Minnesota History: Building A Legacy

History in Our Hands

Students test hand-held technology

Students test hand-held technology at the Minnesota
History Center, December 2011.

Eleven-year-old Takele Thompson-Nelson can’t hide his excitement.

“It’s fun just to have this in your hand,” he said, smiling down at the iPod Touch lying across his palm.“I, personally, want an iPod Touch.”

And he’ll have one, at least for the next hour or so. It’s after school on a Friday in December and Takele, along with more than a dozen other kids, have been invited to the Minnesota History Center to test hand-held technology that will soon be an integral part of a new exhibit called “Then Now Wow" (the exhibit's working title was "Our Minnesota").

What the students don’t know, is that they are part of a revolution.

“These kids, digital natives, are different from any other children in human history,” said Wendy Jones, Head of Museum and Education Programs. “They are the first generation to have grown up with the internet, video games and cell phones. They learn differently. We want to take the best of what technology has to offer and really deepen their learning.”

“As far as I know, no other museum is doing anything like this yet,” said David Gagnon, an instructional designer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Gagnon is working with History Center staff to create this new model of learning that will give students an active role inside the “Then Now Wow” exhibit, ultimately strengthening their ability to think critically and solve problems.

“Then Now Wow,” still under construction and slated to open in November 2012, will take visitors to three distinct areas of the state: the prairie, the forests and the cities. Takele and the other students, iPod Touches in hand, first explore a simulated street car that travels University Avenue between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Eleven-year-old Rawnson Ivanhoff, scans a Quick Response (QR) code in the street car and a historical character appears on the iPod screen with a question.

It’s a little girl named Bernice Fisher who actually lived in St. Paul during the gangster era of the 1920s and 30s. On the iPod screen, Bernice asks Rawnson to help her find her stop on the street car. Rawnson responds and the interaction begins.

“You scan things and you get to talk to these people as if you were really with them and having a real conversation. You get to help them find a well or a bucket or firewood. It’s really fun,” Rawnson said.

“It’s really realistic when you’re talking to them. You get to learn how it was in the past.”
~ Rawnson, fifth grader at Friends School of Minnesota

On Rawnson’s iPod, Bernice relates a real historic event that she witnessed:

“A member of the Karpis gang was shot and killed across the street from our house. I stood on the front porch and watched policemen jump out of squad cars and run up the alley. Homer Van Meter was gunned down by the St. Paul Police Chief and detectives.”

Rawnson can choose to continue conversing with Bernice or move on to another historic character, like a miner from the Iron Range or a pioneer who lives in a sod house, shaping his own experience inside the exhibit.

Students also work together to solve problems for historical characters like “collecting” enough virtual grass, dung and wood to help a family living in a sod house survive the winter.

“Students can personalize the exhibit and go deeper into what interests them,” said Jennifer Sly, Minnesota History Center Museum Education and Technology Specialist. “The technology will also let them take pictures, record audio and download elements of the exhibit that they can access online back in the classroom or at home.”

"Then Now Wow" is funded by $2.5 million from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund (ACHF). Minnesota Historical Society staff has raised to date an additional $215,000 for the “Then Now Wow” exhibit.

In fiscal year 2012, the technology component, “History in Our Hands,” received $115,000 in ACHF support. History Center staff leveraged the initial research involved in creating “History in Our Hands” to earn a $449,000 National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in the fall of 2011.

“We want to take the best of what technology has to offer and really deepen their learning.”
~ Wendy Jones, Head of Museum and Education Programs

History Center staff will continue to work with students and teachers and to refine the technology. It will be ready for students on field trips to “Then Now Wow” to use in the fall of 2013.

“Students will walk away from this exhibit with a personal experience and story that allows them to empathize with history, seeing it from the inside out,” Gagnon said.

“This really is a new frontier everyone is trying to figure out,” Sly said. “It’s exciting to be a part of it—to create a new legacy with technology that helps students understand the past while still having fun.”