Creating memorable learning experiences

08/23/2010  |  Pamela Meister
teaching through travel

“Travel is broadening” is a time-worn cliché that is used because it is true. Travel by its very nature is educational, as travelers encounter numerous objects, ideas and experiences different from their everyday lives—landscapes and architecture, people, ideas, and cultures.

For school groups, the inherent educational value of travel can be greatly enhanced by incorporating visits to museums, science and nature centers, zoos, botanic gardens and historic sites into your class trip.  In addition to their standard tours and exhibits, most museums also offer special programs keyed to local or state standards of learning for K-12 school groups.

It is the business of museums, historic sites, and science/nature centers to create memorable experiences that evoke emotion, prompt discussion, and spark the desire to learn.  These institutions can express the history, culture and spirit of a city or region, convey detailed knowledge of a famous person or event, transport visitors back into the past, and open eyes and minds to new ideas and new worlds.

The Atlanta History Center does all of these things. Their 33-acre main campus, six miles north of downtown Atlanta,  includes one of the Southeast’s largest history museums, two historic houses including an antebellum living history farm, the Centennial Olympic Games Museum, six historic gardens, and the Kenan Research Center. A second campus in midtown Atlanta features the Margaret Mitchell House, the apartment building where novelist Margaret Mitchell wrote “Gone with the Wind.”

The History Center’s education department offers ten different school programs, from “Georgia Farm Life”, where students participate in the everyday activities of a Civil War-era farm, to “Fulfilling the Dream,” where students examine the role of Atlanta in the Civil Rights movement by analyzing primary documents under the guidance of archivists in the Kenan Research Center.

Student visitors to the History Center can also follow in the footsteps of Georgia’s first people in an exciting journey through the woods to identify native plants used by American Indians, or explore the history of the Olympic games and learn what it takes to become an Olympic athlete in a program that incorporates geography, economics, mathematics, and science curriculum, designed to compliment Social Studies standards.  Learn more about the Atlanta History Center’s programs at

Science museums and nature centers have a long tradition of leadership in promoting STEM learning through immersive experiences and hands-on activities. They are hugely popular with school groups and families alike, featuring the latest technology as well as engaging live demonstrations, incorporating a visit to a city’s science or nature center can add a new dimension to your travels.

Some of my most memorable learning experiences have come from nature centers whose missions combine environmental education and animal rehabilitation. The Carolina Raptor Center is nestled in the rolling Piedmont hills of Latta Plantation Nature Preserve, just 15 minutes from uptown Charlotte, NC.  Dedicated to environmental stewardship and the conservation of birds of prey through education, research, and rehabilitation, the Center cares for approximately 700 injured or orphaned raptors every year.

In addition to the rehabilitation facility, the complex includes a ¾ mile nature trail with habitats for over 23 species of raptors, an environmental education center, and an outdoor amphitheatre. School groups may choose from 14 curriculum-based programs that incorporate hands-on activities, a touch table with real feathers, beaks, and feet, as well as encounters with live birds.

Numerous volunteer and internship opportunities make the Carolina Raptor Center an important venue for experiential learning at many levels. The Center’s unique Raptor-Keeper-for-a-Day program allows participants spend a day assisting staff in caring for the birds. Visitors can stay in touch through the Center’s website,, which features videos, current events, and a wealth of information about birds of prey.

To my mind, one of the best parts of travel is gaining a “sense of place” for a town or region and learning about the people who influenced its development. We typically look to historic houses, sites, and history museums for architecture, objects and stories that convey an area’s culture and history. However, art museums can also provide powerful insights into the spirit of a community.

A visit to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art (WAMA) in the picturesque Gulf Coast town of Ocean Springs, MS, is an enchanting and unique experience. WAMA celebrates the works of Walter Inglis Anderson (1903 – 1965), whose depictions of the plants, animals and people of the Gulf Coast have placed him among the forefront of 20th century American painters. His brothers, Peter Anderson and James McConnell Anderson, were also accomplished painters and ceramicists. The museum’s permanent collection includes paintings, drawings, prints, ceramics and carvings by all three artists that vividly convey Gulf Coast life in the mid-20th century, as well as the natural world surrounding them.

In addition to the changing exhibitions in the museum’s serene yellow pine galleries, the museum’s permanent exhibits include two amazing murals. The small mural found in Walter Anderson’s cottage after his death is an intimate glimpse into an artist’s intensely personal world, while the Community Center mural is an extraordinary gift of public art that reveals the rhythms of nature, celebrates Gulf Coast history, and inspires thousands of visitors each year.

In addition to tours of the museum’s galleries and murals, school groups visiting the museum may view a film of the artist’s life and find their own artistic expression in hands-on art activities. Additional lesson plans and teacher resources are available on the museum’s website,

This is only a small sample of the amazing scope and variety of Southeastern museums. According to the American Association of Museums, there are over 17,500 museums in the U.S., with at least 3,500 in the Southeast.  When you’re planning your next field trip, a small amount of internet research can result in an unforgettable educational experience for your group.

Pamela Meister is the Executive Director of Southeastern Museums Conference.
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