Internship Post 1: introduction to the Smithsonian

Beginning in late October I was accepted as an intern by the Smithsonian Office of the Under Secretary for Education and Access (OUSEA). Within OUSEA, I am under the supervision of Ashley Naranjo ((https://learninglab.si.edu/profile/8), the Smithsonian’s Manager of Educator Engagement and Strategic Partnerships.

My current role as an OUSEA intern is to survey the websites of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo to study their educational content and outreach. OUSEA is developing a plan for the Smithsonian’s future educational outreach. The survey I will administer is intended to gather information about the Smithsonian’s current educational outreach.

I am in the process of exploring websites’ “learning” menu options, sampling lesson curricula, following links to websites of non-Smithsonian partner institutions, observing learning options’ interactivity and level of differentiation of target audiences. That process is the basis for development of survey questions, which, when approved will be distributed to Smithsonian educational liaisons. I am compiling notes from the websites’ review and drafts of survey questions on a spreadsheet, shareable with my internship supervisor.

In learning about the founding of the Smithsonian (https://www.si.edu/about/history), I learned that James Smithson described the Smithsonian as an “establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  For most of its history, the Smithsonian has focused on increasing its collection of sources of knowledge, an emphasis reflected in the breathtaking variety of the Smithsonian’s 155 million artifacts and their custodial institutions’ research missions and museum facilities’ experiences for visitors.

Nonetheless, one of the four goals of the Smithsonian’s strategic plan is to “be one Smithsonian” (https://www.si.edu/strategicplan), a somewhat paradoxical goal for an institution that has historically emphasized the diversity, not uniformity, of knowledge.

Suggesting the beginning of a new Smithsonian interest in education, in 1976 it established a Center for Learning and Digital Access. The mission of the Center is “to deepen, enrich, and personalize learning by encouraging and supporting the creative use of museum resources through research and collaboration with the education community” (https://learninglab.si.edu/about/SmithsonianCenterforLearningandDigitalAccess), with a focus on K-12 grade students, teachers, and parents.

Reflecting a true digital turn in educational outreach, in 2016 the Center established the Smithsonian Learning Lab, which is the vehicle through which OUSEA seeks to centralize users’ access to the Smithsonian’s educational resources. The Learning Lab wishes to gather information on whether or how various Smithsonian entities may contribute to this goal in terms of educational outreach, particularly outreach through digital media. Currently the Smithsonian has prioritized 19 million of its artifacts for digitization (https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/factsheets/digitization-smithsonian-collections).

Given the variety of the Smithsonian’s collections and on-going research, I think the most likely way for the Learning Lab to align the Smithsonian’s overall educational outreach, the historic emphasis on “diffusion of knowledge,” with the “be one Smithsonian” goal, is to encourage or ensure adoption of “best practices” across the museums, research centers, and Zoo. The survey will seek to identify such best practices as part of its snapshot of how the Smithsonian currently offers educational outreach.

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