Common Sense Review
Updated May 2013

Smithsonian Quests

This product is no longer available.
Research Smithsonian-style subjects online, get cool digital badges
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Common Sense Rating 4
Pros
Kids are gently guided through small, specific research projects and exposed to top-notch Smithsonian resources, and the fun badges instill a sense of pride.
Cons
It's a little difficult to figure out exactly how the site works, and standards alignment information and evaluation criteria for student work isn’t specified.
Bottom Line
Doing their own research on well-curated topics helps young thinkers, doers, and creators build skills and maintain a sense of wonder about the Earth we all share.
Michelle Kitt
Common Sense Reviewer
Common Sense Rating 4
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 4

Multidisciplinary topics appeal to a large crowd. Quests allow a range of styles of expression; writers, creators, analysts -- all are welcome. Navigation could be more precise, and teacher and student views are identical.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer? 4

Kids are free to choose activities in line with their interests, which is key as quests foster depth over breadth. Social components include friend lists and forums.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students? 3

There's a brief FAQ and a "how-to" video. Kids can participate even if they don’t have a lot of equipment or parental involvement. Kids earn badges, but it’s not clear if they get specific feedback about their work.

About our ratings and privacy evaluation.
How Can Teachers Use It?

Smithsonian Quests works for quality individual activities or as fresh ideas for the entire class. There’s an average of three activities per badge, varying by level of involvement. Survey student interest in certain topics and group questers with similar pursuits. Have students evaluate the quests themselves -- were they good for learning? Challenge kids to create a "fourth quest" or new quests around an original topic using online and offline resources. Extend badge-earning with an additional reward layer -- i.e., "Earned 3 badges" or "Earned a science/history/humanities badge." Develop rubrics to evaluate student work before they submit it online or employ peer review.

Review the Conferences section for 50-minute topical lectures by Smithsonian experts; the descriptions call out any associated badges. The site claims activities are aligned with Common Core and national standards but doesn't provide specifics; browse the Badges by Topic area or try the Teacher PD section for more info.

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What's It Like?

Editor's Note: Smithsonian Quests is now part of the Smithsonian Learning Lab.

Smithsonian Quests is a site that allows kids to complete online "quests," various projects that require some Web research and a finished result that they turn in for rewards. The site entices kids to complete independent, investigative activities to earn digital badges -- a fun motivational strategy making its way online after successful use in a physical way for years (think Girl/Boy Scouts). Quest activities are centered on history, science, and the humanities; for example, Historic Biographer gives kids a chance to delve deep into the history of a public figure, whereas Treehugger lets them get outside to measure local trees before studying up on how they benefit the environment. All the projects use Smithsonian resources, including linked websites and recorded presentations, or guide kids to connect to personal experiences. As proof of completion, kids must submit their findings online -- i.e., written work, a presentation, a video, etc. The Smithsonian Education Advisory Committee -- a group of volunteer teachers, curators, and museum educators -- will review each submission and award badges. Badges have cool names like "Dirt Detective," "Culture Keeper," and "Astrophotographer," and once they're approved, kids can display badges on their profile page.

Social stuff includes forums and groups, avatars, friends lists, and community badges for participation. Educators can set up individual student accounts and earn badges, too, for student engagement or involvement in online teacher professional development.

Standouts

  • Culture Explorer - Students explore personal adornment as an expression of heritage.
  • Invasions Investigator - Students examine the impact of non-native plants and animals on marine ecosystems.
  • Oral Historian - Students learn the connection oral histories make between present and past while considering the role of water in people's lives.
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Is It Good For Learning?

Smithsonian Quests' interdisciplinary, themed exercises emphasize depth over breadth and help kids build real-world skills. For example, environmental quests send kids outside, while historical quests boost skills in documentation. Kids are often challenged to relate personal experiences to the subject of the quest; they may have to talk to other people to get answers, gaining social skills in the process. The format for product submissions is flexible, permitting video, audio, a photo, or written work as proof.

Freedom of choice and a "product as proof" requirement promotes empowerment and ownership in original work. It's not on the site, but a press release explains that kids will get individual feedback on each submitted project. The downside: The site is a little vague. Details aren't clear, and without rubrics, sample feedback, or estimated turnaround time, it's hard to determine its value. Kids will just have to submit and see. However, you can always intervene in the submission process and have kids turn work in directly first.

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See how teachers are using Smithsonian Quests