Urban Exploration as a Tool for Teaching & Learning with Stephanie Krom

I’m pleased to introduce returning guest blogger, Stephanie Krom, who worked with BHS’s education department as a graduate student intern in the fall of 2012.  In her post below, she describes her experience with two of BHS’s urban exploration programs:

Stephanie Krom

One of the aspects of Museum Education that initially drove me to become a museum educator was the hands-on teaching and learning that takes place when kids engage with history through material culture. As a student, I find that I connect with history best when I feel physically close to it – when I am standing on the ground on which history happened or holding an object that was held by someone hundreds of years before me. At Brooklyn Historical Society, all of our school programs involve interacting with historical spaces and artifacts. The Historical Society building itself is a historical space – it is a landmark, Queen Anne-style building that dates back to 1881. Although all of the school programs at BHS involve physically connecting to history, the most enriching way I have found to connect kids to their local history is through hands-on urban exploration.

Teen Innovators outdoors

The Teen Innovators Program at BLDG 92 took place in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the fall semester 2012, and The Brooklyn Bridge from Classroom to Caisson: A Walk Back in Time is an ongoing Brooklyn Bridge walking tour that takes classes through Brooklyn Heights and onto the bridge itself. Both are examples of urban exploration as a teaching tool that I participated in during my time as an intern in the Education Department at BHS.

During the Teen Innovators Program, students got the opportunity, over the course of a six-week program, to explore the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Brooklyn Navy Yard is a place with hundreds of years of history built on top of each other, from the third oldest dry dock in the country (Dry Dock 1, completed in 1851) to the state-of-the-art wind and solar powered street lights made by Navy Yard-based company Lumi-Solair. The date range and diverse architectural elements of the Navy Yard’s landscape makes it an ideal place for urban exploration.

The students of the Teen Innovators Program first learned the history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in their classroom and through a visit to the museum exhibits at BLDG 92. Although the lessons and the museum visit provided plenty of information, a few of the Teen Innovators did not seem to really click with the information about the history of the Navy Yard as it was first presented to them. A chance to explore the Navy Yard through a walking tour and site visits totally changed the way the students engaged with the past and present of the Yard.

Immediately, the information and images about Dry Dock 1 made sense when the students actually saw the dry dock empty of water. The dry dock as an engineering feat and an important moment in Brooklyn history resonated with students when they were able to stand next to it and to independently explore the perimeter of the dry dock. One student confessed to me that she hadn’t been able to really picture the dry dock in her head, even though she had seen both historical and present-day images of it at BLDG 92. Upon seeing the dry dock with her own eyes, the information that had been previously confusing to this student finally came together as she was able to connect past and present through her own position in historical and physical space.







(see this and other Brooklyn Navy Yard images at our partner, BLDG 92).


The Brooklyn Bridge from Classroom to Caisson: A Walk Back in Time is a two-session tour in which a BHS educator does an in-classroom lesson on the history of the Brooklyn Bridge in the first session and, in the second session, students walk through Brooklyn Heights and onto the Brooklyn Bridge. I assisted BHS’s Manager of Teaching and Learning, Emily Potter-Ndiaye, on the walking portion of the tour with a second grade class from the Blue School. Since the kids had spent time in their class learning about civil engineering and, specifically, the engineering history of the Brooklyn Bridge, the kids already had a great background to take with them during their Bridge exploration. Having some background knowledge about the history and physical structure of the Brooklyn Bridge enhanced the students’ experience of the tour.

BK Bridge Blue School Dec 2012

Although there are beautiful images of the Brooklyn Bridge available, there is nothing like actually standing on this huge primary source. All of the theory about how a suspension bridge actually works came together when the kids were able to reach out and touch a suspension cable. When we arrived at the Brooklyn tower of the Bridge, the students remembered that they learned that it was built deep into bedrock. In order to test the towers strength, the students began pushing on the tower with all of their might, unprompted by an educator. The Bridge, unlike a museum, is a hands-on source that can be touched, walked on, and even pushed on. This physical connection between the student and historical object facilitates an intellectual connection between the student and history.

Students can take away from guided urban exploration a sense of participation in and ownership of history. Through being in the space in which “history occurred,” students learn to understand history as something that is constantly happening and of which they are a part. By seeing themselves as active participants in history, students can take away a more rich understanding of their past and of the people who participated in history before them.


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