Allegheny Graduate Educates Millions Across the Country With Smithsonian Learning Lab
When Darren Milligan ’99 realized that medical school wasn’t the right path for him, he looked to his Allegheny College faculty mentors for advice. They encouraged Milligan to explore new interests, which prompted him to enroll in art classes at Allegheny — and take the first step toward his career today with the Smithsonian Institution.
“The faculty was incredible when I was there — a group of thoughtful and supportive people who cared very deeply about teaching and student development,” says Milligan, who double majored in biology and Spanish. “I met a lot of people who were very smart and accomplished; I got to know them. I saw that the unknown path was not something to be scared of and actually might lead to something very interesting.”
Milligan specializes in educational and digital outreach for the Smithsonian Institution as acting director of the Office of Educational Technology in Washington, D.C. He also is an adjunct lecturer at Georgetown University.
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree, Milligan took a position with the Purple Martin Conservation Association, a small scientific nonprofit located in his hometown of Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Milligan conducted fieldwork when he first began, but his role soon evolved to support digital education and website development.
“My degree certainly got me my first job and it is what led me down the curving path towards designing and coding websites,” Milligan says. “It all began back at that nonprofit, which I was only able to get because I had biology work and had done fieldwork at Allegheny.”
After four years in Edinboro, he moved to Pittsburgh to pursue corporate website design and digital marketing for FreeMarkets Inc. But he missed being part of a mission-driven organization and relocated again to Washington, D.C. For a short time, he took a website position with Infovista Corporation before joining the Smithsonian, where he has been for over 16 years.
Milligan began at the Smithsonian by directing and developing their first online portal for educational resources, SmithsonianEducation.org. The platform twice received Webby Awards as the Best Cultural Institution Website. Additionally, he was the former producer of the print magazine “Smithsonian in Your Classroom,” distributed across the nation. In 2015, Milligan earned a master’s degree in digital heritage from the University of Leicester.
“It’s amazing that, through technology, teachers and students can access original primary documents, no matter where they are,” Milligan says, “as well as artworks, scientific research, and the diverse expertise that exists across the 21 museums of the Smithsonian — our research centers, libraries, archives, and the national zoo. Just to play a small role in connecting the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex to classrooms across the country and around the world is pretty exciting.”
As acting director, he oversees the Smithsonian Learning Lab and develops strategies to ensure the Smithsonian is in every classroom across the country. The site is a free-of-charge digital toolkit for teachers and students. It includes more than six million digitized resources from the Smithsonian collection, either of cultural or scientific importance, and the tools to customize those resources to make them your own.
In 2019, The Smithsonian Learning Lab received a Webby Award for Best Education Website by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. The lab also received the 2018 Common Sense Education Best Museum Apps and Websites for Students Award and the 2017 American Alliance of Museums Media & Technology Education and Outreach Gold MUSE Award.
“Museums are a vital component of our educational system and, through digital technologies, can now offer expanded opportunities to people who would’ve never had access to our original locations, collections, and experts,” Milligan says. “That’s a lot to be said for accessibility.”