Last week the Smithsonian Institution hosted the state Teachers of the Year, who were in town for their annual visit to the White House. The teachers split into smaller groups to visit eight different Smithsonian units, and we were honored to have seven teachers come to the National Air and Space Museum. They represented Texas, Minnesota, Louisiana, New Jersey, Connecticut, Utah, and Wisconsin.
Through an interactive tour, the Education staff showed them some of the challenges and opportunities inherent in designing positive learning experiences for approximately eight million Museum visitors and millions more online visitors. We started with a quick but mandatory stop in The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age exhibition where educator Beth Wilson demonstrated our Discovery Stations and invited the teachers to join her in some hands-on learning. Then they met curator Dorothy Cochrane in our brand new Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery and gained some insight into aviators Charles and Anne Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. They also talked with Beth Wilson and me about the ways that Museum educators bring our knowledge of learning theory and audience research to the exhibition development process. We looked at various interactive components and discussed how we try to ensure that each visitor will find a way to engage with our exhibitions. Then it was on to the Moving Beyond Earth exhibition, a new exhibition that looks at the topic of human spaceflight. They met Roger Launius, senior curator in the Space History Division, and Paul Griffith, the gallery manager. The teachers tested their space knowledge by taking the Spaceflight Academy quiz and they designed a module for a virtual space station.
The tour also included a brief spin through the popular hands-on gallery How Things Fly, and a look at some of the Museum’s amazing art collection. Maureen Kerr, chair of the Education Division, joined us and we ended the visit with a stimulating conversation about the kinds of materials we can offer teachers around the nation and how we can use technology to reach their states and beyond. They gave us an honest assessment of their challenges and successes with technology. As we look toward using our new state-of-the-art presentation center and control room in the Moving Beyond Earth gallery, we found this conversation extremely valuable. It’s not every day that we get to pick the brains of Teachers of the Year.
I’ve participated in this program for five years now and it’s a highlight of the year. I enjoy seeing the enthusiasm of the teachers as they have rare opportunities to interact with Smithsonian staff and go behind the scenes. But even more, I leave inspired by some of the best teachers in our country. Their dedication to America’s students is obvious and their constant desire to look for new ways to engage their classes is encouraging. We at the National Air and Space Museum salute all of the 2011 state Teachers of the Year.
Tim Grove is chief of Education for the National Mall Building.