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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Launch of Augment Reality Activity Sheets to Renew Cultural Halls

For the past two years, the Museum has been experimenting with both digital and analog ways to augment the visitor experience within our Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. Today, the results of those efforts will launch in the Hall for all to experience.

I’ve written in the past about the Video Bridge (re: Using an Iterative Design Process to Re-vision Cultural Halls Through Digital Media with press coverage here and here) but today I want to share about Dreams of the Haida Child. I’ve explained before how it works (here) but, in short, these are augmented reality activity sheets which we designed with artists and curators from the Haida Nation. They are wonderful tools to engage families with young children in the Hall (our studies found dwell times averaging 18 or so minutes!).

While designed for use in the Museum, everything you need to experience them can be accessed from the comfort of your own home (or classroom). In fact, we launched a new web page to promote how here.

So please go check it out, spread the word, and, in the meantime, enjoy this promo video:

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Latest (last) Episode of Object Oriented

This episode of Object Oriented is about what new digital learning initiatives we’ve been working on at our respective institutions.

This podcast is hosted by Rik Panganiban (Senior Manager of Digital Learning at the California Academy of Sciences), Barry Joseph (Associate Director of Digital Learning at the American Museum of Natural History), and Eve Gaus, (Digital Learning Manager at The Field Museum), .

—x—x— segments —x—x—

00:00-00:40- Teaser – What’s new?
01:00-02:00 – Introduction
02:00-07:53 – Eve’s update
07:54-17:36 – Barry’s update
17:37-22:35 – Rik’s update
22:38-23:30 – Postscript: Last Object Oriented
21:31-24:06 – Follow us online

  • —x—x— show notes —x—x
    Resources mentioned:
  • Cornucopia (link)
  • Field Museum High School Digital Internship (link)



Blog: Twitter: @ooriented

Follow the hosts individually at @gauseve, @mmmooshme, and @riktheranger.

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Video from “Co-Designing Museums of the Future” Presentation at Games For Change Festival

Last month, I had the opportunity at the 13th annual Games For Change Festival to work with two youth from our educational programs to explore how the Museum understands games as a form of public engagement and, more specifically, how we worked together to create MicroRangers. You can learn more about the event at my earlier post here and watch our 18 minute long presentation below:

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The Secret Sauce in Pokémon Go: Big Data

My recent post for my DMLcentral column was inspired by my amazement at the emergence of Pokemon Go in the past week (has it REALLY not been a full week yet?). Go check it out on DMLcentral or take a look below.

The Secret Sauce in Pokémon Go: Big Data

Unless you’ve been holed-up in a cave playing Minecraft, you’ve heard about (and possibly even played) the new augmented reality (AR) mobile game sweeping the globe, Pokémon Go. For sure, AR can be exciting and compelling, when properly designed, offering us an experience of co-presence with a virtual character or object. And, it’d be understandable if you attributed Nintendo’s success to its use of the AR camera. But, you’d be wrong. The game’s AR succeeds, in fact, because it turned big data into a game.Pokemon Go fish at the beach

With Pokémon Go, we are offered the opportunity to pretend our world is filled with cuddly (or fierce) little creatures just waiting for us to capture and train for battle. When discussed in the press or social media, credit tends to lean toward the AR camera — the experience of viewing a cartoonish animation of a Pokémon layered through live video (through the Smartphone’s camera) of the world around us. We have the option, however, to turn off that AR camera (and preserve our precious battery power). If you try this, and capture your creatures in front of a cartoon background, my bet is your sense of co-presence will barely be affected. How can that be?

It turns out the AR camera is not at the heart of Pokémon Go’s ability to generate a sense of co-presence. In fact, its success lies in Pokémon’s gamification of big data. As way of illustration, let me share with you some highlights from my first 24 hours playing Pokémon Go.

Pokemon Go at fountain in New YorkThe main entrance to my apartment building features a semi-circular driveway surrounding a lovely water fountain. Down the block, the neighbor’s have an ugly lawn jockey. Between the two, our local park offers both a playground and a grassy overlook. All of these are featured in Pokémon Go, as Pokéstops, locations to visit to collect tools for playing the game, along with photos of each with descriptive text. This playground, in fact, also features a Pokémon Gym, a location for sending my Pokémon into battle. And, as I walk around from one location to another, hidden Pokémon are revealed, not just any Pokémon but ones which tend to relate to my location and its environment. They are only outdoors, for example, as why would I find a wild animal in my house? So, I find water-type Pokémon by water: traveling south on the East River by ferry, every other dock contained a duck-like Pokémon while at the beach, I found a carp-like Pokémon.

The levels of specificity, of personalization, of seamless integration with the real world around me… all combine to make me feel that the game designers at Niantic, hired by Nintendo to develop the game, MUST have sent someone to my town to select each of these locations, finding the most interesting landmarks (or, as in the case of that damn lawn jockey, notorious) to place in the game, scouting locations to custom-place each Pokémon. But, when we consider the game can be played all over the world, it becomes clear there’s only one way to generate such a massive level of personalized and localized information: big data. And, who wants to have the best data set about the world and what’s in it (spoiler: it’s Google) and what could they possibly have to do with a 20-year-old Japanese card game?

mapIn 2012, a division of Google launched a mobile game called Ingress. Ingress pitted teams of players in a challenge to dominate the world or, more specifically, the map of the world. It leveraged the power of Google and the geolocative datasets we have come to take for granted: street photographs, knowledge of terrain, text descriptions of local landmarks, the ability to add crowdsourced data, and more. Before long, Ingress left Google to become the focus of a new company, Niantic. And, according to the New York Times, Niantic reports about 15 million users have downloaded Ingress with a little more than a million active players a month.

I played with Ingress a few years back. And, guess what? It also directed me to the fountain at the entrance to my building (and to that infernal lawn jockey from down the street). And, this is no coincidence. Niantic built Pokémon Go.

In 2013, Nintendo teamed with Google to launch an April Fools joke. A YouTube video explained that a new position was opening at Google Maps — Pokémon Master — and to apply, all you had to do was… (drum roll please)… use Google Maps to capture hidden Pokémon around the world. Jump forward three years and what began as a joke turned into reality. The engine behind Ingress was re-skinned with Nintendo’s star brand and turned into Pokémon Go.

In other words, when you play Pokémon Go, you are playing Google Maps. And, the augmented reality that makes the gameplay so compelling, the tool behind the experience of co-presence, is big data.

So, what can we interested in digital learning take from this latest development in augmented reality, big data, and social gameplay? A few jump out to me:

  1. AR is awesome, but with so much reliance on AR cameras (and the accompanying toll taken on both battery power and project budgets) big data can compete in its ability to create co-presence. So, what datasets do we have that we can leverage to engage learners through a localized game mechanic?
  1. Datasets are just numbers until they are translated for the non-expert. Beautiful, interactive visualizations are one way to present data. But as Pokémon Go demonstrates, so can games. What ways can we play datasets, rather than just present them? (The American Museum of Natural History, where I work, recently launched The Tree of Life, demonstrating how data sets about cladistic relationships can be turned into a light, family-friendly game).
  1. Last winter, we launched at the American Museum of Natural History an augmented reality mobile game that shares some technical similarities with Pokémon Go. With MicroRangers, rather than capture augmented creatures and fight others in battle, museum visitors collaborate with augmented scientists and fight threats to global biodiversity. After playing Pokémon Go for less than an hour, and losing all of my phone’s power in the process, I felt a sense of satisfaction that Nintendo did no better solving the AR-camera power-sucking dilemma than we. It felt good knowing we, working in museums, had pushed existing technology as far as possible.
  1. Blaire Moskowitz published a lovely blog post about how museums are already taking advantage of the game to connect with their visitors. For example, someone posted a Facebook event to get people to walk together through the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens (near the Opera House), attracting 1,000 people. What could other civic and cultural institutions do to leverage the fact that our important locations are often central to the game experience? And, what can museums do when they DON’T want players in their spaces? “Playing Pokémon Go in a memorial dedicated to the victims of Nazism is extremely inappropriate,” a spokesman for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. told the New York Times. “Technology can be an important learning tool, but this game falls far outside of our educational and memorial mission.

These are just my initial thoughts. I want to hear from you, about your own thoughts on the topic: what is Pokémon Go teaching YOU about digital learning?


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