Lansing Museum's BIG History Lesson Inspires Students' Creativity

Students learn about the challenges of the voyageurs at the Michigan Historical Museum.

March 22, 2012

For Michigan students, the Michigan Historical Museum makes for a pretty inspiring classroom. That's the theory behind the BIG History Lesson, a weeklong immersion learning program for third and fourth graders that's held in the galleries and education rooms of the downtown Lansing museum.

Regularly welcoming more than 70,000 schoolchildren each year on school trips, the Michigan Historical Museum is a natural fit for this unique learning program that caters to the braces and ponytails set.

"It's an opportunity for teachers to move their classrooms to the museum for a five day period," said Laurie Perkins, education historian and BIG History Lesson coordinator at the museum.

Michigan Historical Museum education historian Laurie Perkins presents a program to students.

The teachers develop themes and plan the lessons. The museum provides classroom space, daily presentations for the youngsters and an engaging backdrop designed to motivate any learner. The program was developed in 1999 by then Michigan Teacher of the Year Margaret Holtschlag, who spent a sabbatical at the museum. The BIG History lesson has been running ever since.

Perkins said that although the BIG History Lesson focuses on immersing students in state history throughout the week, it also includes elements of disciplines beyond social studies.

Need an example? One presentation in this year's program involves the history of mining in Michigan. After a tour of the museum's mining display, students participate in a "cookie mining" workshop led by museum staff. They're presented with chocolate chip cookies wrapped in paper and are confronted with a challengem how to mine the chips from the cookies.

The youngsters are given a budget with which to buy tools for mining. They can buy a toothpick for less money than a paperclip, but the paperclip will provide more utility without breaking or wearing out. The "miners" use their tools to probe for chocolate chips and are rewarded with monetary values when chips are extracted.

At the end of the mining expedition, the kids figure the profits (or losses) of their operations by comparing rewards against the cost of tools. That's math, rudimentary economics and history, all folded into a single lesson.

Another program involves a 30 foot canvas silhouette of a voyageur's canoe. Students have to load the canoe and make decisions on what to take, but must remember that additional provisions mean fewer people to paddle.

Other presentations in the program this year cover the War of 1812, early statehood and the history of British involvement in what would eventually become Michigan complete with a museum staffer dressed as a Redcoat.

Each student keeps a journal over the course of the week, too, "so it's math and science and writing, as well as history," Perkins said.

Thirty eight teachers have scheduled their classes to participate in the BIG History Lesson this year, ushering about 960 students through the program. The youngsters are mostly from the greater Lansing area, though some will travel daily from as far away as Linden (near Flint).

The museum can accommodate one to three classrooms a week, though they most commonly come in pairs, Perkins said.

"A lot of the teachers coming as doubles are already team-teaching in the classroom," she said.

 Eliana Hatt takes notes about Civil War weaponry during the BIG History Lesson.

The teachers enlist the aid of parents, bringing three to five adults to provide additional support when the students break into smaller groups. The kids have a few 30 minute free periods, during which they can independently explore a topic of their choosing at the museum. The recent Civil War exhibit was a hit with the crew from Rayla Elementary School in Haslett.

Eight year old Eliana Hatt plunked herself down in front of a Civil War exhibit case, where weapons and medals were on display, taking notes in her journal. She was especially taken with the swords, she said, because her older brother likes swords.

"I like the guns and other weapons," she said. "I'd like to know more about how they work and how they were used. I'd also like to see who got medals and why they got them."

Carol Amor, who is team teaching with John Penn at Rayla, came for the first time this year while Penn was taking his fifth class through the program.

"I'm finding I need more time," Amor said. "I could have easily come for two weeks. There's just so much to see."

Her teaching partner said that, from a teacher's perspective, the BIG History week at the museum is "liberating."

"You're free from the telephone, free from emails, free from the intercom," Penn said "It's like a kid in candy store.

The Civil War exhibit at the Michigan Historical Museum is a big hit with fourth graders.

"When kids are in the ninth and 10th grade, they say this is the thing they remember most about their elementary education," Penn said. "It allows them to discover and expand outside the strictures of a worksheet."

Before the week was out, the Rayla students would take a Capitol tour and learn about the auto industry on a mock assembly line at the museum. Some of the students get "fired" for poor work. And when enough of them do, will they form a union?

"It's the perfect age for social studies. The kids love it," Perkins said. "They take great ownership of the museum, and that's the greatest benefit to us. I get hugs and high-fives when they leave. It's one of the fun parts of my job."

The BIG History Lesson is available to teachers every week with five consecutive school days in it, Perkins said, from September through early May. There is a $300 per classroom fee for the program for the 2012/13 school year. Applications for next year's BIG History Lesson are due by April 30 and teachers must attend a two-day summer workshop before the school year begins.

The program can now schedule a maximum of 60 classrooms a year and, so far, has been able to accommodate all requests, Perkins said.

As a state historical treasure that seeks to help people discover, enjoy and find inspiration in their heritage, the Michigan Historical Museum seems like just about the perfect setting to showcase the popular BIG History Lesson – as well as the many other exhibits, programs and learning opportunities it provides to history lovers of all ages.

The Michigan Historical Museum is part of the Michigan Historical Center, an agency within the Department of Natural Resources. For more information on the BIG History Lesson, visit the DNR website at