A third-grade class on a field trip to Chicago’s Field Museum examines fossils to imagine life 300 million years ago. Their middle school friends compare body features of long-extinct dinosaurs with those of animals today to better understand relationships between them. And their high school siblings deepen their understanding of the solar system by getting up close and personal with meteorites.
While this kind of learning experience might be possible for Chicago schools near the Field Museum, these particular students didn’t board a bus for their field trip. They live in Northern California, where the nearest museum is hundreds of miles from their rural school. But thanks to Museums for Digital Learning, they simply hop online to visit museums across the country any time they want.
Museums for Digital Learning (MDL) is a free learning platform that provides K–12 educators with curated museum collection resources and activities aligned with national content standards. Developed by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Newfields Lab of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, the Field Museum in Chicago, and History Colorado in Denver, MDL offers a way for museums of all disciplines to leverage digitized museum collections to support K–12 educators and students.
Bryan Lopez, a public school science teacher at Galileo Scholastic Academy in Chicago, has been involved in MDL since 2019. He and a group of teachers from across the country worked with the MDL team from the time it was a vision on sticky notes, through the development of the website, to piloting the site in their classrooms.
Lopez says MDL makes it easy for him to find lessons and activities that match his curricular needs with a simple search by topic, keyword, and grade level. And as a lifelong fan of museums, Lopez also enjoys browsing the variety of museums and resources on the MDL site to discover fresh ways to make science come alive for his students.
He found the Today’s Dinos resource kit to fit in seamlessly with his units on evolution, geological time, and fossils. The graphic organizers help his students process and articulate what they notice in the fossils, and the high-quality images of the one-of-a-kind fossils make what feels like ancient history more accessible to his middle school students.
But it isn’t just the science resources that Lopez and his students have enjoyed. In ongoing efforts to incorporate the arts into his science lessons, he also has used nearly all of the resources from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
“The Outside My Window activity worked especially well during distance learning to introduce the concept of inquiry and the importance of making observations and taking detailed notes,” says Lopez. “Focusing my students’ attention on details within their own environment is a great way to inspire them to look deeper into their surroundings and take note of otherwise unnoticed details.”
Making Interdisciplinary Connections
The resources from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum are an example of the variety and range of classroom applications that teachers will find on MDL. Within just the Getting to Know Georgia O’Keeffe resource kit, there are art activities related to seasonal landscapes, different perspectives, positive and negative space, the rule of thirds, and architecture. But as Lopez discovered, a science teacher can bring art into their lessons with these resources.
“I used the Outside My Window activity at the beginning of the year to prepare students for more sophisticated journaling and detailed field notes,” says Lopez. “The Seasonal Landscape activity has students drawing the same scene over the course of multiple seasons. This helped my students learn to make observations over an extended period of time.”
Students in Michelle Pearson’s Century Middle School social studies class in Thornton, Colorado, made numerous cross-disciplinary connections with MDL.
“With the Mesa Verde pottery collection, we learned about the early peoples of the United States and connected the artifacts to a discussion of form, function, and design in art,” says Pearson. “We had rich conversations about geography and how these objects functioned in the context of the movement of people. My students also considered the materials available to craft pottery in the American Southwest, engaging in robust analysis and critical thinking.”
Creating an Account
Getting started with MDL is as simple as going to Museums for Digital Learning and clicking to browse the museums, collections, and resource kits. If you want to build your own collections, you need to create an account.
- Click the profile icon in the upper right corner to log in, and sign up with your email or through a Google account.
- Click on the Collections Hub, and you’ll see Your Collections on the right side. That’s where you can build your own collection of artifacts and activities to use with your students.
- Within each activity, click the “more” option for the standards addressed in that particular lesson.
- Your collections, like all of the MDL resource kits, activities, and collections, can be shared with students with a link or assigned directly through Google Classroom.
In addition to searching for resources by grade level and subject area, teachers may search by media type. The MDL site offers 3D models, audio files, documents, images, and videos. And while the 49 resource kits (with more than 700 objects and 400 activities) will fulfill a wide range of classroom needs, there are still many more to come as museums continue to join the site and add their own artifacts.
“Due to rising costs, transportation hurdles, and the pandemic, it has been increasingly difficult to show my students the value of our local museums, but Museums for Digital Learning brings these cultural institutions directly to my classroom,” says Lopez. “There is no substitute for visiting a museum and seeing a collection firsthand, but there is incredible value in having resources from museums all across the country at our fingertips.”