As a World War II veteran questioned Andrew Frey ’18, their eyes hardly met. The former U.S. soldier, who fought in the Pacific, was transfixed on a Pacific Theater flag, one of many historical artifacts on display at Frey’s booth.
Before the man and his spouse moved on, they showered the Redbird with thanks for what he was doing.
Moments later, the aspiring educator found himself surrounded by a hoard of inquisitive high school students. They took dozens of photos of the items on his table.
“We’re definitely telling our teachers about this,” one said. “If this was a part of my class, I’d love history,” another chimed in.
That was the scene last October at Illinois State’s Startup Showcase. Sponsored by the College of Business’ Means Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, the two-day competition allows Redbird students to pitch their business ideas to the community. The winners earn seed money and ongoing support from the college.
Frey and his company, Firsthand Museum, took first prize.
“Firsthand Museum is a shippable museum of historical artifacts that teachers are able to order for their classrooms. It will be subscription based,” he said.
“It enables students to see, hold, and make connections with a piece of history and the content being taught.”
Frey came up with the concept for the Firsthand Museum the summer prior to his junior year. The elementary education alum was completing an internship with Golden Apple, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to preparing future teachers to serve diverse and high-need
One of the fourth graders he taught was not receptive to any of his approaches. However, Frey found out that the student loved learning about the artifacts at Chicago’s many museums. That’s all the motivation Frey needed.
“Andrew is the type of person that, when he sees a problem, he doesn’t ignore it, he finds a solution. And in the case of Firsthand Museum, he created a solution,” said Kevin Goffard ’15, the service area coordinator of Tri-Towers. Goffard is also Frey’s former resident advisor (RA) and previously served as a high school theater teacher.
In the fall of 2016, the young entrepreneur went full bore on developing the idea. He started collecting artifacts and was constantly bouncing ideas about the business off friends, family, and trusted educators, including Goffard.
Each time Frey collected an artifact, he snapped a picture of it with his iPhone and put it up on the company’s website. He used the inside of a shoebox as the backdrop, and an app on his phone removed the background. Because the incandescent lighting in Watterson wasn’t bright enough, he captured the images when the sun shined directly into his dorm room between 2–4 p.m.
Until Frey went off to student teach in Crystal Lake in spring 2018, he stored the items in his dorm within a black chest with glass drawers. The collection grew to 400 pieces last October, and it’s now tipping the scales at more than 2,500 items.
Frey said he fell in love with history at age 12 after being inspired by his engaging and witty seventh grade social studies teacher.
“We would leave that class in tears because we were laughing so hard. His approach made learning meaningful and fun,” he said.
Frey is excited to help create similarly powerful moments where students become invested in learning.
Donors from across the world share his enthusiasm for giving new purpose to items that might otherwise be collecting dust.
“Not only is the goal to inspire generations upon generations of students, but it’s also to preserve history,” he said. “The Firsthand Museum will carry on the legacy of that World War II soldier who carried this canteen at Iwo Jima, or even the archaeologists who went out into the field and dug up those dinosaur fossils or meteorites.”
For Frey, the personal story surrounding the item is just as important as the artifact itself. He works to collect as much biographical information as possible about the items’ original owners, allowing teachers to provide deeper contextual references in their lessons.
The advice field
The personal connection he has to the Firsthand Museum is a constant source of motivation. It’s also why he is always asking the question, “What’s best for teachers and students?”
Frey is connecting each of the items with Common Core Standards, starting with Illinois. He’s also collaborating with fellow educators to not only build lesson plans, but entire social studies curricula, and intends to replicate the effort in the areas of science and language arts. A cultural category will also become a prominent part of the offerings.
“Without Golden Apple, I never would have come up with this idea. But if Illinois State did not provide me with so much experience in the classroom early on, the Firsthand Museum would not be nearly as teacher-oriented,” he said.
Friends from other Illinois colleges told Frey that their first chance to interact with prekindergarten to 12th grade students was the end of junior year; some even said it took until they were seniors.
“I’ve been doing it since I first became a sophomore,” he said. “I was able to see how the kids interact with the artifacts, determine how to incorporate the standards, and understand some of the challenges teachers face when developing a lesson.”
Frey left Illinois State prepared to take on first-year teaching and a business, but there were bumps along the way, particularly freshman year. He credits Goffard for being an invaluable source of support. In fact, his old RA was the reason he decided to serve in the same role during his sophomore and junior years.
“Andrew is very collaborative, and he really likes to get everyone’s viewpoint,” said Goffard. “The students felt like they had a stake in their community in Watterson. I really think that’s a skill he’s carrying over to his business, and in his teaching.”
Frey said the Firsthand Museum can reach its potential only if fellow educators are sharing their own needs and creative ideas.
“I’m going to make the Firsthand Museum very open source where teachers can comment on what they want, what they need, and how they used different artifacts,” he said. “That way, it can continue to grow as teachers upload their lesson plans, and just generally give advice and collaborate with other teachers.”
Frey will begin teaching at the elementary level in August and will roll out the Firsthand Museum to a limited number of educators shortly after.
“I’ve been living this idea for so long that the Firsthand Museum is really a part of me, just like teaching is. But students will always be my primary focus, and I’m excited to inspire them just like my teachers did for me.”