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Create.Connect: The Development of an Interdisciplinary History and STEM Exhibition at Conner Prairie

by Allison Cosbey, Evaluation Coordinator, Conner Prairie on

As the formal and informal education fields turn increasing attention to STEM, finding new venues for informal STEM learning (particularly in areas without a dedicated science center or museum) has become an imperative. Conner Prairie, an interactive history museum in Fishers, Ind., wanted to explore how historical sites and museums could become centers for informal STEM learning. This question ultimately led to the development of Create.Connect, a hands-on history and STEM exhibition for families at Conner Prairie that combines STEM activity‒building, testing and experimenting‒with related stories from Indiana’s past.

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The Create.Connect team’s goal was not to simply put hands-on science activities into a history museum but to weave together history and STEM in ways that would preserve history museums’ identities and missions while fostering deep engagement with both history and STEM ideas. Moreover, the team wanted to understand how the blending of STEM and history might create a richer, more engaging learning experience than would be possible with either discipline existing in isolation.

Conner Prairie received a $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to explore these ideas in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota, a national leader in informal STEM education and research. In addition to creating an exhibition at Conner Prairie to test ways of integrating history and STEM, the project team worked with four history museums‒Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, the Wabash County (Ind.) Historical Museum, Oliver Kelley Farm in Minnesota and the California State Railroad Museum‒to understand how these ideas worked in different institutions and create the first cohort in a network of history sites that offer STEM activities. Create.Connect was developed through an iterative process of prototyping and evaluation. With each phase of evaluation, the team shared what they had learned with partner museums and incorporated the findings into each new version of the exhibition.

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The final version of the exhibition offers four distinct historic areas, each with an immersive setting, that explore the history and science of flight, electricity, wind power and inventions. For the summative evaluation of the exhibition, the evaluation team recorded family conversations to explore how visitors learn in Create.Connect. This data showed visitors spent a great deal of time exploring the STEM activities and talking about STEM, and they talked about history as well in almost all of these recorded conversations. Also, most conversations included verbal exchanges during which visitors discussed STEM and history ideas in quick succession or conversations that seemed to touch on STEM and history ideas simultaneously, like experimenting to understand the function of a historical technology.

Visitors overwhelmingly responded that the exhibition fits in at Conner Prairie and offers valuable learning experiences for their families. Staff at the four participant history museums felt that being part of this project gave them the ideas and confidence they needed to develop their own history and STEM exhibitions and create institutional buy-in. There remains much to discover about how integrating STEM and history can impact learning but the Create.Connect project shows that history museums can create exhibitions that include both STEM and history and make sense in their institutions. To find out more about the project and how your museum or site could incorporate these ideas, visit www.createconnect.org. You can read the full report on the project here: ConnerPrairieReport 2016. For even more on this project, download the free AASLH Technical Leaflet “Integrating Science at a History Museum.”

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1223770. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The Create.Connect exhibition was made possible by the generous grant support of Duke Energy Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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