Last week, I had the good fortune to attend the South By Southwest Education (SXSWedu) conference in Austin, TX. Professional meetings are an important opportunity to connect with other like-minded educators that care deeply about making an impact and SXSWedu is no exception. It brings together a unique mix of educators, entrepreneurs, technology nerds, and cutting edge innovative thinkers. It creates a space for sharing ideas and reflecting together about the importance of our daily work.
This year’s conference was extra meaningful, though, as several colleagues from the Smithsonian presented information about early learning across the Institution. To start, SEEC educator Brooke Shoemaker moderated a panel session titled, “Out of the Box: Early Learning in the Community.” Her panelists represented a variety of perspectives about how to use the community as a teaching resource. Colleague Emily Porter from the Friends of the National Zoo reminded participants of the importance of outdoor play. SEEC institutional member Jennifer Hornby from the Memphis Public Library provided up to date information about the value of young children having access to public libraries. And, SEEC educator Will Kuehnle presented examples of how to use the broader community for meaningful learning experiences. For example, when his class became interested in tunnel boring machines, they learned about the Lady Bird TBM, which was excavating a 13 mile sewer drain under Washington DC into the Potomac River to reduce river pollution. They ventured to the Potomac River to see drains and how they feed into the river, and even noticed trash in the river that the drain would hopefully eliminate. Of course, Brooke reminded participants that museums can be important resources.
For the past 10 months, I have watched Brooke lead this team in the development of this presentation. To see the process come full circle has been rewarding as she expands her own professional expertise and supports her colleagues. In addition, the positive response from the audience served as an indicator that early childhood educators are excited about the possibility of moving beyond their classrooms and into the community to support their students’ development.
In addition, the Smithsonian Early Learning Collaborative was well represented at the SXSWedu Playground. Coordinated by SEEC’s Cynthia Raso, Smithsonian educators came together to create engaging and eye catching learning stations for SXSWedu participants to enjoy. Colleagues from National Museum of American History featured the California Raisin characters in an activity designed to connect children to history and advertising. The Friends of the National Zoo enticed Playground visitors with beautiful natural materials to encourage empathy that leads to interest and and investment in conservation.
And, the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center engaged visitors with the art work of Nick Cage and his sound suits, frequently visited by SEEC students at the Hirshhorn. In addition to being just plain FUN, the experience gave SI EL Collab members a chance to connect and bond in ways that we have not been able to in the past.
Adapting on the Fly
Finally, Carrie Heflin from the National Museum of American History developed a session on history museums, Wegmans Wonderplace and early childhood education. Presenting is always a nerve-racking experience but to have a last minute change in venues can be downright unsettling. Due to a site location planner mix-up, in a matter of minutes, Carrie seamlessly shifted her format from a traditional “front of room” presentation to a hands-on interactive experience. Only slightly ruffled, Carrie pulled it off without anyone ever knowing there was a change. Amazing.
Caring and Connecting
It was inspiring to watch each of these skilled young professionals take ownership of their own learning. Given these examples, it is clear that continuous professional growth is part of the Smithsonian early childhood educator’s DNA. Each member of the team went above and beyond to leave SXSWedu attendees with a positive impression of the Smithsonian Institution. Professionalism aside, though, the real highlight of the week was hanging out together over pizza and beer on Austin’s charming little Rainey Street!