Growing Educators SEEC Style

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.

Sharing Perspectives

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.

Collaborative Results

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.

Playful Interactions

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!



Shared Curiosity with the Smithsonian Early Explorers

Not many of us remember when we were two years old, but imagine if two mornings a week your day had started out in the Natural History Museum’s Q?rius Jr. Discovery Room space! And, what if those two mornings were spent exploring interesting things with somebody that you cared about – maybe a grandma or a parent, special caregiver or nanny? Wait, though, it gets even better. What if those opportunities for adventure took place in the Smithsonian museums and surrounding DC community? Last year, just such an experience got off the ground!

In September 2014, SEEC launched its brand new Smithsonian Early Explorer program where two mornings a week, children and their adults came together to learn about the world around them through hands-on experiences designed for active and growing toddlers. Activities took place in the discovery room space, SEEC’s art studio, museum galleries, surrounding community, and outdoors on the playground. In collaboration with Smithsonian Early Explorer facilitators, this small multi-generational learning community explored topics ranging from safari animals and the strength of bones, to dance traditions of Bollywood and shelters from around the world.

It is now one year later and we have learned a lot. The second SEE cohort will soon get together for another year of growing and learning together. Children and adults will share moments of curiosity, awe and wonder as we encounter the amazing and authentic artifacts, objects and masterpieces that make up the vast collections of our Smithsonian. Imaginations will be sparked and creativity encouraged. We are excited for what’s in store and look forward to reconnecting with returning families and welcoming new ones. For more information about the Smithsonian Early Explorer’s program visit

Early Learning in Museums: A Thoughtful Process at DAM

Denver Art Museum
Denver Art Museum

We’ve noticed that more and more museums are thinking about how to create effective programming for children under the age of 6 years old. Why do you think that is? I know we have some ideas but would be curious to know what you all are thinking.

Just last month, SEEC had the opportunity to work with one such museum.  It was inspiring to see how thoughtful they are being about the process. Over the next year, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) will systematically develop programs for early childhood programs in their area. Implementation of these programs is scheduled to start next year.

Mud Woman by Roxanne Swentzell at the Denver Art Museum
Mud Woman by Roxanne S Wentzell at the Denver Art Museum

To get this effort off the ground, the education department has created a case statement that articulates why this initiative is important and how it ties to the mission and vision of the larger organization. In addition, they have brought together a team of stakeholders that will contribute to the development of concepts, monitor progress, communicate considerations and keep the process moving forward. They have considered external factors and internal implications and are working together in new ways to better accommodate the unique of early childhood audiences – whether they arrive in school groups or with a family.

In addition, they engaged the local teacher community. On a Classroom Shotbeautiful October morning in Denver, Colorado, over 20 early childhood educators devoted their time to talking to the Denver Art Museum about what their idea of an ideal early childhood program would include. The teachers were extremely enthusiastic about the possibilities and informed the museum educators that they would like to see everything from museum experiences led by visiting artists to workshop spaces that encouraged young children in “messy” but meaningful play.

We know that many museums are doing interesting programming for young children. If you have stories to share or lessons learned, we would love to hear from you!

Denver Art Museum

Denver Art Museum


The Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center is incredibly fortunate to have access to some amazing resources! It’s not just the museums but we often have wonderful experiences with the people working in the museums. For example, over the summer two of our classes were able to collaborate with colleagues at the National Museum of American History. It was great for our students to have an opportunity to work with one of American History’s interns and technology wiz Mariya Sitnova. The following post was written by Mariya and is shared on her behalf. Thanks for introducing us to some cool new technology,  Mariya!

As an education intern at the National Museum of American History, I spent my summer working on various projects that bring the contents of the Museum content to classrooms across the country, including the Smithsonian’s very own classrooms in SEEC. My graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) have focused on considering the potential relevance of 3D technology (3D scanning and 3D printing) in our every day lives. During this internship I was able explore this idea while working with the students and teachers at SEEC.

The Smithsonian is in the process of 3D scanning select objects from the collections and some are already available on This summer I explored how young learners interact with these types of objects in 3D printed form.


My first pilot project was one I carried over from RISD. I had 3D scanned a few marine creatures from the RISD Nature Lab and added Lego “feet” in various positions. The idea was to 3D print something that enhanced the learning value of the 3D scanned object. The Lego connections resonated with the students because they were familiar with the brick toy concept. For the younger SEEC crowd I created a Duplo connection (the slightly larger Lego) and made the animals significantly bigger. The students asked interesting questions and proposed engaging narratives around these creatures. The wondered about where these creatures lived and where they would go with their new Duplo wheels. I’d be curious to keep going with the connections project by allowing them to choose where on the creature to add the Lego “feet” so they can explore the object even further in digital form.

The other project consisted of printing architectural models of the Capitol and the White House. The older group had planned to visit both buildings as part of their community theme. I created the 3D models using computer aided design software and 3D printed them in front of the students to gauge their responses. The project was to serve as a lead into a lesson on Abraham Lincoln whose life masks have been 3D scanned by the Smithsonian 3D team. The life masks are a more complicated concept, so we thought we could introduce 3D first through a simpler object and build up to the Lincoln material. I was genuinely impressed by the complexity of the questions the students asked about the process of 3d printing and 3d modeling and the models themselves. They were intrigued by how the printer functioned and how they could mix up materials to create these models in different colors and size.


Current preschoolers are going to grow up with this technology in their classrooms and maybe even their homes. It’s really impressive to see the Smithsonian pursuing projects that will help determine how this technology can take early education and museum education to a much more engaging level. I’m really looking forward to hearing more about the subsequent 3D projects in the future!