Using Museums to Research How Play Can Teach Science: An Interview With David E. Kanter, NYSCI

David E. Kanter, Ph.D.,  directs SciPlay at the New York Hall of Science. I spoke with him recently about the research group he leads (at my family’s favorite science center) and how they are developing innovative digital tools to support youth to learn science through play.

David, what is SciPlay and how did it come about?

SciPlay (the Sara Lee Schupf Family Center for Play, Science, and Technology Learning) is an applied research and development unit within the hands-on science center the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI).  It is the mission of SciPlay to explore the power of play— amplified by the potential of technology— to support science learning that goes hand-in-hand with improved motivation, engagement, emotions, and attitudes.  By pursuing this mission, SciPlay aims to be an educational innovator, resource center, and thought leader in the area of play-based science learning. SciPlay came about through a generous gift from Ms. Sara Lee Schupf.  Ms. Schupf has had a long-standing interest in the potential of play to support science learning that began with a visit to the Clore Garden of Science at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

That sounds like a rather research-heavy program for a science center. Is that accurate or simply reveals my presumptions coming from a Natural History Museum?

SciPlay focuses on what I call applied research and development.  It aims to work right at the intersection of research and practice.  It aims to produce exhibits or other products or programs that will have real value to caregivers and children and educators and students.  That said, SciPlay begins its work well grounded in learning theory and is very systematic in the ways it iterates on its designs and ultimately tests them, adapting research-based measures and methods as necessary.  The end result is products and programs that are rigorously proven to work.  At the same time, SciPlay aims to inform the field as a whole and come to general conclusions about how to design play-based science learning environments, why they work, for whom, and under what conditions.  It will be more and more of an expectation going forward that science centers that accept federal funding like those that I have secured for SciPlay go beyond just building stuff to contributing to what we know about informal science learning.  I am building out SciPlay to be well positioned to do this kind of work.  All that said, when you ask why is SciPlay in a museum, NYSCI provides a real-world science learning environment that is the ideal venue for this kind of work and more than a thousand learners every day that help us in our applied research and development.  (As an aside, we have an external Institutional Review Board (IRB) and agreements with school districts like NYCDOE that have their own IRB’s that insure that we properly protect the rights of everyone who gets involved with our work, especially young children).

Tell us about a signature program?

SciGames is an attempt to use technology to bridge between our informal science learning environment here at NYSCI and the formal science learning environment back in students’ science classrooms.  In SciGames, middle grades students come for an initial field trip to play on our Science Playground.  However, we’ve added sensor technology to various pieces of Science Playground equipment such as our slides.  On iPads, students are presented with sliding challenges like transforming more than 2/3rds of their initial energy at the top of the slide into thermal energy at the bottom of the slide.  They choose from various mats, give themselves a push, and try anything else they think will help them achieve the challenge.  What’s exciting is that students are pre-registered into the system by their teacher before they arrive, and they also use the iPads to queue up by name before they slide.  In this way, the system earmarks the data for each slide by the individual student.  After their sliding, students use other iPads to review how successful they were achieving the challenges, encouraging them to try again. When the students get back to their classroom, all their data for their entire class is waiting for them on a browser-based app that supports the teacher doing an inquiry-based lesson wherein students work with this data and discover, in this case, standards-based content about energy forms, interconversion, and energy conservation.  The app continues the challenges and the fun from the Science Playground back into the science classroom and even allows students to virtually experiment in ways that weren’t possible on the real Science Playground like sliding on a zero-friction mat.  We are just starting our research to see if students learn the target concepts and are also more motivated and engaged than if we were just to do an inquiry-based classroom lesson.  Among other sources, this work was chosen for an Investing in Innovation award by the U.S. Department of Education.

I recently heard Seb Chen talk at the 92nd Street Y. He said, “Museum buildings have not been redesigned to support the affordances that technologies brings.” Please respond.

I think science centers have the luxury of never having been very collections oriented and as such more naturally orient around supporting the doing of science wherever possible. In this way, I think science centers have been fairly quick to explore the affordances that technologies can bring to doing science.  As you can see from my example above, we are exploring using quite a lot of technology in the SciGames project.  What’s great about NYSCI is that this is by no means the only project that is working at the cutting edge of what technology can afford.  One project that is soon to come online in our Great Hall, a project Connected Worlds, will use a combination of motion tracking technology like you find with the Xbox 360 and projection technology to immerse people in a virtual ecosystem that changes in response to their gestures and actions.  If museums had not previously been significantly redesigned to support the affordances that technologies can bring, I think that was in large part due to how much care and maintenance was required to keep finicky technologies working for the general public.  So much has changed in even just the past few years in how useable and robust these technologies are that the advantages are starting to outweigh the disadvantages.

Since we’re talking about the future, what do you see down the road? Which museum changes are facing the most resistance?

In the future, I see museums having the potential to play an ever bigger role as incubators for powerful new ideas about how best to support both learning and with equal attention the affective dimensions of learning that are the strong suit of museums.  Understanding how to support these kinds of 21st Century outcomes is increasingly important and something that formal schooling might learn from museums.  At the same time, I think museums fear losing their free-choice identity by too closely aligning their offerings to the goals of formal schooling.

About Barry

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