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Aiming for Access

June Behrmann

June Behrmann is a longtime special education teacher (pre-K to grade 6) who retired for about two seconds, and is now prospecting for accessible instructional resources. Follow June on Twitter @aimnoncat. Thank you to AIM-VA: Accessible Instructional Materials for sharing this blog with us.

Smithsonian Learning Labs: Can Digital Images, Recordings, and Texts Transform Learning?

June 28, 2016

The Smithsonian's Learning Lab team members are in Denver, Colorado this week for the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference. Staff members traveled to unveil more than one million digital resources that students can use to discover, create, and share.

Educators and students who are into maker spaces, project-based learning, and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can get up close and comfortable with the images, recordings, and texts that comprise the collection that is compiled from across the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, 9 major research centers, the National Zoo, and more. 

Rethink museum experiences 

Educators at the Smithsonian have been collaborating with Cricket Media and its ePals for almost a decade. Their work together combines age-appropriate reading materials with the objects, artifacts and treasures seen by museumgoers "in order to capitalize on both," says Michelle Knovic Smith. She is an associate director for media at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access. 

Topics in the Learning Lab  

Search results are friendly, she says, because items found display as pictures rather than word lists. "Whether you've found what you were looking for or just discovered something new, it's easy to personalize it. Add your own notes and tags, incorporate discussion questions, and save and share. The Learning Lab makes it simple."

Here are some examples: 

Science: Panda "Reading Companion" collection. "The reading resources range from Cricket Media articles, to Smithsonian National Zoo websites to a TED talk, with videos revealing panda behavior in the zoo and in the wild. A child can also glimpse the careers open to people who are interested in animals." 

Engineering: Explore the Robot Reading Companion where "the videos show movement and people in ways that make you want to learn more. The collection encourages children to investigate the variety of issues robot designers are attempting to address with their inventions, and asks them to think about the importance of each." 

History: Science meets history in the collection devoted to hot-air ballooning. Check out Reading Companion: Hot-Air Balloons and the Civil War.

The staff hopes that users build lasting knowledge and critical skills as they uncover digital files, make thoughtful selections, organize them, and create resources with a personal touch. "At the Smithsonian, a new object is digitized every six seconds, ensuring the Learning Lab has something fresh to offer visitors each time they return," according to the website project description. Check out the: 


The original documents appear to be photographs of whole pages of text. These may be fixed and not easily be read aloud or highlighted — if at all. I sent a message to the staff asking for additional information about accessibility features of original documents.  

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"If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book." —

J.K. Rowling