Friday, September 14, 2012

Integrating STEM into History Museums

Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, which has been through some rocky times lately, just got some terrific news: the National Science Foundation has granted the living history $2.3 million to embark on a study of how to integrate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum elements into history education and exhibitions.
According to the press release, "This new approach will integrate interactive, science activities, observation, measurement and experimentation with time- and place-specific narrative that characterizes historic learning experiences." The grant was received in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, and will be used to really pioneer new techniques for the field. Here's what they say about the planned initiatives:
The $2.3 million NSF grant will be used to:
  • Fund  research in creating exhibits and programs that fully integrate science and history, including a small prototype exhibit at Conner Prairie.
  • Engage participants from other history museums to create a model to reproduce integrated science- and history-learning experiences at the participants’ sites. These participants include: Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea in Mystic, Conn., Minnesota Historical Society in Saint Paul, Minn., California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, Calif., and Wabash County Historical Museum in Wabash, Ind.
  • The findings will then be distributed to museums throughout the country. Conner Prairie, the Science Museum of Minnesota and participating museums will be in a position to lend authority and nationwide visibility to the newly developed approach by writing papers, articles and speaking at conferences as well as making the research and results readily available.
I think there's huge potential here, for at least two reasons. The first is that there is major funding in STEM education. From a purely mercenary point of view, it's a very smart move for history museums to try to integrate science into their narratives. The second is that science is already there. History is the story of everything: that includes STEM subjects as well as art, music, gender, politics, race, you name it. It's all in there. History that's just names + dates + factoids is bad history. I am thrilled to see some major funding put behind the development of innovative new exhibition and education planning in less-commonly-explored topics in history museums.

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