First World War Discovery Box program lets students touch the First World War

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Article / September 14, 2015 / Project number: 15-0064

Ottawa, Ontario — What weighs 27 kilograms, contains five genuine and 17 reproduction First World War artifacts, including a gas mask and an example of trench art, and can be borrowed without charge by any school in Canada?

It’s the Supply Line First World War Discovery Box, created by staff at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa to give students hands-on experience of what it was like to be First World War soldiers.

Sandra O’Quinn, a Learning Specialist at the museum explains that, as the name implies, the idea is to allow students to discover First World War History for themselves. And, unlike those in many museum exhibits, these artifacts are meant to be touched.

“We chose objects that would stand up to hundreds and hundreds of children handling them,” Ms. O’Quinn says. “We want them to touch, try on and manipulate them.”

Items that are reproductions include the uniform jacket and cap, and the gas mask. The authentic pieces include the cap badge, shadow boxes with shrapnel and barbed wire, shell casings and an example of trench art. Trench art was created by soldiers during quiet moments and an example is intricately engraved mortar shells.

Other items in the box include a gas alarm rattle, which British forces used to warn of chemical attacks, and a trench periscope.

The Discovery Box is modelled on another, similar project developed by War Museum staff at its previous location on Sussex Drive. It was relocated to its current and much larger home on Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats in 2005.

The program was re-launched in September 2014 in recognition of the centenary of the First World War. Interest from schools was immediate and, in response to positive word of mouth from museum donors and others,  more than 200 had signed on to participate before the official launch.

“We’re really happy with it,” says Ms. O’Quinn. “We’re most happy with the teachers’ response.” She said it was gratifying when teachers reported that the tactile approach made it easier to engage students with different learning profiles that are typically more difficult to reach.

She notes that the program has proven to be most popular in high schools. Bilingual lesson plans to go along with the artifacts were developed for students in Grades 4 through 12, although the Discovery Box has also  been introduced in classes from Kindergarten to Grade 3. Ms. O’Quinn says a formal lesson plan tailored to that group will be available for the 2015-16 school year.

Michael Saj, head of the social studies department at St. Mary's Academy, a private Catholic girls’ school in Winnipeg, recalls how he felt as he unpacked the Discovery Box.

“I was really excited, being somewhat of a history geek. The other teachers saw this huge box and I was pulling out the contents and they were like, ‘You’re shaking!’ It was really neat and very exciting to see all the incredible stuff that was packed in there.”

Mr. Saj says it offers a unique experience to students.

“It’s very hands-on, very tactile. It gives them an experience that they normally don’t get in a history classroom,” he says. “Being able to see replicas and also authentic artifacts from that time period, it gives them an understanding and an experience that they wouldn’t get alone from reading something in a book or listening to a lecture or even watching a movie. They really liked it.”

Mr. Saj adds that the artifacts were an ideal tool for exercises in critical historical thinking and says he’d like to bring the Discovery Box back to St. Mary’s.

“It gives you the opportunity to say, ‘here’s a uniform and let’s look at what it was made of’ and ‘why would it have to be made of that material’ and ‘let’s imagine wearing it in the summertime’ and ‘what happens when it gets wet?’”

Patricia Kasapowitsch, a Grade 8 teacher at Pine Ridge Middle School in Kingston, Nova Scotia said the Discovery Box enhanced her lessons on the First World War.

“I have never been able to silence a classroom the way I did when I first demonstrated the gas alarm rattle. I have to admit it was one of my favourite objects and I thoroughly enjoyed making a few students jump as we discussed life in the trenches.”

Pine Ridge is located on Canadian Forces Base Greenwood, a Royal Canadian Air Force base where a large number of students are from military families. Ms. Kasapowitsch says there was an immediate and positive reaction to the artifacts.

“As soon as it was rolled into the classroom, students excitedly approached my desk and began asking what it was and what was inside. As soon as we opened the box, everyone wanted to touch and to see everything,” she says.  “It was so exciting for my students to be able to hold and to try on a soldier’s helmet, service dress jacket and cap.  Each of the artifacts allowed my students to experience history and to feel more connected to events that occurred well before their time.” 

Participating schools can keep the Discovery Box for up to two weeks and can book it once per semester. The Supply Line First World War Discovery Box program is extremely popular with schools. To view the objects in the box online and for the latest in availability, please consult:

By Lynn Capuano and Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

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