George Lucas Educational Foundation
Place-Based Learning

Photos: A Look Inside the Grand Rapids Museum School

A struggling district expands the concept of the school campus—using a museum, a zoo, and the city to teach its students.

In 2015, an innovative middle school opened inside the Grand Rapids Public Museum, a cultural site that dates back to 1854. An experiment in place-based education, the Museum School recently won a coveted XQ Super Schools award and is driving widespread adoption of its model across the district—bringing families and students back to a city in an economic and cultural downturn.

An aerial shot of the Grand Rapids Public Museum and Grand River.
An aerial shot of the Grand Rapids Public Museum and Grand River.
At the Grand Rapids Public Museum School, students use the museum’s exhibits—and the city of Grand Rapids—as their campus.
Students stand under the skeleton of a whale.
Students stand under the skeleton of a whale.
Students gather in the entrance under a fin whale skeleton, which the museum acquired in 1905. The growing school currently houses 120 sixth- and seventh-grade students.
A group of female students wearing green shirts dance and cheer.
A group of female students wearing green shirts dance and cheer.
Students and staff celebrated earlier this year when the Museum School was recognized as a winner in the XQ competition, which will provide $10 million to support their new museum high school.
A darkened room displays well lit, neon exhibits.
A darkened room displays well lit, neon exhibits.
The “Creatures of Light” exhibit uses interactive displays to help students understand bioluminescence. The school employs a curriculum integration specialist who helps museum staff and teachers incorporate exhibits into classroom lessons.
A girl looks at the phonograph as a museum staff member speaks.
A girl looks at the phonograph as a museum staff member speaks.
On a tour of the archives, museum educators explain the history and importance behind the Edison phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison.
A platypus robot is displayed inside an exhibit.
A platypus robot is displayed inside an exhibit.
A recent exhibit on biomechanics called “The Robot Zoo” featured eight robot animals—like this platypus—that illustrate real-life characteristics of the creatures.
Students sit next to an exhibit wall with black and white photos of immigrants pictured.
Students sit next to an exhibit wall with black and white photos of immigrants pictured.
Students sit inside the “Newcomers” exhibit, where they can follow in the footsteps of immigrants to Western Michigan, like French fur traders and present-day refugees from war-torn countries.
A 3-D historic storefront with black and white cutouts of shopkeepers.
A 3-D historic storefront with black and white cutouts of shopkeepers.
A replica of a historic Grand Rapids storefront in the “Newcomers” exhibit helps students understand the typical jobs and wages of three different immigrant groups who have settled in the area.
Students sit at a table creating water robots with wires and buckets of water.
Students sit at a table creating water robots with wires and buckets of water.
Hands-on learning occurs throughout the city for Museum School students. At Grand Valley State University, students take an underwater robotics class.
Students look at the river over a balcony.
Students look at the river over a balcony.
Museum School students look out from a museum balcony over the Grand River, where they learn about freshwater ecosystems and partake in river restoration work.
An educator places her hands on a scale to weigh fish while students watch.
An educator places her hands on a scale to weigh fish while students watch.
The museum’s resident scientist, Dr. Stephanie Ogren, shows students how to weigh native lake sturgeon. The endangered fish lives in the river right outside the museum’s doors.
An exhibit of marshland and a close up of pond water.
An exhibit of marshland and a close up of pond water.
The museum’s “Western Michigan Habitats” exhibit reinforces the school’s place-based learning philosophy—displaying common ecosystems found in the region, such as the marshland pictured here.
Students skate on an outdoor ice skating rink.
Students skate on an outdoor ice skating rink.
Instead of a gym, PE happens at downtown facilities like an ice-skating rink and the YMCA.
Girls sit at a table using tools like tubing, boxes, and string.
Girls sit at a table using tools like tubing, boxes, and string.
Students traveled to the Kendall College of Art and Design, part of the school’s network of partners, to work on a design-thinking challenge.
A yellow sticky note on a wall.
A yellow sticky note on a wall.
Students seem to realize how unusual the school is—here’s one of their responses to the question “What would you learn?”
Students run after chickens at a farm.
Students run after chickens at a farm.
The success of the Museum School has helped spawn the growth of theme and partnership schools across the district. At the Blandford School, a middle school inside a local nature center, students learn how to run a business by tending to the center’s chickens and selling their eggs.
Students sit next to a glass wall and point to fish in a tank.
Students sit next to a glass wall and point to fish in a tank.
The Zoo School, located in the John Ball Zoological Garden, is another of the district’s 15 theme and partnership schools. The school is ranked in the top 5 percent in the state and has been named one of the top 25 “Coolest Schools in America” by “Parent and Child” magazine.
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Educationhelm's picture

The museum has a state of the art facilities which makes it stand out among others. Educational stakeholders should give students an opportunity to learn outside the school environment.

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