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Smithsonian Institution Offers Ideas for Learning Outside the Classroom

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The Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access (SCLDA), the central education website of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, is offering educators some new ideas for project-based learning outside of school.

On April 9, at 4 p.m. EST, the center's monthly online conference for teachers and students (sessions archived here) will discuss a citizen-science initiative led by the Anacostia Community Museum that organizes groups of high school students to test the water quality of the Anacostia River in Washington. The data they collect are sent to scientists researching water issues at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

As Education Week has reported previously, hundreds of thousands of non-scientists help collect data that contribute to scientific research each year, through citizen science programs run by groups like the Audabon Society and the National Geographic Society.

Lynn-Steven Engelke, the associate director for education programs at SCLDA, is a fan of citizen-science projects because, she told me, "it's motivating for kids to see that what they do matters and can have an impact on their world. And from being exposed to all of this research and taking part in the program, these kids are seeing possibilities for career choices."

The Smithsonian is also unveiling a new "digital badge" this week—part of a self-directed, project-based learning program SCLDA runs that has students complete two or three tasks and produce a piece of creative writing, a photograph, a podcast, or other work. Students submit their work to the Smithsonian for feedback to earn a badge. Digital badge themes range from "Astro-photographer" (task: control a robotic telescope over the Internet and take a photo of an object in space) to "Treehugger" (task: identify trees in your neighborhood).

Since the badge program was fully implemented two years ago, educators have used it in flipped classrooms and after-school programs, and individual students have worked through the tasks on their own time, Engelke said. The newest badge is "Waterways Watcher," an award of recognition for students who complete a series of online assignments related to water.

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