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Turning a Visit Into an Immersive Experience

May 11, 2016

Immersive_learningThe Jim Joseph Foundation invests in curated immersive learning experiences and the training of talented educators who facilitate them. From a pedagogical view, these kinds of experiences stand in contrast to the simpler "trip to the museum," which by itself typically lacks the educational component needed to catalyze learning. In contrast, an immersive learning experience provides an opportunity for a participant's growth in terms of knowledge, character, and identity.

One example of the value of such an opportunity is found in a 1970 study of Sesame Street[1] (which premiered in 1969). The study sought to determine whether socioeconomic status (SeS) was a determining factor in whether young children (ages 3 to 5) benefited from watching the program. In the study, there was a difference in baseline performance between those with low SeS and high SeS, although both segments exhibited material improvement on assessments after regularly watching the program.

In a subsequent study that examined the same age group[2], however, researchers noted a profound divergence and determined that certain children not differentiated by SeS excelled at a far greater rate than other participants. The X-factor? Parents. When one or more parents collectively watched episodes with their children, researchers noticed that children’s measurable skill sets increased more than the skills sets of those whose parents did not. The result pointed to the "curated experience" as an important and defining one.

This idea of curation permeates each of the Jim Joseph Foundation's strategic priorities: Increase the Number and Quality of Jewish Educators and Education LeadersExpand Opportunities for Effective Jewish Learning, and Build a Strong Field for Jewish Education. Three grants — to George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, the American Friends of the Israel Museum, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum's Innovation Fund — represent the symbiotic actualization of these strategies.

Increase the Number and Quality of Jewish Educators and Education Leaders. In 2013, the Jim Joseph Foundation complemented its growing portfolio of grants to American institutions of higher education — which already included New York University, Stanford University, Brandeis University, UC Berkeley, Yeshiva University, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah — to include George Washington University. One of the unique departments that differentiates GWU is its Department of Museum Studies, regarded by many as the premier program in the country. The Jim Joseph Foundation awarded a grant for a dual degree program at GWU’s Graduate School of Education and the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences to create the first ever Master of Arts in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts degree. The program specializes in creating interdisciplinary educators who emerge from the program as "scholar-practitioners" for the field of Jewish cultural education. In other words, they are specially trained in visioning, designing, and facilitating curated cultural experiences aimed at deepening Jewish learning.

Expand Opportunities for Effective Jewish Learning. Also in 2013, the Jim Joseph Foundation co-invested with the Steinhardt Foundation to increase the learning opportunities for Birthright Israel participants at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Consistent with the foundation's view with respect to meaningful outcomes, the grant was meant not merely to increase numbers (although small subsidies helped to grow the number of attendees from a few thousand in 2013 to 15,000 in 2014 and to more than 20,000 in 2015). Instead, the grant focused on the development of a curated curriculum for Birthright guides and stipulated that they be formally trained by the museum's educational department before receiving the portion of the grant meant to subsidize a Birthright Israel group's admission to the museum. Subsequently, hundreds of Birthright Israel guides attended at least one of the eleven trainings offered by the museum. While it is possible that without the training requirement more groups would have utilized the subsidy, the Jim Joseph Foundation was interested in making a curated immersive learning experience more accessible. In total, nearly half of all Birthright Israel participants worldwide were brought to the Israel Museum over the last twelve months, making it the third most-visited Birthright Israel site after the Western Wall and Yad Vashem.

Build a Strong Field for Jewish Education. In 2008, the Jim Joseph Foundation funded the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum's Innovation Fund, a central component of which is to educate museum curators and other practitioners from across the country. One example was the formation of the Jewish Education and Technology Institute (JET), an educational workshop for Jewish day school teachers designed to teach them how integrate tech applications into their regular curriculum. Another is the active partnerships that have been cultivated through the fund that include but are not limited to George Washington University and the Israel Museum. The partnerships complement local programming and content acquisition and provide resources ranging from early childhood education to young adult programming.

As a strategic grantmaking foundation, grants awarded by the board are intended to be part of a continuum of funding that helps build the field of Jewish education, particularly for young Jews between the ages of 13 and 30. Investing in the education of quality Jewish educators is one step toward the ultimate goal of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which is to inspire young people to discover the joy of living vibrant Jewish lives. The investment in cultural Jewish learning experiences is another important way the foundation attempts to achieve this goal. It is not enough to see a picture without knowing the story behind it, just as it is not enough to take a trip without understanding that you are walking through history.

Steven_green_156x200Steven Green is director of grants management/program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.


[1] Bogatz and Ball, The First Year of Sesame Street: An Evaluation, Princeton, New Jersey: Educational Testing Service, 1970.

[2] Lesser, Gerald S.  (1975) [1974].  Children and Television:  Lessons From Sesame Street.  New York: Vintage Books

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