summer is a great time to travel, and we’d be happy to have any educator in our workshops.
  2. You can also get involved by exploring your local museums and cultural sites. Real connections can be found there, and it’s even better when you challenge your students to find those connections. Make them get out of the classroom and explore their local community.
  3. Also, document the connections you find between your classroom content and real world learning. There is simply no reason we have to teach alone anymore, so share all of these ideas.
  4. Check out our showcase of work being done by teachers on our blog
  5. We’ve started a new Living Archive of resources and teacher-inspired connections, so get in there and share your ideas with us.
  6. Thanks Jeff for telling us about Smithsonian’s EdLab

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