Digital Media and Learning at the Field Museum

Eve Gaus is the Digital Learning Manager at the Field Museum in Chicago. When I was out last week at the Digital Media and Learning Conference, she was generous enough to take me around, talk about their new digital learning programs, and let me explore how digital media enhances the visitor experience in the halls.

The education department at the Field is split into three parts: youth with school, youth with families, and youth driven by their own interests. Eve (who just began there last November) works with the later group and leverages the power of digital media to engage youth in science and museum-related concepts and practices.

Here are some examples of their digital youth programs:

  • Mobile Planet 2013: Youth design mobile video games in a summer camp (using the ARIS platform) to develop an activity exploring soil ecosystems.
  • Sounds Planet 2013: Youth learn audio engineering and remix audio from the museum collections, from animals to global cultures.
  • Youth Design Team: Youth combine such activities as game design, audiocasts and web design to create their own pop-up museum, shown both at the Field and then in their own schools.
  • Virtual Visits: Youth in schools participate online in a live squirrel dissection, a prototype for an on-going program that allow classrooms to connect live with museum scientists.

As we discussed their programs, we wandered the halls. I was interested to learn how the Field is exploring the role digital media can play to enhance the visitor experience. It was not a comprehensive overview (I needed to get over to the Adler – see the next post) but I was delighted to see so many wonderful examples.

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Before even getting to the ticket booth, I was greeted by this sign. I don’t actually recall even seeing any QR codes during my tour (I forgot to look!) but it communicated to me right off the bat that the museum want to build a relationship in which I could augment my visit through my smartphone. That felt good.

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In the recently renovated World of Birds, many of the dioramas offered a digital version with a touch screen that allows visitors to dig deeper into the content (I almost said “interact” but that’s going to far). I could watch a video, read additional text, and watch data visualizations. Very impressive. The screen being right AT the exhibit enhanced the diorama and created context to help me deepen my appreciation.

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This was a treat – the empty hall down the coordinator from my desk recently held the lovely Creatures of Light exhibit but I got to experience it again at the Field, where it just opened. It was my first time seeing one of our exhibits adapted for and by a different museum. And one of the features just as strong in either city are the iPads and the great app designed by the AMNH, seen here deeply engaging this child and (next to her and off photo) her grandmother.

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I am in love. The original mini-fab lab 3D printers! I had no idea these existed. Put in some money, watch the molds press together, smell the hot waxey plastic pour in, and a minute later pick up your hot dinosaur, printed just for you. So awesome and my kids loved them when I brought them home. Turns out there were up to 150 of these at the New York World’s Fair, back in 64/65, but now most are in Florida or Chicago. Boy, would I love to have one of these in a contemporary data visualization lab! Retro and futuristic at the same time.

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I think this wall screen was in the Abbott Hall of Conservation Restoring Earth (yes, that’s the full name of the hall). Each of the three screens invited you to pick your scientific team. You can see, on the right, I picked the Fish Team. Then I can move the screen around, like a Google Map, and find different highlighted (hidden?) items to explore. I could watch videos, explore, or just watch someone else, like Eve here. It was a very effective display that took full advantage of its size and location in the hall.

 

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This shows the context for this room – a giant touch screen terminal and a wall projection behind it. The wall project shows little boxed wonder cabinets. The terminal lets you build your own collection.

 

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You build the collection by answering five questions, so it’s rather limited but also quick. The promise is that you can both see it on the wall (instant gratification) and take it home with you (by emailing it to yourself and expanding your museum exhibit).

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The first question is your area of study.

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After I answered all of my questions, I could both see my collection and title it. The next screen let me email it as well. However, I have NO IDEA what those things are in my collection – touching the screen reveals nothing about them, so I didn’t feel like I was learning anything, nor “owned” the experience.

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Once you are done, however, “your” collection arrives on the wall, where you can wave your arms around to move it around and pull previous collections into focus. However, since there was little content or context connected any of the collections, this felt more like an exercise in… well, it felt like exercising.

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This table, however, in the same hall, was fantastic. Focusing on Chicago’s fragile environment, this touch screen – that allowed me to expand and contract objects, spin things around and such, – felt like I had opened up a magic box of multimedia and got to explore what I’d found. The experience of discovery and re-arranging was engaging and the content was accessible and interesting.

Overall, I was very impressed with the level of innovation in their youth programming and the incorporating of effective (and, when less effective, still bold attempts to be effective) digital means to engage with “objects behind glass.” I was equally impressed with the diversity of approaches and how many could engage people of all ages.

 

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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