The Making of a Digital Educator

For my recent post on DMLcentral I wanted to explore how digital educators are trained to do what they do… or are we just figuring it out on our own?

You can read the original here or read it below in full.

Last year, I read Elizabeth Green’s “Building a Better Teacher” and it changed the way I understood education in America.

Fundamental to this essential history (of recent efforts at education reform, not just in the U.S. but around the world) is the question of whether teachers are born or made. The book’s subtitle telegraphs Green’s answer “How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone).” If teachers are born, then all we need to do is support those inherently strong at it then push out the rest. If they are made, however, the task is much harder, but more hopeful, as we can instead develop successful strategies to support educators to develop the complex skill sets required to inspire and inform the next generation.

Through my read, I kept reflecting on its lessons and comparing them back with my own experiences, now in my 16th year in after-school learning institutions. As a digital learning educator, was I born or made? What did I learn at Global Kids and, more recently, at the American Museum of Natural History, that made me so effective at weaving digital learning tools, strategies, and pedagogies into curricula? How did I become so skilled at leading groups of 20-30 students through a digitally-infused learning process?

Rather than answer these questions on my own, I thought — on the eve of the Digital Media and Learning Conference — we could explore them together. So, in essence, I pose to you: How are digital learning educators made?

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Four Conferences in Four Weeks: ASTC, MakerFaire, DML & MineFaire

I am getting ready for weeks upon weeks of conference travel. To get me pumped up (both to go and share it with you) I created this video in homage to science museums (using the new video sensation I learned from my kids).

With that out of the way, let’s get on to business. This weekend I am going to ASTC in Tampa, the gathering of science centers (and related natural history museums like ours). The weekend after we’re presenting some AR demos with Hololens at the New York Maker Faire. Then, it’s off to the something-old, something-new Digital Media and Learning Conference (DML) in the shadow of DisneyLand. With the family in tow, I’ll then be heading to Philly for my first Minefaire (a fan-oriented Minecraft event) where I’ll be presenting with my son.

This will be the first time I get to connect with my professional peers wearing my new hat. If you haven’t heard, after four years leading digital learning within our youth programming, I now have a new role at the American Museum of Natural History (you can learn more about it here).

ASTC – Tampa

  • Mobile Apps, Museums, and MicroRangers: Fighting the 6th Extinction with Playful Learning (Session/Poster ID: 5326) (link) Saturday, September 24, 2016: 11:00 AM-12:15 PM – This is a poster session with two key MicroRanger partners – Nick Fortugno of Playmatics and Jeremy Kenisky formerly go Geomedia – talking about what we learned working with each other to create this audacious, augmented reality, exhibition-based mobile game.
  • Puzzling Out Serious Games in Museums – Saturday, September 24, 2016: 2:00 PM-3:15 PM – As a great follow-up to the Poster session, this panel brings together a number of museums to explore the different ways we are developing games for our visitors.
  • Renewing the Currency of Cultural Halls: Reframing the Past to Save the Future (Session/Poster ID: 5227) Saturday, September 24, 2016: 4:30 PM-5:45 PM – If sessions were my children, it’d be more diplomatic to say I love them all equally. But I don’t. I feel like this particulate session might be the most important one I’ve organized in years. It is an opportunity to share with our peers what’s been changing behind the scenes as classic natural history museums struggle with our legacy of indigenous people-focused cultural halls, and its an opportunity to also demonstrate how that change has com about, in no small part, through building renewed contemporary relationships.
  • 3D Printing in Museums: innovation, design, fabrication…and frustration Monday, September 26, 2016: 10:15 AM-11:30 AM – I think the title speaks for itself.

I’d love to speak with anyone involved with a science visualization lab – come find me!


My new colleagues exploring emerging media are teaming up with the Interactive group with Exhibitions to offer this: “Come explore hands-on AR/VR and Arduino/Raspberry Pi prototypes under development at the American Museum of Natural History: explore the surface of Mars, dive deep into the anatomy of a shark, and explore the boundaries of how we sense the world.”

DML – Anaheim

On the first day I will participate and share a paper within: “Power Brokers: Building Youth Social Capital through Connected Learning.” Then, within the main conference, I will co-present with Eve (from the Field) and Rik (from CalAcademy) on our “The DigitalLearningification of Informal Learning Centers: Lessons from Three Museums.” After spending a year collaborating on our podcast Object Oriented – exploring digital learning in object-based museums – DML is a great opportunity for Eve, Rik and I to track how DML has changed education programs within natural history and science museums in recent years and how that has led, in part, to the end of our podcast (I know – so sad). Is it the end of DML or just the sign of a more mature phase?

I’d love to speak with anyone using AR or VR for learning – come find me!

MINE FAIRE – Philadelphia

I have no idea what this event will be like, but I can’t wait to find out. My son and I have 20-minutes to present “Growing Up Minecraft: a father and son explore six years of living (and learning) in Minecraft.” It’s loosely based on a talk I gave last year at Bard College but this time I won’t just be speaking ABOUT my son but WITH him. I’m super excited.



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Introducing My New Position at the American Museum of Natural History

On October 5th, 2012, I began working in the Education department at the American Museum of Natural History, as their new Associate Director of Digital Learning. It has been an incredible four years. Now, as I move into a new role within the Museum, I wanted to take a few minutes to recognize all we advanced during this time, and then attempt (wish me luck) to explain my new position.

Getting my badge on my first day of work, Oct 2012.

Working with our youth learners, and our amazing staff of science educators, and creative staff across the Museum, and talented 3rd-party partners (game designer, app developers, writers, artists, and more), we developed and produced digital layers of interpretation that enhance the visitor experience and deepen their learning, in such areas as:

These were developed through a new process that engaged youth learners in a co-development with the Museum – some lasting more than two-years – leveraging a user-centric design process that relied heavily on rapid prototyping and iterative design. We also introduced new or enhanced modes of learning, through tools like Minecraft, science data visualization, and 3D scanning and printing.

In short, the efforts to implement a digital learning strategy within our youth-serving programs were effective. We increased the number of digital tools in use, we doubled the use of digital tools of science, and, so importantly, deepened the integration of substantive digital practices within our courses. While once siloed, the sites of digital innovations have  spread throughout the department. In addition, significant infrastructure challenges that prevented the application of digital learning have been resolved.

So the work remains strong as I move out of my old area, Youth Initiatives, leaving much in the hands of my remarkable colleague Hannah Jaris (with whom I will continue to work closely with from my new position), as I move across the building to an area originally founded as Science Bulletins.

The transition occurred drip by drip over this past summer and I am now fully ensconced in my new position. Some history might help to give it context.

Science Bulletins was created almost twenty years ago, developing video content for our halls (and the halls of other museums) bringing visitors visually compelling updates on  expeditions and science advances around the world. While SciBull will continue to produce videos for the Halls, it will increasingly expand (I’m far from the only new person here) into an emerging media lab.

This happens as a variety of factors converge. I don’t pretend to have a high enough view to see all the swirling forces, but I suspect the mix includes: the innovative, digital engagement co-developed with youth described above, the recent two year-long cross-departmental collaboration that brought new digital engagement to our Hall of Northwest Coast Indians after a rigorous public prototyping process, and efforts to flesh out the “innovative” in our momentous new building, the “Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation.”

So imagine all these coming together to both raise questions – about visitor engagement in a digital age, about how to educate the public about the Museum not just as a collection of exhibits but as an institution of scientists advancing the frontiers of knowledge, about the increase of science data arriving “born digital” (like genomics, gps data, astrophysics data sets, and more) – and to suggest solutions – iterative prototyping (and user-based design) and emerging media like augmented and virtual reality.

What will that look like? Well, in the current fiscal year we’re tapped with developing a series of prototypes that will leverage data generated by AMNH scientists and their colleagues to create digital experiences within our permanent halls. Our goal is to deepen visitor engagement while adding dynamic layers of current science content to our exhibits. The visual content will be based on observed data, models and simulations, CT scans, SEM images, and content captured by cameras equipped for shooting special effects and in 360 degrees for virtual environments. The visualizations will be leveraged across platforms to prototype a range of experiences including augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), gesture-based interactive displays, and responsive environments.


Our immediate objective, however, is less product oriented and more about developing prototypes to help us answer questions like:

  • How can we augment static displays and encourage deeper engagement?
  • How can we create a social experience?
  • Does gameplay enhance the experience or intimidate new users?
  • How can we use these engagements to enhance public understanding of data collection and visualization as tools of modern scientific investigation?
  • And SO SO much more

So the next time you visit the Museum, keep an eye out for us. In the Hall of Biodiversity you might get a chance to interact with a shark skeleton floating through the room. Or in the Rose Center you might get a chance to walk the surface of the moon. Come join us and help us answer questions that might just inform the museum visit of the future.



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Killer Snails gets a killer fan-made theme song

Here’s the story from the Killer Snails co-founder, Jessica Ochoa Hendrix:

As you know, Killer Snails attended two gaming conferences this summer. At the first conference, Origins Game Fair, we met a musician who performs as Rhiannon’s Lark. She really enjoyed our Killer Snails: Assassins of the Sea game and loved the backstory.

We saw her again at GenCon and she said that she was writing a song about our game! Without further ado, I present the fan created theme song for Killer Snails: Assassins of the Sea! All credit goes to Alyssa Yeager, the singer/songwriter.

I hope you all enjoy it as much as we do!

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How to Design a Youth Space With Youth: an interview with the Shedd Aquarium’s Wade Berger

This is my third and final interview in a series exploring learning labs in Chicago Museums (the first focused on The Field Museum and the second on the Art Institute of Chicago). In this edition I interviewed Wade Berger, in Spring of 2015, who manages the Teen learning Lab at the Shedd Aquarium. Back in 2013 I spoke with Wade about their use of Minecraft (The Shedd Aquarium, Minecraft, and Virtual Piranha); now we chat about the teen space he runs and how museums can be places for teens to both hang out and geek out on science.

Hi Wade. So please tell us, where exactly would one find the Teen Learning Lab within the Shedd Aquarium.

Well, we actually have an Aquatic Education Center, which is a space underneath our galleries in the aquarium.

So this particular room we are in right now, what is it called?

It’s a Teen Learning Lab. This space was designed by teens for teens. Its a free space to make new friends, work on projects and explore careers in aquatic science.

What do the old style classrooms look like, which I see are still in use down the hall?

Those are like your more traditional spaces which we have for our school field trips and our registered programs; this space is designed to be a drop-in space – teens can just show up, they don’t have to tell us they are coming in ahead of time, and we offer after school hours, weekend hours and summer hours.

Traditional Classroom at the Shedd Aquarium

What is something people might notice when they first walk in, something that they might not be expecting?

The colors, the furniture, all of these things are really non-traditional for a classroom, and they are picked out by teens. We had teens that went through style guides and went through catalogs and picked out the furniture, picked out the color schemes, picked out the technology as well. And they also helped us lay out the room – we had the teens come in and help us move stuff around.  So it’s bright, and colorful. We have teen projects all over the places, including several wall-mounted murals–which our teens designed with the help of our exhibit fabrication team.

Teen Learning Lab at the Shedd Aquarium

What’s also awesome about this space is the amount of technology that we have, including traditional pieces of technology used in aquatic sciences or marine biology and even a 3D printer. We also have Google Glass and other cutting edge technologies, such as high-end Macs, video-editing software,  and podcasting equipment that we allow teens to use for their projects.

And how does the institution set learning goals and how do you adapt them here?

We have a group of Continue reading

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Augmented Wearables and the Future of Museums: An Update

Below is a re-blog from my latest DMLcentral post, which you can find in its original form here. I wrote this one ready to go a few weeks ago, just before the launch of the widely popular augmented reality mobile game, Pokemon Go. As a result, I put this one on hold, wrote a new one about Pokemon (re: The Secret Sauce in Pokémon Go: Big Data),  and then edited the one below to still make sense. Enjoy!

Augmented Wearables and the Future of Museums: An Update

A year ago, I wrote “Augmented Wearables and the Future of Museums” for DML Central. Back then, most everything was in the conceptual realm. Tools were not yet for sale and most weren’t even available yet for developers. Boy, has a lot changed in one year (and I’m not even talking about Pokémon Go, which I did write about here a few weeks ago).

When I was a kid, no baseball game was complete without a box of Cracker Jacks. I still feel that way. A few weeks ago, at a game with my family, I reached around the sticky caramel popcorn to retrieve my prize. I was shocked by what I found: the prize was virtual. Partnering with the British augmented reality app developer, Blippar, the “prize” was a sticker which, when paired with the Blippar app, revealed one of four different augmented baseball-themed games.

In my 2015 post, I suggested a framework for understanding both augmented and virtual reality devices by understanding their social and spatial affordances. For example, one device might be best for a museum visitor to augment the world around her (me & here) while another device is best for a group of people to play together in a fantasy world (we & there). That framework has since been picked up by a leader in the field of museums, the American Alliance of Museum’s Center for the Future of Museums, to frame their topic in their annual TrendWatch report (and whose fearless leader, Elizabeth Merritt, I interviewed for DML Central earlier this year).

Identified as one of the five most important trends affecting museums in 2015, the report asks, “Why go to a museum when you can just don a headset to experience fabulous sights, sounds, touch — and hang out with friends — without leaving home?” On the other hand, the report wonders, “can AR/VR experiences provided beyond museum walls help win new audiences?” The AR/VR chapter does an excellent job framing the history of this conversation while highlighting recent museum examples from around the world.

In the past few months, I’ve encountered other terms and frameworks in use. The May cover article in Wired Magazine, “The Untold Story of Magic Leap,” by founding executive editor Kevin Kelly, is a crash course in the latest and greatest in virtual reality (and its relatives). It’s essential reading for anyone interested in the topic. Amongst other things, Kelly identifies two important things that make VR special. The first is the “intense and convincing sense of what is generally called presence.” You feel like those virtual landscapes, objects, and characters are really present with you. That leads to the second strength of VR: the sensed reality of the virtual makes you feel like you actually had an authentic experience. “People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw,” Kelly argues, “but as something that happened to them.”

Kelly also brings in the term “mixed reality” (or MR for short) to describe a number of devices that a user wears like a pair of super goggles and, more often than not, while tethered by hardline to a computer. The best I can figure is that MR is augmented reality through a worn device. When I saw Graeme Devine, of Magic Leap, present on his company last week at the Games For Change Festival, he, too, used the term MR (which is where Kelly might have picked it up). Devine defined it as “the mixture of the real world and virtual worlds so that one understands the other.” The power of MR, as I came to understand it, is that AR typically uses one discrete target (like a coin or sticker) to trigger an augmented experience while MR maps the shape of a room and uses that entire map as the canvass upon which to paint. In other words, with MR, the entire surrounding space is in play for layers of augmentation (an exciting prospect for museums).

mixed reality graphic

Speaking of the Games for Change Festival, the game designer and professor Jesse Schell gave a talk on the future of VR (“The Future of Virtual Reality and Education”) in which he shared a different frame for these devices. There are mobile devices, like Google Cardboard, that allow you to walk around. And there are VR experiences that let you see (and use) your hands, like with the HTC Vive, but often leave you tethered to a computer. What’s coming next is a combination of the two — a device that allows you to be mobile and to have an embodied experience that interacts with the virtual environment. I found this useful, from a designed experience perspective, but I’ll still be sticking with my social/spatial framework, to keep museum’s situated within AR/VR/MR’s emerging ecology of experiences.

But wait, there’s more. Devine and Schell were not the only ones at Games for Change tackling the topic. In fact, nearly EVERY SINGLE session I attended did the same, including my own (about MicroRangers). Game designers. Educators. Researchers. Journalists. It was the topic on everyone’s lips. So what does that mean?

I suspect it means expectations are being raised. But what expectation? In June, Consumer Reports detailed findings from a VR market research report from Greenlight VR. They found that the desire for educational uses of VR outweighed the desire for gaming uses. Perhaps that’s good. Or perhaps all this attention was best encapsulated by the following Tweet during the Festival:


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Minecraft and the Human Microbiome

“Now, everyone walk into the head and then teleport to the stomach…” and so begins the the second and final summer week of the the Minecraft & Human Microbiome program here at the American Museum of Natural History. For the past six days, 14 students have been using Minecraft to take a deep dive into several of the themes and concepts presented in the temporary exhibit, the Secret World Inside You.


In a Minecraft map custom-made to resemble a human body, of course! Once in this map youth in the program are exploring the diversity of microbes across the human body, role-played as white blood cells and antibiotics to protect the body from foreign invaders, and more.

Human Body Map - Grass

The human body Minecraft Map, created by folks at TeacherGaming.


A view from inside the arm.


The digestive system.

During this second week of the program the youth are spending the majority of their time designing and building activities that focus on a microbial topic of their choosing. Trips to the exhibit, visits to Microbiology Labs, and feedback from scientists and their peers will all be incorporated into their designs before the summer portion of the program comes to an end this Friday.


Building community values.

In the fall, the youth will develop YouTube-bound Let’s Play videos and other educational resources to accompany this microbial Minecraft world. For us as educators, we are also excited to have the opportunity to understand the impact Minecraft has in informal science learning.


The youth plot out who is going to build interactive microbial experiences in which part of the body/island.

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