Digital Instruction in MicroWorlds Investigate Lab

This is my final of three posts based on my trip last month, at the annual ASTC conference in Raleigh, to the North Carolina’s Museum of Natural Sciences. In this post we go to their MicroWorlds Investigate Lab.

UntitledChristie Flint was kind enough to give us a tour. I was particularly interested in how they used a simple pdf on an iPad to scale their hands-on instruction for room visitors. It looked too simple to be effective, but they said it worked. Go figure!


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Digital Engagement on Data Viz at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ Magic Table

This is my second of three posts based on my trip last month, at the annual ASTC conference in Raleigh, to the North Carolina’s Museum of Natural Sciences’ Visual World Investigate Lab. Matthew Faerber, the room’s Coordinator, was kind enough to give us a tour of the room and explore their integration of digital media.

(please note: this was filmed during the evening ASTC party, so the joint was jumping with festive party-goers…)

So what do you think? An effective use of digital tools to engage museum visitors? Or just a room of shiny screens?

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Getting Pedagogical with the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ Magic Table

Last month, at the annual ASTC conference in Raleigh, I had the chance to visit the North Carolina’s Museum of Natural Sciences’ Naturalist Center. The room is a science exploration room for children with a really fascinating space, notable for its “Magic Table.”

The table is surrounded by a wide range of scientific specimens but the table itself is empty, blank, with nothing but a white top… that is, until you place a specimen on top. Then it comes alive.

I filmed the following video of my supervisor, Preeti Gupta, analyzing for us while checking it out, exploring when and how it aligns with what she’d call either transmissionist or initiative/response/feedback styles of interaction.

This will be the first of three posts exploring the role digital media plays in a number of their innovative hands-on labs and exploration spaces.

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Pick up the phone – Gapuwiyak is calling: Aboriginal Mobile Art

Can you hear it? Gapuwiyak is calling. Pick up the phone already!


Where is Gapuwiyak? Gapuwiyak is an Australian Aboriginal community located in north-eastern Arnhem Land.

Who is making the call? The Yolngu, a clan who lives in the region. According to the Yolngu, “Phones are everywhere. We use them out hunting, even in ceremonies. We watch YouTube, search Google, send photos, texts and video calls; we organize banking, holidays and rituals, all through the phone.”

Who are they calling? Why, you of course! They also use their phones to make mobile art. They take videos, creating new forms of song and dance. They take photos, creating a modern collages that reproduce traditional forms of art. And they want to share it with you. “We curated this exhibition to share Yolngu life. We want to show that our young people are smart. They can use phones to make us laugh—and also to strengthen kinship and culture.”

The exhibit can be seen today through Sunday at my museum, the American Museum of Natural History. It is called Gapuwiyak Callingbecause, according to the artists, “now we’re calling you through our phones, calling so you can connect to us. We’re grabbing hold of new possibilities using these little things. Maybe you’ll answer us?”

When I visited the exhibit I met Warren, one of the Yolngu artists, who showed me how mobile photos combined family images with family totems, like flags and frogs (and not to worry, the children shown inside the mouth of a shark was just a construction). He showed me the black towers pictured above where you can watch how Yolngu makes videos of songs and dance to share with family and friends.

The phone is ringing but is only here on display until Sunday. It is a remarkable look into how a native people can reaffirm and transmit traditional cultural traditions through digital media.

I recommend you answer this call.

(and if you miss it, be sure to check out the Gapuwiyak Calling web site.)

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Using Games to Re-framing Our Past: an interview with 80 Days writer Meg Jayanth

When people ask me how my life led me to a career in digital media for learning, if I am feeling flippant I might say it all began when I was in second grade, in 1976, when the highlight of that year’s Scholastic Book fair was Edward Packard’s Sugarcane Island, which launched the Choose Your Own Adventure books (and for the next two decades sold more than 250 million copies).

These books taught me about multilinearity, about how to think about narrative structures, about reader agency, about participatory reading, and more – all literacies required for survival in the digital age. And while others have played with the format in the decades since, few have captured the excitement and artistry suggested by those early books nor translated them effectively for adults… until now.

This summer a new app was released: 80 Days. It is hard to say what genre it fits into. Perhaps it suggests a new one. What is clear for sure is itsstory – this is a steampunk, Howard Zinn retelling of Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in 80 Days. Steampunk – because it imagines the Victorian era through this popular sci-fi genre, which imagines that steam-based technology introduced computers, robots and more into the late 19th century. Howard Zinn – because it takes the patriarchal, colonialist values of the Victorian era and replaces them with a shift in focus to women and marginalized groups (think The People’s History of the United States, but for the whole world). And yes, as you might suspect, the reading style is based on the Choose Your Own Adventure format, wrapped around a game (can you make the global journey in under 80 days?).

Luscious art and a lovely soundtrack (click above to play while reading this) complement what is essentially a skillfully crafted, sharply written, and brilliantly designed game. Or Book. Or gamebook. Or whatever.

megThe experience was not only deeply engaging but it left me wanting to re-read the original Jules Verne, re-watch the Jackie Chan film version, and learn more about the various points in history touched upon during my adventures. Its ability to first engage me in a fantastical world of wonder and then ignite an interest within me to learn more about the real world lead me to reach out to one of its creators, Meg Jayanth (@betterthemask), a freelance writer and game-maker living in London. I wanted to learn from her how she worked her magic and what we in the museum world might be able to learn from her process.

Meg, you have written that “Writing historically shouldn’t be an excuse to fetishize outmoded ideas, but to invent better ones.” What does that mean and how did it shape the creation of 80 Days?

The problem I have with a lot of historical fiction, with a lot of period drama and steampunk, is that it enjoys the signs and symbols of historicity. Look at steampunk – we keep the victoriana – the bustles, the elaborate upper-class courting rituals, the arranged marriages and the stiff upper-lips – and elide away all the dirt and muck. The class politics are blunted in favour of a nostalgic enjoyment of silk dresses and soirees.

It’s a nostalgic, escapist vision – I am quite happy to go so far as to call it a fetishistic one. It’s a vision that has very little room for people of colour (who very much existed in Victorian Britain!), for queer people, for poor people. If they exist, they exist as victims. That seems dangerous and broken, that this is escapism, that this is fantastical. That glittering world of adventure and courtesy is built on oppression and suffering – the slave plantation and the Georgian ballroom are two sides of the same coin, but our reproductions of history so rarely acknowledge this. Continue reading

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Youth-led “Shark Tank” at ASTC Conference

They started referring to it as the “Teen Shark Tank.” As in, “Did you survive the Teen Shark Tank?” or “I heard the Shark Tank went great.” I have NO IDEA where this came from. Certainly not the panel – we never called it that. In the ASTC conference guide it was called a “teen critique panel.” More specifically it said:

 Youth-proof Your Program at ASTC14! Get vetted by a teen critique panel.

So you think you know how to design innovative youth-programs incorporating digital media? Then step up and prove it! Present your existing program (or one in development) to a panel of youth from museum education programs around the country and the ASTC audience for feedback.

But the two teens we brought down to Raleigh with us this past weekend – Katie and Alejandro – they loved it. And they loved working with teens from both the California Academy of Science and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. And together they were all excited to offer something unlike anything ASTC had seen before.


The six groups who presented also seemed to get a lot out of it. As one seasoned ASTC veteran wrote me afterwards, after presenting to the teens, “It was by far one of the best museum panels I ever went to.” Continue reading

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New program launch: The Neanderthal Next Door


Last week we launched at the Museum an exciting new youth program, called The Neanderthal Next Door. The title refers to the fact that evolution is not linear, we lived at the same time as the Neanderthal and, at least some cases, got cozy enough that we now carry a sizable percentage of Neanderthal DNA within us all.

This program will run through January, using our Sackler Educational Laboratory (for Comparative Genomics and Human Origins) within the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. As the youngest hall within the Museum (opened in 2007), it pairs fossils with DNA research to present the history of human evolution. The hall covers millions of years of human history, from early ancestors who lived more than six million years ago to modern Homo sapiens, who evolved 200,000 to 150,000 years ago.


This new program, which will run through January, is immersing twenty students from a Brooklyn school in the Hall, the Lab, and content related to Human evolution – all with a special focus on Neanderthals.

The Lab is open on the weekends for visitors to drop by and, through hands-on activities, explore in a deeper way the content experienced within the Hall. Working with our good buddies at Geomedia, together we will explore how a digitally augmented activity guide (that is, a traditional print booklet with an associated mobile app) can engaged visitors in the Hall and motivate them to engaged within the Lab.


This fall we will run the educational program for and with the youth, to develop the design document. In winter we will develop a public-ready prototype. And in the spring ten youth will return in a weekend internship program to facilitate the public’s use of the augmented activity guide while beta-testing its efficacy.

Watch this space for more information as the program develops. You can check out more photos from the October sessions here (or the image below produced through the new Post-It Plus app which captured the little colored squares from the word web of “Evolution” within the photo above.)



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