On June 1 and 2, visitors to Rowland Hall’s Eccles Library on the Lincoln Street Campus were treated to an exciting opportunity to step into Utah’s past.
Around the room, 30 prototypes of museum exhibits, designed by eighth graders, showcased fascinating areas of Utah history, including homages to the state’s extreme sports, performance and public art, inventors, and local activist movements, among other topics. There was even an exhibit that recreated the area around Delicate Arch and one designed in the style of a Navajo hogan.
As visitors made their way around the library, poring over the models, students shared how and why they decided on their ideas, as well as fun tidbits—for example, the group behind an exhibit on the history of the Utah governor’s mansion shared that a Christmas tree sparked a fire in the mansion in 1993, while the group behind Pixel Pioneers, an exhibit dedicated to Utah’s long connection to the tech industry, introduced visitors to the Utah teapot, a 3D test model created in 1975 by University of Utah researcher Martin Newell that’s become a standard reference object in the computer graphics community.
This event was the culmination of a month-long learning opportunity designed by Mary Jo Marker, eighth-grade American studies teacher, and Brady Smith, eighth-grade English teacher, that asked students to think about the role museums play in society, and allowed them to connect with historians from the Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement (CCE), who are currently designing a new state history museum that’s scheduled to open in 2026. The teaching team wanted to give students a chance to pitch their own ideas for museum exhibits to CCE, believing the opportunity would help them think beyond an audience of their teachers and peers, as well as connect their ideas to the larger community through this real-world opportunity.
We wanted them to understand their ideas have value and to think outside the classroom box for their audience.—Mary Jo Marker, eighth-grade American studies teacher
“We wanted them to understand their ideas have value and to think outside the classroom box for their audience,” explained Mary Jo.
To kick off the project in early May, the eighth graders met with Kat Potter, a former Rowland Hall faculty member and a current parent, who is now deputy director of the CCE. Kat partnered with Mary Jo and Brady during the year to design the project, and during her visit she shared with students the need for the museum and what her team is working on, then invited the group to pitch their own exhibit ideas. “Their challenge was to make an engaging, interactive exhibit,” said Mary Jo.
To help the students prepare to take on that challenge, Mary Jo and Brady held in-class discussions about the role of museums and what makes for engaging exhibits, and had students interview community members, including Rowland Hall fourth graders who have been studying Utah history and residents of the Columbus Senior Center, to get their ideas about what would be interesting in a state history museum. The students also had the chance to analyze current exhibits at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and a variety of national museums during their visit to Washington, DC, and to reflect on which exhibits were engaging, which were not, and why. This helped them as they began working on their own exhibit pitches and making decisions about how to engage viewers with the people and events that have shaped the state.
Best of all, the real-world connection to the future museum helped to deepen learning and drive students, who knew they may be contributing ideas that will influence the team of historians. It’s clear the teachers are proud of what the students came up with and how their work may potentially help shape the museum.
School is often fully teacher-facing, but I think having students prepare a big project for the outside world is motivating, and hopefully gives a different perspective.—Brady Smith, eighth-grade English teacher
“We were incredibly happy with how the project went,” said Brady. “We had an excellent turnout from parents, community members, and staff from the Department of Cultural Engagement. The latter gave the kids great feedback and suggested that the projects would impact their thinking about the museum going forward.”
Brady added that he also hoped that this opportunity has helped the eighth graders understand how the past year of studies applies to the bigger world and will inspire them to continue to think of ways they can share their knowledge beyond the classroom.
“School is often fully teacher-facing, but I think having students prepare a big project for the outside world is motivating, and hopefully gives a different perspective,” he said. “I hope they see how everything we’ve done throughout eighth grade has concrete applications to public-facing work.”