Guest Post: Follow Me – A Youth Audio Guide Program

During January’s Digital Learning Week, the Museum’s Youth Initiatives team brought together youth, Museum educators, and scientists for a series of programs to explore using digital tools to engage with Museum halls, collections, and research.

This post about “Follow Me” by Project Coordinator Ariam Mogos is the second in a series highlighting Digital Learning Week programs.

Last January’s Follow Me program–in which youth interviewed various Museum specialists about exhibit objects in the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples and used a mobile recording app, Audioboo–was a day of experimentation with ways of creating wonderful youth media. For me, as one of the program developers and facilitators, it was also just a little bit awesome.

Follow Me became an exciting prospect as it could potentially meet two major objectives: give youth a platform to communicate multiple perspectives and narrative through voice and create a prototype for scientifically vetted educational content for Museum visitors.

Like all of the programs during January’s Digital Learning Week, Follow Me drew on content from a permanent exhibition hall–the objects on display as well as Museum experts and offered students a digital tool with which to capture and share audio. Finding the right digital tool was crucial…and it was my responsibility. Over the last two years, I’ve experimented with a plethora of mobile audio apps, including Soundcloud and Broadcastr. Audioboo, however, had always stuck out in my mind. A flexible and social app, Audioboo came out on top in 2009 due to its popular use in journalism and spoken word. It allows a user to record up to three minutes of geolocative audio with either an Android device or an iPhone, attach an image, write a caption, and publish to the web. It seemed like a perfect fit for a rapid prototyped activity that we could run in a Museum hall.

Producing an audio guide for a cultural hall would require the youth to learn anthropological as well as journalistic methods of asking questions from our resident experts. While the Digital Learning team could address youth program needs and lifelong learning goals using digital media, it was imperative that we pull in professionals who had extensive knowledge of science journalism and production. One of the highlights of Digital Learning Week for me was the opportunity to work across departments and pull in the talents of my co-workers. Collaborators on Follow Me included Monique Scott, a cultural anthropologist and the associate director for cultural education at the Museum, and Tania van Bergen and Mindy Weisberger, producers on the Science Bulletins team, the Museum’s video and visualization program covering current science. Tania, Mindy and Monique worked with us to design a jam-packed day for the kids, which included listening to various science audio clips, interview role-playing, and a fantastic tour of the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples led by Curator Jenny Newell, who specializes in Pacific ethnography.

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Dr. Jenny Newell, curator in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology, takes the science-journalists-in-training on a guided tour of the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples.

After more than a month of planning, I can’t say I felt fully prepared the morning of the program (not that I expected to be, since we’d never done it before), but that little bit of unknown added to the sense of exhilaration I felt walking in and meeting the participants for the first time. There were a lot of great moments throughout the day. It was wonderful to see the students inspired by the artifacts in the hall and captivated by Dr. Jenny Newell’s tour. They furiously scribbled down notes, took multiple photos, and asked good questions. When I asked one youth what she thought of the program, she said “It was great.”

When it came to the technology, the students embraced Audioboo and picked it up within minutes. After a few test runs, they overcame any fears of using the tool to conduct interviews. I was also impressed by how easily they stepped into the shoes of a science journalist, formulating critical questions with data they collected from their exhibits. Some of these questions were: “Why do you think the sacred flute was made of so many materials?” and “Why do you think the Maori war canoe was so decorated?” They also leaned on each other for support throughout the process, bouncing ideas off one another.

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The sacred flute and its various materials is a fun topic of conversation
for Chelsy and Museum biodiversity scientist Mary Blair.

At the end of the day, the program resulted in each youth recording over 25 miniature interviews, all in 30-second to 3-minute chunks. They published their best takes to Audioboo and each produced a terrific tour of the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples. Barry, Monique, Nathan and I listened to the tours in the hall and were excited to learn that the youth successfully produced multiple perspectives on exhibits in a very short amount of time. A great example was Chelsy’s interviews on the Papuan ceremonial bark cloth mask. When asked what they saw when looking at the mask, astrophysics educator Brian Levine described various shapes and representations of nature, while Curator Jenny Newell detailed the mask’s function in an initiation ritual to entertain the Elema sea spirits.

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Armani records Curator Jenny Newell’s perspective on the decorative exterior of the Pataka storage house.

One of the other exciting outcomes of the program was the creation of a forum for dialogue between youth and content experts. Posing difficult questions to a group of nine Museum staff, including curators, educators and designers, demonstrated to the youth that each exhibit could be interpreted in numerous and surprising ways, which they found enlightening. In addition, for all four Digital Learning Week programs, we designed a digital badge prototype to acknowledge the competencies and skills the youth would earn in each program.

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The holographic badge

When submitting her audio guide work for the holographic badge (earned by gathering multiple perspectives on a Museum exhibit), one youth wrote, “In this interview I asked two different people about the same artifact. Each person had different jobs in the Museum. For example; Russel is a Gottesman educator and Jackie Lacey is a curatorial associate. These two very educated people gave very profound responses, and I appreciate the time they took out to give me their personal opinion on a very important part in history.”

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Sierra collects the thoughts and impressions of astrophysics educator Brian Levine on the celebrated cast of a moai ancestor figure on exhibit.

I was pleased to see Follow Me meet many of the educational objectives we had sketched out in our planning phase. Sure, we had a few technical difficulties, but we met the challenges, and the program was a great success. I’m usually thrown into situations supporting kids when they’re having difficulty with digital tools, so it was rewarding to be a part of the program development process and implementation. It’s always fun to design, create, and produce, but to make an active contribution to a program and be present when it’s unfolding is something rather special.

About Barry

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