The Sound of Project-Based Informal Science Learning

I was just at our 22nd session within our Neanderthal Next Door program – in which the high school seniors are developing an augmented activity guide about Neanderthals for use in our Halls – and I began to listen to the room.

The teens were working in small groups developing activities for Museum visitors that each incorporated science content, a learning activity, a role for a print guide, a role for digital app, a role for a facilitator, the space in the Hall and associated learning lab, and much much more.

And yet, what the room sounded like, was a cocktail party. They all seem so relaxed, engaged and present. And I thought, this is what good project-based informal science learning sounds like. And it sounds good!

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“People need a change in lighting because they walk to the right” – Using Design-based Learning with Museum Teens

Point-of-View MadlibA couple of weeks after shifting to more of a design focus in the Neanderthal Next Door program, we tried an ideation activity with the youth called a “Point-of-View Madlib.” (Remember Mad Libs?) Taken from Stanford’s “Bootcamp Bootleg” deck of design-thinking cards, this activity is meant to help a group reach a point-of-view (POV) that can “[reframe]… a design challenge into an actionable problem statement that will launch [them] into generative ideation.” Or, in slightly less jargon-y terms…

We asked students to fill in values for the following categories: “Users,” “User Needs,” and “Surprising Insight.” The raw material for these values was to be taken from the observations that students had been doing of visitors to the Hall of Human Origins over the past few weeks. Here’s the values the class ended up with:

old people change in lighting or guide most visitors tend to walk towards the right
most people interactive social media (like Instagram) where they can share their photos the DNA panel is romantic
people younger than 30 who like taking photos something to direct their attraction to the scientific concepts presented they like taking selfies
tourists the left side needs to be more interesting than the right people are very interested in the brain panel
college students a guide in a different language they only look at pictures
teenagers deeper methods to create comprehension they like diorama(s)
young adults/teens purpose, higher-level engagement strategies people like being on their phones!
parents with children things they can relate to themselves children often come with facilitators
parents with children interactives self-absorbed
parents with children info to relay to their kids parents often relay inaccurate information


Once we had at least half a dozen values for each category, we asked students to do some Madlibbing with the results by filling in values for the following: “[USER] needs to [USER’S NEED] because [SURPRISING INSIGHT].” Here are the statements some students came out with:

  • “Most people need a change in lighting or guide because they walk to to right.”
  • “Parents need interactives to relay info to their kids.”
  • “Young couples need something to direct their attraction to the scientific concepts presented because they are self-absorbed.”
  • “Young adults and teens need to something to relate to themselves because they are self-absorbed.”
  • “People younger than 30 who like taking photos need purpose, higher-level engagement strategies because they’re self-absorbed.”
  • “People younger than 30 who like taking photos need something to direct their attraction to the scientific concepts presented because they only look at pictures.”
  • “College students need purpose, higher-level engagement strategies because they’re self-absorbed.”
  • “Young adults and teens need purpose, higher-level engagement strategies because they’re only interested in the brain panels.”

Pretty interesting, I think, that this group of 12th-graders ended up Madlibbing so many statements that depicted young people as self-absorbed! (Do such observations count as metacognition?)

Ultimately, we didn’t end up with a huge variety of POVs, unfortunately, but the activity did seem to work as a way to bridge the empathy-generating work of the hall observations with what we were planning to have the group start thinking about next–developing a design vision for their project.

With just a minute or so left in the time we had allotted for this activity, I wanted to have students respond in a less serious-minded way. (They’re called Madlibs, after all!) Almost before I finished getting the sentence out of my mouth asking the group to give me their most ridiculous-sounding statement, one student student came out with :

“Old people need a change in lighting or guide because the DNA panel is romantic.”

If we ever do this POV Madlib activity with a program again, maybe we should take a good five minutes for this take on the process…!

Combining this activity with a number of other design-based activities, the group came up with an impressive list of Design Principles. In the sessions since we have often found ourselves returning to these Principles to keep us on track:


One series of activities they based these on were observations of people in the Hall. For example, the youth followed visitors and mapped movement through the room while writing down things they overheard or observed:


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New Science Gaming Programs: Killer Snails, MicroRangers, & Playing with Dinos (oh my!)

In 2015, within the Museum’s Youth Initiative Winter offerings, there will be three (count them – three!) different science programs that explore science-based games in completely different ways.

Each draws from science topics of interest to the Museum, explores how games-based learning can enhance both our after school programs and Museum visits, and builds on our previous explorations collaborating with youth to create Museum-branded educational products (such as Pterosaurs: The Card Game).

And each program is offered for free to interested high school students (registration opening shortly).

In short, youth will have the opportunity to collaborate with scientists, science educators and game designers to create:

  • MicroRangers, a site specific, augmented reality game about microbiology for Museum visitors to play within our halls. (This will be developed through a two-day a week after school program, running from February until the end of the school year.)

Registration status: Open. Register here.

  • Killer Snails, a Pokemon-styled deck building card game that will be distributed by the Museum to teach about poison and the surprisingly deadly Cone Snails. (This will be developed through an intensive February break camp.)

Registration status: Open. Register here.

  • Playing with Dinos, a prototype for a new way to engage Museum visitors with our Halls (specifically our dinosaur Halls) and each other, inspired by Tiny Games.

Registration status: Open. Register here.

By the end of this school year, we hope a wide range of youth will have learned a lot about science (microbiology, killer snails, and paleontology) and educational game design while helping us develop:

  1. a prototype for Playing with Dinos,
  2. a Killer Snails game that will be on the Museum store’s shelves, and
  3. a strong early draft of MicroRangers that, after further iteration, will be released to the public by the end of the calendar year.

It is going to be an exciting (and playful) season and we look forward to meeting all the youth who will be joining us on these adventures.

Below is more detail about each program.


Last spring we offered the MicroMuseum program, which was dedicated to exploring life at the microscopic level and how the complexity of microbiomes affect all life at the human scale. Working with AMNH scientist Susan Perkins, a prototype for MicroRangers was produced, which turns a microscopic eye on the Museum’s permanent exhibits, such as the brain coral in the Hall of Ocean Life. Within the game, players take on the role of MicroRangers – like Park Rangers, but working on the microscopic level to keep the fictitious microbiomes WITHIN our Hall exhibits healthy and diverse.

Six months later, we are excited to share that, with support from the Kellen Foundation, we now have the funds to develop the prototype into a final product. Participants in the upcoming MicroRangers program will play a key role in that process, developing content for the game, learning how to iterate its design, and more.

To learn more about the prototype developed last Spring, and what the youth co-developers learned in the process, you can watch this video from their final presentation:

Cone Snail Shells, Poison ExhibitKiller Snails: A Game Development Program With a Deadly Touch

Did you know that something as small and beautiful as a cone snail is also a silent assassin of the sea? In this week-long program in February, high school students will learn all about the wicked and deadly punch of cone snails from AMNH Research Associated Mandë Holford. Then, working with a professional game designer, the youth will develop a card game that will be distributed by the museum. Below is the latest promotional language:

Watch out, Pokemon! Move over, Magic! Here come… the Killer Snails!

Come join AMNH Research Associate Mandë Holford and a professional game designer to create a new game about cone snails (Conus), beautifully small marine packages that have a wicked, deadly punch.

Cone snails are silent assassins of the sea, using venom delivered through a hypodermic needle-like tooth to attack its prey. Their nerve toxins are so powerful they can rapidly paralyze a large fish—or kill an unwary person. Yet in a surprising twist of nature, deadly venom toxins can become life saving drugs! Toxins from cone snails have already yielded a useful pain drug.  Future cone snail medicines could potentially be used to fight epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

Last year Cone Snails were featured in the the Museum’s special exhibit, The Power of Poison. Now, you can help develop their next role, starring in an “intoxicating” card game to be distributed by the museum. During this 2015 Winter Break week long full-day program, learn about venom toxins, game design… and killer snails.

You learn more about Cone Snails and Mandë in the following video (starting at 2:48!):

Playing with Dinos

MicroRangers is a digital game. Killer Snails is a card game. Playing with Dinos is something else, something in-between. Inspired by Tiny Games (see video below), our new mobile app will help a group of visitors quickly, and playfully, learn a fun game they can play WITHOUT the app. The game should help them have fun while learning something about the dinosaurs around them, and possibly the people they are with. And when they are done, the app can help them find their next game as they move through our Halls, playing with dinosaurs. This program will run for three days during the last week of January, during the Regents break.

Here is a video about Tiny Games, before the app was released (you can now get it here):

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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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