‘Backward’ thinking seen as key to future: Students hope experiential history puts them on promising career path

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As counterintuitive as it sounds, “experiential history” is one of seven key careers, besides usual suspects like logistics and bioinformatics, that are the focus of the University of Indianapolis’ Institute for Emerging Careers.

No, drug testing of college faculty isn’t among the emerging careers.

The institute was formed last year with a $750,000 Lilly Endowment grant. It aims to stem the so-called “brain drain” of Indiana’s college graduates to other states in search of work-in part by pointing them in the direction of promising careers in their own back yards.

U of I professors say there’s logic in looking aft to see over the bow, although the economic development benefits aren’t readily apparent.

Shaping this new career field starts with moving college students beyond book knowledge and lectures into a setting in which they experience history. It may be in a bonnet-wearing internship at that 19th century bastion Conner Prairie in Fishers, for example.

Lately, one of Elee Wood’s students has been interning at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, demonstrating to schoolkids how American Indians made a number of household items.

“The way that we learn best is in real, authentic experiences,” said Wood, assistant professor and public scholar of museums, families and learning at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. The downtown university for years has offered more advanced degrees involving experiential history.

Students may present history to museum guests. Or they may work behind the scenes, filtering through actual historical artifacts. More than ever, technology has allowed better preservation, archiving and retrieval of artifacts and historical data.

One vehicle to travel back to the future is an interdisciplinary minor in applied history. A number of universities already offer such programs. U of I launched such a degree this fall, with internships at nearly a dozen institutions, from the Benjamin Harrison House to the NCAA Hall of Champions.

“You’re working with world-class organizations that are doing the actual work,” said James Fuller, a professor of history at U of I and one of the masterminds of experiential learning at the IEC.

The way Fuller sees it, the minor involving experiential history is not just for history majors but also for those in any discipline, including business. For example, learning about how a city was planned and the outcome could be valuable for a student pursuing a degree in urban planning. A student might go to a site to see how a road was designed in the old days and analyze what worked and what didn’t.

The same goes for how goods were moved in the old days.

“You could even learn supply chain management lessons,” Fuller added. “Students can be exposed to a variety of skill sets. You’re not just learning names and dates in history. This does have a much broader application.”

Experiential history helped U of I history major Letha Howard envision other career possibilities.

“Most people assume that history majors are going to teach history after they finish their degree, but there are so many other opportunities,” she said.

Howard conducted research at Conner Prairie.

“I was encouraged to ask questions and to find my own ways to solve problems,” she said.

That skill applies in any career.

Conversely, students have helped museums become more relevant. Techsavvy students may create a DVD for a museum, giving its guests additional resources and an enticement to return. Students bring to museums fresh ideas and trends that museum management can overlook amid its daily grind.

Students steeped in experiential history might later make good candidates as corporate archivists or in community outreach, said Wood, who works parttime at the Children’s Museum.

But experiential history also can better prepare students for careers with the region’s many museums, said Ron Dow, assistant director of U of I’s Institute for Emerging Careers.

There are at least nine museums in the Indianapolis area alone, with newcomers such as the NCAA’s Hall of Champions along the Central Canal.

“Miami may have ‘millionaires’ row,’ but Indianapolis has ‘museum row,'” Dow said.

Those museums themselves have become economic development engines, Dow added.

Increasingly, these institutions offer more interpretive delivery of history rather than static displays. They include the Indiana State Museum, where new president and former Conner Prairie head John Herbst has emphasized more interpretive delivery.

Among those are music, plays and reenactments of Indiana historic figures such as entrepreneur and social activist Madame C.J. Walker.

“Not a lot of people like to come in and listen to a lecture,” said Michael Burrows, communications coordinator for the state museum. “We’re competing against all forms of entertainment.”

As for how the region’s economy could benefit from a work force steeped in experiential history, the cause and effect is a little more tenuous.

Dow looks at it this way: To the extent the region develops a strong base of college grads honed by experiential history, the more museums stand to succeed. Strong museums improve the city’s cultural appeal-and potentially make it more attractive to companies thinking about locating in central Indiana.

Greg Schenkel, president and CEO of the economic development group Indy Partnership, agrees that cultural assets are lures.

Factors such as taxes and the overall cost of doing business remain paramount, but “the overall cultural amenities are becoming more and more important from that quality-of-life issue,” Schenkel said.

For instance, can a company convince top executives to move here? And is the city attractive enough to lure job candidates from other cities?

“Are they going to want to live here or would they rather live in Chicago? We can’t get them here solely on the basis of economics,” Schenkel added. “A lot of these people expect a good opera, a good museum.”

And oddly enough, some historical institutions are becoming agents for corporate change. Over the years, Conner Prairie has hosted events for companies designed to improve team-building skills in an historical setting, such as preparing food, said Jane Blankman-Hetrick, guest advocate at the museum.

She remembers how a company where she once worked brought its team leaders to the museum to assess how well they could get along.

More formal programs are now being developed,” said Holly Rice, a sales manager at Conner Prairie. “We have discussed projects such as completing 1800s tasks/chores as teams, cooking, games such as building mini cabins” and so on.

Said U of I’s Dow of experiential history careers: “This has a bottom-line economic impact.”

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