Shaler teacher digitally links with Smithsonian 

Voice: November 2016

Thanks to being a highly successful "test subject'' for the Smithsonian Institute, Tom Gray's social studies classes are sort of a digitized time machine.

Gray, a middle school American History teacher in the Shaler Area School District, Allegheny County, jumped at the opportunity during the 2015-16 school year to be one of the first to utilize the Institute's new Smithsonian Learning Lab, It is a free online platform that gives teachers and students digital access to the Smithsonian's vast historical collection.

"The Smithsonian has about 19 million artifacts in its possession and is in the process of digitizing as many of them as they can,'' Gray said. "The idea is to create a digital learning system for teachers, and allow it to be interactive. We were kind of test subjects.''

Tom Gray - Voice November 2016

The students have electronic accounts to the Smithsonian's collection, and while it provided teacher training and some classroom instruction on ways to use the lab, Gray took his own creativity and he ran with it.

The Smithsonian, which coordinated the project for a small group of teachers selected through Allegheny I.U. 3 and the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, was so impressed with Gray's work that it invited him to speak on the new lab at a congressional joint education committee meeting last summer. The Institute was briefing Congress prior to a national rollout this year.

One example was simply taking a Civil War picture - the Institute has a large collection of high-resolution, glass-plate images of famed Civil War photographers Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady - and having students analyze it from different angles.

"The kids could really zoom in on the images, and learn about the battles,'' Gray said. "They were absolutely captivated.''

Gray, a Civil War buff who wants to be a Gettysburg battlefield guide in his post-teaching career, took it a step further.

Shaler's students have iPads, and he had students download images. He then took them on a field trip to Gettysburg, where they stood on the actual spots where the photographers took the photos.

"The students saw it just as the photographers saw it that day,'' Gray said. "They identified union and confederate soldiers, the positions they were coming from, and the strategies their commanders were using.

"It kind of became like a 4D moment where you were looking at a 3D image on your iPad through 3D glasses, and standing where that image was taken.''

Some examples of other projects using Smithsonian artifacts:

  • Students played Andrew Jackson's campaign manager in the election of 1824. They selected images of Jackson they felt conveyed the right message and used pop-up bubbles to explain their reasoning.
  • Taking artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition, and explaining them.
  • Making a movie trailer on John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry.

"Kids who were normally kind of passive learners really became engaged,'' Gray said.

Ashley Naranjo, a learning initiatives specialist with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, praised Gray for the energy and creativity he has brought to the learning lab project.

"It's obvious that he sees his students as creators and curators,'' she told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "He has used the learning lab to help his students achieve his goals.''

Gray said the lab is another example of the evolution in teaching since he first started 19 years ago.

"When I started, it was all about my putting together a lesson, and sharing my knowledge with students,'' he said. "Today, we are kind of guiding students and having them doing things on their own and discovering. This is a great platform for that." 



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