Upgrading Educational Experiences with Technology | Data & Me

In the hills of Simi Valley, California very important decisions are being made. Not by today’s leaders, but by future ones.

It’s here that students in the fifth through twelfth grades get to play the President, cabinet and staff, senators, naval officers, international advisors, and press leaders. In a replica office space, battleship command center and presidential press room, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute is running one of the most advanced civil education simulations in the country.

Infostat about the visitor traffic to the Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute

“An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?” — President Ronald Reagan in his farewell address, 1989

The Power of Immersive Learning

The foundation and museum are dedicated to cultivating the next generation of citizen leaders. For the last ten years, they’ve provided an immersive learning experience like no other in the Air Force One Discovery Center simulation. The center has seen a quarter of a million students from all over the world go through the data simulation, which uses the three very realistic sets listed above to put kids right in the action of the 1983 Grenada crisis. By living the experience, and playing roles from the president to press corps, students are able to understand more about the cause and effects of the historical event, as well as grow their problem solving and decision-making skills.

An instructor leads a simulation about the 1983 Grenada Crisis.

“If you can put yourself in a moment in history, it can be pretty intense and a powerful learning experience,” shared Anthony Pennay, the foundation’s Chief Learning Officer. Anthony and his team know the data simulation has been a success through the dedicated feedback loop they have with educators and students who visit. But they also recognized that a lot has changed in ten years, and it was time to give the experience an upgrade.

“Students who are coming through now are all digital natives—they’re born with a device in their hands. They know how to use it.” — Anthony Pennay, Chief Learning Officer

“We want to make sure that when students walk in and are a part of our education programs, that what they’re experiencing here matches what they’re seeing outside in the world. Otherwise, they won’t connect,” Mr. Pennay continued.

Maintaining Relevance for Educational Needs of Today

The accessibility of storage, data management systems and advanced programming means the ten-year-old, linear storyline can now become dynamic and variable. The decisions made by the students will affect different outcomes inside the simulation that will unfold before them—teaching invaluable lessons.

The new data simulation will also incorporate real source material from the library’s archive of over 60 million documents from the Reagan presidency. Students will have access to this scanned source material, which will be curated for their role or character. But they’ll also be presented with secondary source material, such as news headlines and second-hand information. Students will have to review and absorb the different sources to make decisions on what is fact versus fiction. This was a key lesson the curators at the center have incorporated into the updated simulation.

“One of the big challenges for students today is figuring out what’s real and what’s not—and understanding the idea of an actual primary source. And then how do you go through and figure out what information is pertinent? They’ll get a lot of practice with this in the new simulation,” shared Mr. Pennay.

A group of students listens attentively to a simulation at the Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.

There’s one more major benefit to the updated technology—mobility. Using cloud storage and computing along with tablets, the data simulation can be taken into classrooms where lesson plans and follow up materials will be intuitively designed based on the decisions students are making. So, for example, if students are consistently choosing a secondary source over a primary one, follow up materials will be automatically generated to offer further learning activities on the topic.

While nothing can beat the experience of sitting in the President’s office, the data simulation’s new technology will allow for scalability like never before. Ultimately, that brings this amazing learning experience to infinitely more students. Who knows, one of them may be a future president.

John Heubusch, Executive Director of the Foundation stresses the importance of using technology and data to understand trends in the world, and ensure museum programs stay relevant and effective, “We try to live digital lives here because it immensely drives our efficiencies and our abilities to strategize and consider how our programs ought to be adapted to serve a public which has tastes that might change on a routine basis.”

Has the Data Simulation Created Any Future Presidents?

“I think statistically if you use data wisely, we’ll probably be able to figure out sometime in the next decade if we’ve created any future presidents,” shared Mr. Heubusch. “We might have. But we’ve definitely created some incredible future leaders for this country.”

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Learn more about the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.