A young girl with headphones listens to a presentation at a museum.

Museums Staying Relevant with Data | Data & Me

What does it take for a presidential museum to keep the attention of younger audiences obsessed with technology? Let’s face it: guided audio tours and text-heavy exhibits might not cut it anymore. Instead, there is a new approach that is helping bring history to life: data-driven simulations.

At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, students learn by doing. From a mock Oval Office to an imitation White House press room to a simulated aircraft carrier’s command center, thousands of participants get the full experience role-playing as members of the namesake President’s cabinet. Data is central to this immersive learning in videos, news clippings, and other digital sources of knowledge.

A group of students with iPads works through an educational exercise in a mock Oval Office.

“In classrooms and museums, the challenge [educators] have is that the technology evolves so quickly and can be so expensive,” says Anthony Pennay, Chief Learning Officer, The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.

Data Helps Students Learn by Doing

For many students across America, and particularly in California, public school is the default choice for education. As recently as the 2017-18 school year, over 3 million students1 were enrolled in one of nearly 6,000 public schools throughout “The Golden State”. Of these pupils, the Foundation and Institute welcomes nearly 25,000 students and 500 teachers annually to their site2.

Students on a field trip enter a historical museum.

But, a visit to the historical site is more than just a free field trip. At the location’s Discovery Center, students are taken back to a significant moment in their country’s history: the U.S. conflict with Grenada in 1983. In the 1-hour simulation, attendees are separated into three small groups. They are tasked with using data from primary and secondary sources to make executive decisions, uncover classified materials, and navigate military intervention.

“We think the value of simulation and using data derived digitally is critical for a number of reasons,” John Heubusch, Executive Director, outlines.

Student groups make use of tablets and other digital devices to get their work done. The day of immersive learning has just begun, though. After wrapping up the simulation in the Discovery Center, participants are lead on a tour to explore the site’s museum and memorial site, as well as its replica Berlin Wall and presidential aircraft. The typical four-hour field trip is packed with hands-on activities for students to learn by doing.

The Value of Simulation-Based Learning

Under the formidable wings of a model presidential aircraft, young learners take a moment to eat lunch and reflect. The lessons they learned during their simulation run of the ’83 Grenada crisis are not just past facts. It is about creating interactive scenarios that test the ability of students to take in multiple sources of information, think critically, and make data-informed decisions.

Students take a look at a replica Air Force One aircraft.

Consider, for a moment, the power of learning that uses simulations. During training, airline pilots might use a simulator to test their flight maneuvers during a variety of challenging takeoff, midflight, and landing conditions. Before operating on live patients, simulation centers provide an open environment for undergraduate training, residency training, continuing medical or nursing education, and competency testing. In a similar fashion, simulation-based learning can aid students in gaining technical knowledge, working through conflict, and making decisions as a team.

Educational Technology is a Learning Tool, Not a Distraction

Used in the wrong way, technology can be disruptive – anywhere from a minor annoyance to a total distraction. But, look at its upside. Educational technology can help teachers connect with students on the digital platform they know best. It’s a way to better speak the language of young learners. Immersive learning enables students to bring together traditional “textbook” knowledge with digital savvy to help make education more productive and exciting.

“If we continue to look at technology as a tool that can help meet those larger learning objectives, then that’s where museums should place their time, money and effort – and use data to help students understand what’s being learned,” Anthony Pennay states.

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Learn more about the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.


  1. Fingertip Facts on Education in California – CalEdFacts. https://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/sd/cb/ceffingertipfacts.asp
  2. Before You Visit | The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. https://www.reaganfoundation.org/education/discovery-center/before-you-visit/

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