Middle schoolers learn ancient history using modern technology

PHOTO PROVIDED Williamsport Area Middle School students work in a program to digitally design Mesopotamia signature seals, which ultimately will be printed on 3D printers.

This is not your grandmother’s history class, nor is it your history class from just a few years ago if you picture students reading a textbook, looking at illustrations and listening to a lecture.

Picture instead physically recreating true-to-scale three-dimensional replicas of ancient artifacts to hold in your hands as you share what you learned about their history with your classmates.

Last year, with Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program funds from the First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania,Williamsport Area Middle School seventh grade World History teacher Dustin Brouse was able to teach the history of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt through the use of 3-D printers in the classroom.

“This is a game-changer for studying history,” Brouse promised in his grant application and he hasn’t looked back since.

With online access to digital archives at the Smithsonian Institution or the British Museum, students can choose an artifact, download specifications, and manipulate the design instructions to recreate an ancient object of study in front of their eyes. Holding an object and examining it from all sides enables students to “retain information better and for longer periods of time,” Brouse explained.

His classroom looks like a history and engineering educational hybrid, with lessons and equipment designed to be hands-on for the 21st century student who lives and breathes computers and the internet. When the printers begin laying down layer upon layer of plastic filament, the hum and whine of modern industry fills the room.

Teaching with technology is a natural fit for Brouse, who worked in industry for several years before earning his teaching certification through Lock Haven University in 2009.

Using STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) principles to teach history seems like a radical idea at first but for Brouse and his 145 students in six classes, it works.

Students first used the 3-D printers to create cylinder seals imprinted with a design of their choosing that could be relief stamped onto a softened piece of clay. The history lesson recalls the Mesopotamian practice of signing contracts in the ancient world, Brouse said.

Last year’s culminating activity saw the students recreating Egyptian artifacts with the 3-D printers. They then painted their creations and presented them to the class with a summary detailing what they had learned from both the design process and the traditional research they did to understand the object’s place in the time period.

Brouse will repeat the lessons with this year’s seventh graders. A display case filled with last year’s projects serves as inspiration for the new classes.

Brouse continues to look forward to exciting ways to make history come alive: the Williamsport Area School District Education Foundation recently awarded Brouse a new grant that the teacher calls the “World History Interactive Studio.”

The studio will “combine a number of emerging technologies to create an interactive learning experience,” Brouse said. An iPad serves as the brains of the technology with students able to use a 3-D scanner and 360 degree camera to enhance videos they create. The students can then appear to time travel to the area of their research with video they choose and edit playing behind them on a green screen, adding an air of live authenticity to their historical and cultural story-telling.

“We couldn’t do any of this without the support of the Foundation,” Brouse noted. That support allows the history teacher to instruct in a way that best reaches the tech-savvy students of today as they learn the lessons of yesterday.

With hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math skills experienced and learned at an early age, these young people will be more than ready to join the work force of the future, Brouse emphasized.