Sparking the ‘A-ha!’ Moment

Making learning fun and relevant with the Smithsonian.

GUEST COLUMN | by Ashley Naranjo

Badging Postcard FrontHundreds of miles away from Washington, D.C., home to many beloved Smithsonian museums, Margaret Gladin, a middle school teacher in Concord, N.C., was looking for a way to deeply engage her students in assignments designed to teach STEM concepts. She heard about the Smithsonian’s digital badging program and assigned one of the badges as challenge work to complement her lesson on ecosystems and their biodiversity. “After using Smithsonian Quests for just two weeks,” Margaret said, “I noticed a substantial change in the way my students were learning. By putting them in charge of their education, they are able to choose assignments that best fit their skill sets.”

INVESTIGATOR-150x150What happened next was something that even Margaret couldn’t have expected, but my team at the Smithsonian hoped for: students kept working on more and more challenges—outside of school, in their free time. For example, after hearing about the work of Smithsonian environmental biologists, one student researched invasive species in his area, explored a Smithsonian scientific database to learn more, then applied what he learned by making a video public service announcement—complete with the sound of school lockers in the background.

2ASTROPHOTOGRAPHERMeanwhile, at three partnered elementary classrooms in British Columbia, children learned about a science career few knew existed before astrophotographer Joseph dePasquale described his workday in a webinar. Their questions poured in as they began to imagine what it would be like to have a job as “cool” as his—getting to mix his love for astronomy with his passion for photography.

The common thread in these experiences is that they offer students choices, autonomy, motivating interactions and rewards, while building content knowledge and skills. The Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, which hosts these programs, sees this as a logical extension of the kind of learning taking place in museums. Visitors spending time at an exhibit follow their own path, and dwell on the images or objects that interest them. While they may be exploring serious subjects, the experience is a pleasure—even fun.

H2OHERO-150x150But the Smithsonian Online Education Conferences and the Smithsonian Quests digital badging program take students beyond the museum, giving them the opportunity to talk with experts, conduct their own explorations, and even receive personal coaching.

The Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access hosts monthly webinars introducing K-12 audiences to Smithsonian specialists in history, culture and the arts, and sciences ranging from botany to zoology. These sessions offer students a unique, insiders’ conversation with some of the most brilliant minds working today. When the webinar ends, they have options. Stop there or begin working on projects that build on the subject of the session.

The Smithsonian Quests are associated activity prompts that make Common Core State Standards connections and help build 21st-century skills in critical thinking, creativity and innovation, problem solving, and media literacy. Each quest provides additional information on a topic, whether it is a short video interview with a scientist or a primary source from the Smithsonian’s collections. Students choose from several multimedia options to present their responses.

With a wide variety of projects from which to choose, students can record and interview members of their community to get a more personalized view of history. They learn about the conservation of declining frog species and contribute local data to a worldwide citizen science project, to support the work of a scientist they met in an online conference. These are just a few of more than 75 (and counting…) quest opportunities available. A dedicated group of Smithsonian educators and state- and nationally recognized teachers review the submissions and motivate students with personal feedback.

Nichole Heyen, principal at Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield, Ill., said, “Students have jumped at the chance to create work for someone other than their teacher and really enjoy receiving the feedback provided by Smithsonian experts.” For example, one student was writing an advice column to encourage water-saving habits. In the student’s first draft, the tips provided seemed to be very time-consuming and difficult to accomplish. The mentor/coach urged the student to search for simpler ways to write persuasive prose on how easy water conservation can be. This quest project also built upon what the student learned in a previous quest about calculating a personal “water footprint” and water used in daily activities.

In the Quests program, both students and teachers can track what the student has accomplished because the badges serve as a portfolio. Each program is free and flexible enough for classrooms, homeschoolers, independent work, and even informal learning opportunities, such as after-school clubs or scout meetings.

With the help of digital media, the Smithsonian learning experience is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime senior field trip to Washington, D.C., but rather an endless and stimulating connection to its collections, programs, and expertise. Through these programs, Smithsonian educators are working to spark the A-ha! moment in students everywhere.

Ashley Naranjo develops online experiences for students that encourage them to connect with the world around them through Smithsonian-wide resources, collections and experts. In addition to her role in organizing Smithsonian Online Education Conferences (, Ashley coordinates the Smithsonian Quests digital badge program ( This program gives students prompts for learning through discovery, opportunities to make personal connections to content, and links with various subject areas. Her experience in the education field includes research, academic program design, school management, and teaching in the United States and Ecuador.

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