Two projects by St. Olaf students featured in Smithsonian’s Learning Lab
As part of Associate Professor of Asian Studies Ka Wong’s Asia in America course in Spring 2021, St. Olaf students Jason Tan ’22, Amber Waller ’22, and Andy Nelson ’23 developed two proposals for an internship and project with APAC.
Over the summer they transformed these proposals into two projects — one titled “Grandparents: A look into the elderly Chinese American Experience” and the other titled “Mind over Matter: AAPI Mental Health” — that are now part of the Learning Lab, an interactive website for the discovery and creative use of the Smithsonian’s digital collections and tools. The Smithsonian created the Learning Lab in 2016 to facilitate usage and creativity with its digitized museum collection, especially for educational purposes. It is utilized by hundreds of thousands of students and teachers annually.
The projects that Tan, Waller, and Nelson developed provide insight into the lives of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in the United States through interviews, empirical research, extant literature, and other primary and secondary sources.
“In the class, we talked a lot about the problems the AAPI community is dealing with today like business closings, anti-Asian hate, and violent attacks, with the pandemic as well as more historically persistent problems that directly lead to the issues today. We also completed a survey of the many different groups encompassed by the term ‘AAPI.’ It was a lot of important, sad history that made us want to pull out the daily living experiences of Asian Americans that we weren’t finding in mainstream media,” Waller says.
St. Olaf Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) Program Director Alyssa Melby worked with Wong and the students in the Asia in America class to develop pitches for new APAC Learning Lab modules. The two projects by Tan, Waller, and Nelson were selected, and they continued to work with Wong throughout the summer. Melby says Andrea Kim Neighbors, the manager of education initiatives for APAC, played a critical role in establishing a partnership with St. Olaf and fostering rich dialogue on what would be beneficial for both the Learning Lab and the students involved.
“Andrea gave the students space to bring their lived experiences into the internship, which doesn’t always happen,” Melby says. “The interns really approached their work with APAC in a thoughtful, intentional manner. I appreciated the back-and-forth between all involved as we worked to create something not only meaningful to our students but APAC and the broader Asian American Pacific Islander community as well.”
The interns really approached their work with APAC in a thoughtful, intentional manner. I appreciated the back-and-forth between all involved as we worked to create something not only meaningful to our students but APAC and the broader Asian American Pacific Islander community as well.Academic Civic Engagement Program Director Alyssa Melby
Tan and Waller worked together on the “Grandparents: A look into the elderly Chinese American Experience” project. Tan says his grandparents inspired his interest in pursuing this topic, especially since they had played a big part in his upbringing.
“I learned a lot about how disconnected I felt from my culture in many ways,” he says. “I grew up in a culture that had a lot of intersection between being American and being an Asian immigrant. In that kind of environment, there’s a sense that identifying closely with your Chinese origins is undesirable. However, with some distance and research, I’ve felt a newfound curiosity and desire to embrace my heritage.”
Nelson worked on the “Mind over Matter: AAPI Mental Health” project. Research shows that Asian Americans are three times less likely to receive mental health services compared to white Americans. The module “aimed to create awareness, accessibility, and encouragement for AAPI mental health today,” Nelson says.
The final modules are available on Learning Lab. They include access to primary sources, project worksheets, archival and online materials, discussion questions, and reflections, along with annotated bibliographies on the respective subjects.
All three students emphasize that Wong’s expertise, guidance, and support played a critical role developing their projects. “He was with us every step of the way, from brainstorming and finding resources, to paring down the interview into exactly what we needed,” Tan says.
Nelson adds, “Professor Wong was a tremendous mentor who helped oversee our project and relationship with the Smithsonian. He built, encouraged, and reflected on our projects with us, providing the help we needed on solidifying our projects.”
Professor Wong was a tremendous mentor who helped oversee our project and relationship with the Smithsonian. He built, encouraged, and reflected on our projects with us.Andy Nelson ’23
People around the world can now utilize their work, which will have an impact in important and meaningful ways. The Smithsonian’s Learning Lab enables users to make connections to their own communities, and it helps bridge the disconnect that many marginalized communities have felt from Euro-centric museums and education systems in the U.S.
Melby says it’s been exciting to build such a strong relationship with APAC. “We are excited to work with each other, and I hope that we can build upon this relationship in future courses,” she says.