Along with hip-hop, rap battles and its chartbuster soundtrack, the producers of Broadway phenomenon Hamilton are now armed with another tool in their civic outreach to bring its message to the masses: technology.
A partnership between Hamilton, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the Rockefeller Foundation and Google (via its philanthropic arm Google.org) developed a six week long Hamilton-themed history education curriculum accessible using Google’s virtual reality platform.
Titled ‘EduHam’, the curriculum was conceptualized by Hamilton‘s creative team, provided a framework by the Gilder Lehrman Institute (a New York-based nonprofit organization seeking to improve history education), and then given the shape of digital content with the help of Google’s engineers. It has since been uploaded to Google’s virtual reality platform, Expeditions, which enable classrooms anywhere with an internet connection to take virtual field trips — including into the era of Alexander Hamilton.
The content includes virtual tours of landmark moments in America’s history — like the Revolutionary War, signing and ratification of the Constitution, the Presidency of George Washington (under whom Hamilton served as the Secretary of the Treasury), and the spot of the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel, which claimed Hamilton’s life in 1804.
To culminate the partnership, Google also made it possible for 1,900 Chicago Public School (CPS) students — representing 22 schools from mostly underserved parts of the city — to watch Hamilton, interact with the show’s Chicago cast and witness their peers perform Hamilton-inspired spoken word on the PrivateBank Theater stage in downtown Chicago.
The first part of the event saw performances of original song, rap, monologues and poetry by CPS students. Following the performances, the students got to engage in a conversation with select members of the Chicago cast, who reflected upon their experiences on joining and performing with Hamilton.
Chicago Inno talked to cast member Colby Lewis, who spoke to the promise that Google’s tech platform brings to Hamilton‘s mission. “Technology can be an immense value-add to theater’s objective of spurring curiosity. We hope the next generation learns about American history through our on-stage performance, but we also appreciate the opportunity available to them to go back home or to school, and explore more for themselves,” he said.
Google is also making all of this content on Expeditions accessible to students and teachers via their Google Cardboard goggles — VR viewers made almost entirely out of cardboard that pair with iOS and Android systems.
Google Cardboard is very easy to set up in classrooms — sets are available upon request to Google by teachers, at Best Buy, or even as inexpensive do-it-yourself options (not an official Google product). The sets contain a tablet (usually an iPad) and smartphone for the teacher, along with goggles for every student. The teacher simply downloads a free Expeditions mobile app, selects a geographical or historical destination based on their curricular objective, and thus transports their entire classroom to the intended destination virtually.
Over 2 million students nationwide have experienced almost 500 destinations on the Expeditions platform since its initial rollout in the 2015. There are hundreds of such Expeditions available on their platform, and many are added on a regular basis. While the use of virtual reality as an education tool is not new — teachers have been using Microsoft’s Skype platform to explore the deep oceans as well as outer space — Google’s platform is a lot more immersive.
“Google sees how Hamilton is making historical information accessible and useful, which is very much in line with our own mission,” said Google’s Head of Midwest Government Relations and Public Affairs, Rob Biederman, at the event, speaking to the larger opportunity of tech companies partnering up with cultural institutions to broaden their impact. “We as a company just want to be a good neighbors in cities where we have presence — supporting events, bringing the community together, providing grants to enable access to education and information. We’re happy to empower Chicago Public School students in understanding history a little better using our technology.”
He echoed Expeditions’ website, which succinctly lays out its mission. “The goal of Expeditions is to democratize experiential learning using virtual reality. The traditional way schools provide students with experiential learning has been via field trips, science labs, purpose-built robots, toys, equipment – amazing for student engagement but expensive and increasingly scarce occurrences in schools. While nothing replaces these experiences, we’re hoping we can facilitate them on a daily basis to spark students’ curiosity of the world,” it says.
The best part? Unmistakably, the opportunity to watch Hamilton on stage — just ask any of the palpably energetic 1,900 CPS students in the room.
(Photo credits to Justin Barbin)