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Online Resource Review: Smithsonian Learning Lab

A fantastic toolkit for teachers

At all learning levels, authentic research and use of primary sources are critical to helping our students understand the world around them.  History textbooks no longer dictate how we should interpret the past.  Newspapers no longer decide what is “newsworthy” and what is not.  Scientific and academic study results are instantly published and accessible.  In our new world, students are being encouraged to identify and look beyond bias to analyze and evaluate the source materials for themselves – making their own conclusions, and defending their own claims.  And in 21st century learning, these skills are more important than ever.  There is a veritable universe of information online for students to access.  And the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access just made sorting through this information a whole lot easier.

Enter Smithsonian Learning Lab: a free student-centered online toolkit which allows unrestricted access for students to visually explore more than a million Smithsonian artifacts, artworks, documents, and specimens.  This digital museum resource often includes potential discussion questions, quizzes, and assignments for the classroom, but the adaptability of the site is even more fascinating: it allows students to create their own online collections to share and collaborate with the larger academic community. 

Using Smithsonian Learning Lab hotspots.

“Not everyone can come to the Smithsonian, but they can visit the Learning Lab to inspire and design their own digital learning experiences,” said Stephanie Norby, director of the center. “Teachers can use trusted, authentic resources and interactive tools to make lessons more relevant and compelling to students while meeting curriculum standards and fostering higher-order thinking skills.”

Education World decided to investigate this new resource for the coming school year.  Creating an account is simple.  Once you’ve created this account, you are free to explore to vaults!  And it’s really easy to do so, for all learning levels.  The easiest way is to navigate to the search bar in the upper lefthand corner of the page, and type away!  Your search will yield a number of diverse results from primary documents to images to videos.  Each source can be added to a collection you’d like to create, downloaded onto your device, saved, or shared with the click of a button.  The artifacts themselves have a really cool “hotspot” option, where teachers and students can draw focus to a particular element of the page, commenting or asking key questions.  An added bonus, the student-friendly “Pinterest-type” format of the site feels really natural to the modern-day social media user.  We did a bit of research on some general topics using Smithsonian Learning Lab to see what we would find.

“Ancient Egypt”

  • Teaching Resources:Mummies:  A user-created collection of Smithsonian resources, covering reasons for mummification, different methods, and what can be learned by studying mummies. Includes Smithsonian Channel videos, fact sheets, objects, a student-targeted webcast, and articles.
  • Ancient Egypt:A Variety of Artifacts:  Another user-created collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts for student research, including color charts and sizing for scale.


  • Design a Better Classroom Workplace:  Teacher-created math lesson in which students find a more efficient arrangement for their classroom. They use area formulas to identify any problems with the existing arrangement. They use volume formulas to design a solution.
  • Geometry of Flight: This collection is a short geometry lesson supplement themed with various aspects of flight to provide real world examples; it contains pictures, videos, and practice problems (as well as links to further practice problems).

“The Human Body”

  • Using a 3D Printer to Make Human Body Parts:  From the Smithsonian Channel, a video that explores how many of the technologies first fictionalized in Star Trek are now a reality. Using x-rays, scans, and a mixture of cells, scientists can actually print human tissue and organs.
  • Cell Game:  A lesson in which students create a game that tests peers' knowledge of cell structure and function. They go through the design process of prototyping, receiving feedback, and redesigning their game.

“The Harlem Renaissance”

  • African American Artists: Masking Matters:  A set of lesson ideas (CCSS-aligned) for a study of the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Students create abstract works inspired by poetry and music, and write poems and stories based on paintings.
  •  Hide/Seek: Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance:  A video discussion by Jonathan Katz, co-curator of "Hide/Seek" and Chair of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at SUNY-Buffalo. Katz shows us the life and work of Carl Van Vechten 1880-1964 Critic, novelist, and photographer Carl Van Vechten was one of the most important promoters of American modernism and is best known for introducing white America to Harlem.

 “Social Justice"

  • Uneasy Partners: Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, LBJ and Martin Luther King Jr.:  Juan Williams of National Public Radio moderated a discussion of the relationships between Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Baines Johnson and the most influential African American leaders of their day, Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
  • The Dred Scott Case:  The goal of this user-created collection is to engage students to read and research people and texts that comprised this historical event then write a persuasive essay based on opinion gathered from details and facts procured from their readings and research.

Overall, a fascinating and extensive new resource for the modern classroom.  Access it here!  And of course, if you find any cool artifacts as you browse, share them in the comments below!


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is a English / Language Arts teacher and teacher trainer in Connecticut.