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Capitol Curriculum: Enticing Educational Inititiatives

An education cart at the Capitol Visitor Center teaches children about the construction of the U.S. Capitol and the workers who helped to build it.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012

U.S. Botanic Garden
“We don’t have pandas.” That’s the challenge that U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG) Education Specialist Libby Rhoads and all of the Architect of the Capitol's educators and public programmers face as they try to entice course participants to learn more about the Capitol and Grounds beyond what they see on a standard tour.

Rhoads, who began working for the AOC in 2008 as an intern through the George Washington Museum Education Program, is in charge of preparing the USBG’s inspiring range of educational programs that encourage people to investigate plants and the science of plants. The USBG offers a slew of programs ranging from formal classroom events like lectures and horticulture workshops – led by Executive Director Holly Shimizu and Conservation and Sustainability Horticulturist Ray Mims, among others – to programming for children, including craft activities, science fair prep workshops and the Sprouts Program that exposes 3 to 5 year-olds to plant science. All of these programs tie back to the mission of the USBG, which is to show people how important plants are and how they play a critical role in all of our lives.

Often visitors find themed “discovery” carts in the USBG Conservatory that invite them to delve more deeply into plant-related topics such as sustainability, carnivorous plants and even chocolate. Rhoads works with her colleagues, including USBG Curator Bill McLaughlin, Botanist Kyle Wallick and other horticulture staff to make sure that the information offered on the carts is relevant and reflects the plants that are currently on display. USBG volunteers typically staff the carts and interact with visitors.

To generate interest in botany and plant science at schools, the USBG offers a variety of programs for students as well as teachers. “We want to encourage students to think about plant science and possibly pursue it as a career,” says Rhoads. A teacher night offered last year in conjunction with the DC Environmental Education Consortium attracted 200 teachers who were given information on how to integrate plants into their curricula. An online school garden wizard is available to those schools that choose to set up school gardens, and there is even a public plant hotline manned by Wallick and other horticulture staff.

Students may participate in a variety of programs including a two-week Hands-On Plant Science (HOPS) program. The USBG works with DC Public Schools and Beacon House, a non-profit serving at-risk children in the Edgewood Terrace community in Washington, D.C., to host about 80 students from underserved areas each summer as part of HOPS. It’s a half-day program that includes an organic lunch and transportation to and from the USBG.

For preschoolers, the popular Sprouts Program demonstrates to the very young the importance of plants. On their own, students can become junior botanists using a USBG-supplied backpack filled with tools to facilitate their exploration of the Conservatory.

Capitol Visitor Center
New this spring, the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) is offering an invaluable resource for young people who visit the Capitol. The CVC’s Public Programs Coordinator Maria Marable-Bunch created the student self-guide entitled, “My Capitol.”

“So many students visit the Capitol between March and June that we had to find a way to serve them collectively – that is how the idea of the ‘student self-guide’ came about,” says Marable-Bunch. “We wanted to enhance their visit to the Capitol and give them a way to link back to the Capitol from their classrooms.” The guide includes questions about the Capitol and the answers can be found on the CVC’s website, visitthecapitol.gov.

For the first time last December, the Visitor Center offered a hands-on educational activity during a week devoted to special activities associated with exploring historic journals. Along with attending lectures and talks about historic journals, visitors could decorate their own journals at a table set up outside of the Visitor Center’s North Gift Shop. Over the course of the week, about 300 adults and children decorated their own journals of their visit to the Capitol. “The space and the activity reminded me of sitting around a comfy kitchen table,” says CVC Public Programs Coordinator Andrea Lewis, who developed and oversaw the activity.

As a basis for comparison, Lewis provided copies of historic journals written by Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, who supervised the building of the Capitol extensions and Dome, and Assistant Doorkeeper Isaac Bassett whose notes during his 64 years working in the Senate provide a firsthand account of the 19th century Senate.

“I was surprised by the number of adults who sat down and started working on a journal of their visit,” says Lewis. “They took it quite seriously and felt very comfortable working with us to decorate their journals with pictures of the Capitol.”

For teachers, Marable-Bunch worked with CVC Webmaster Jason Hendricks to launch a series of online resources on visitthecapitol.gov, including classroom activities, lesson plans, pre-visit materials and fun activities students can participate in before or while they are at the Capitol. The materials were well-received by teachers who participated in a workshop the Visitor Center hosted in December in conjunction with the National Council for Social Studies and the House of Representatives. “The teachers were so excited about what they heard and saw that some said they were going to go back to their classrooms and teach the material on Monday morning,” says Marable-Bunch.

Like staff at the USBG, Marable-Bunch and Lewis have undertaken a cart program to pique interest in the construction of the Capitol. “People use the cart in so many different ways, and you hear so many stories,” says Lewis. “They’ll pick up a brick that we use to demonstrate Capitol building materials and start talking about living in brick houses all of their lives.”

Capitol.gov
The newest addition to the array of educational products offered by the AOC is capitol.gov, a microsite created to give visitors an in-depth preview of what to expect prior to their Capitol Hill visit. According to Senior Web Editor Lori Westley, the site, which was launched in October 2010, is used mostly by middle school students and teachers who want to take advantage of AOC’s “behind the scenes” videos, a timeline of the construction of the Capitol’s buildings and grounds, and a variety of interactive features.

“The information on aoc.gov does a great job of targeting the needs of scholars and researchers – but capitol.gov allows us to package this information in a more accessible way for young people who either visit the Capitol or who study government in school,” explains Westley.

According to Westley, who dove into this project as soon as she began working for the AOC in February 2010, former AOC Historian Bill Allen was instrumental in preparing the Capitol timeline, and the AOC Curator's Office contributed to the site through photography, writing and editing. The microsite has been so successful that it won a prestigious “Webby” award for best government site from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.
“We are continually trying to figure out what students really need from us,” says Westley. “Our analytics and the blogs of students and teachers show that capitol.gov is often being used during what’s called ‘Web quests.’” Like an online scavenger hunt, a Web quest is created by teachers to get students to research topics online, like Roman influences on design in the United States. Information like this gives Westley critical insight that she will use to refine the microsite to address the needs of its users.

The enthusiasm of Rhoads, Marable-Bunch, Lewis and Westley is palpable as they work to find innovative ways to share the history, science and art of the Capitol with young and old visitors alike. And although the Capitol does not offer “cute fuzzies,” as Rhoads says, these educational offerings are clearly enticing.

Sharon Gang