Blast from the Past

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, August 23, 2006

Grade Level

  • Elementary School


  • Design History

Subject Area

  • Language Arts
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

One fifty-minute class period, one homework assignment


Throughout history people have designed objects that have changed and enhanced the quality of people's lives. These objects help us to both survive and enjoy life. In this activity, students will analyze historic artifacts to help gain an understanding of how the past has impacted their lives.

National Standards


Students will do the following:
  • explain how "design" can be both a noun and a verb
  • analyze artifacts to gain an understanding of the past
  • examine how the past impacts our daily lives



  • copies of the website artifacts


Building Background Design a Noun and a Verb

The purpose of this activity is to provide an opportunity for students to understand that design is both a noun and a verb. 1. It's been said that "design" is both a noun and a verb, the noun being the final plan or the object produced and the verb being the process of originating and developing a plan for the new object. Discuss this concept with your class. Ask them to give examples of the word "design" being used as a noun and then as a verb.

Steps for Learning Survival and Enjoyment

In this activity, students will analyze historic artifacts to gain an understanding of how historic objects were designed according to the needs and wishes of a given era. 1. Divide the class into small groups. Give each group a copy of the images listed below. Designs to Help People Survive: Compass used on the Lewis and Clark expedition, 1804-6 Hatchet presented to Davy Crockett in 1835 Life preserver worn by Major John Wesley Powell during exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers, 1869 Barbara McClintock's microscope, 1940s-50s Vials of polio vaccine, 1954 Jarvik-7 artificial heart, 1985 Designs for Enjoyment: Stradivari violoncello, 1701 Cast-iron fire engine, about 1900 Teddy bear, about 1903 Array of autographed baseballs, 1950s-80s Barbie doll, 1958 "Squash-blossom" necklace and earrings made by a Zuni silversmith in New Mexico, 1973                         2. Ask students to look at each object and label it either as an object that was designed to help people to survive or as an object that was created for people's enjoyment. 3. Tell students to discuss the following questions as they view each photograph: How might this object have helped people survive? What problem did it help solve? How might this object have increased people's enjoyment? 4. Have groups share their answers with the entire class. 5. Homework Assignment: Ask students to imagine that one of the items they just looked at that helps people survive had never been created. Tell students to write about the impact this would have had on people's lives today.


Answer the following questions:Why do you think certain people are driven to create objects that help people survive?Do you think it's important to produce items that people can enjoy? Explain. If you could design an object that would help people survive, what would you create? Explain.

Enrichment Extension Activities

1. Involve students in a class discussion about famous people whose lives are worth remembering, and the ways in which progress is an integral part of our nation's identity. Send students to the "A Shrine to the Famous" section of the Smithsonian Legacies website. Have students view the artifacts and choose what they think is the most interesting artifact from each collection. Ask students to write a brief paragraph explaining their reason for choosing the artifact.3. Tell students to create their own historical hall of fame by selecting an artifact from a person who is alive today. Ask students to write a brief explanation of how this person exemplifies an American value and ideal.

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.