From Bismark, ND to the United States Congress: The Impact of Vietnam Project-Based Learning

By Melanie Lowry, Education Outreach Intern

“‘Project-based learning’ is the new buzzword in education that our school is encouraging teachers to use”, said Laura Forde, a social studies teacher at Bismarck High School in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Forde never estimated just how impactful this new project-based learning curriculum would be.  Her use of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Hometown Heroes curriculum has affected students, teachers, veterans from Bismarck, military families, and even Members of Congress.

Last year, Forde visited Washington, D.C. to attend educator training and workshops with the help of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) and the Close Up Foundation, an organization that supports teachers and students in visiting the nation’s capital.

While in Washington, Forde attended a VVMF teacher workshop at the National Park Service’s collection facility. The facility holds over 400,000 artifacts that have been left at the Vietnam Memorial since 1984 “I remember being at the warehouse, and thinking ‘I’m one of the few people that ever gets to see this,’” said Forde.

The football jersey of a deceased veteran hanging in a Bismarck High School classroom.

The Hometown Heroes curriculum was also presented to the teachers at the workshop. The curriculum aims to connect students and veterans in their own communities through various service learning projects related to the Vietnam War. Elements of the curriculum include projects aimed at gathering information and photos of veterans, and taking class trips to memorials.

Forde’s return to Bismarck from Washington D.C. sparked many changes in her current history curriculum. Inspired by both the collections facility and project ideas from Hometown Heroes, Forde constructed a project serving to honor local ND veterans whose names are listed on the Vietnam Memorial.

When Forde’s junior and senior students began the project, they were asked to contact families of deceased veterans in the Bismarck community. The students researched fallen veterans through information from the families, and even began to present the research to veterans in Bismarck. “Many of the relationships that students have made with the veterans’ families could turn into lifelong friendships,” said Forde.

Forde’ students were also able to view parts of the collections facility that Forde had seen in Washington, D.C. through video conferencing with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. “One of the artifacts that we saw was a prosthetic limb that had been left at the Wall,” said Forde.

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Artifacts commemorating local veterans, created by Bismarck High School junior and senior students.

After the students had the opportunity to view the collection, students were asked to create their own artifacts on behalf of deceased veterans in their community.  These student-created artifacts were meant to represent both veterans’ military and personal lives. Students again sought the help of local military families in creating various items to commemorate veterans killed in action. Among the items that students created were a local fallen veteran’s football jersey, painted with the veteran’s tours of service, and photos of a Bismarck veteran attached to a graduation cap.

The impact of the project continued to grow when Forde came into contact with United States Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who asked for Forde’s students to present research to congressional staffers. Senator Heitkamp used this student research and information to speak multiple times about fallen North Dakota veterans on the Senate floor.

Forde observed students’ continued engagement in the project even after its conclusion: “Kids are really invested and excited. They’ve been writing about it in the school newspaper and have been wanting to make video segments for it in the school TV program.”

Forde continues to advocate for the value of this project-based learning curriculum, “Many kids have said this is one of the best projects that they’ve completed in their educational career.”

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