A Close Look at the Development of Planetmania, a Museum-Based Mobile App: an interview with developer David Schaller

Last Fall, when I first began working in a Natural History museum, I started to look for examples of customized museum mobile apps. One of the first that came across my radar was Planetmania. There are some things I like about it and some things I don’t. I recently ran into its developer, David Schaller, and through our conversation began to develop a better understanding of the behind-the-scenes design process that informed their final product.

Please tell us where you work and introduce Planetmania.

I am David Schaller and I work for eduweb. We developed Planetmania with the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore. It is a mobile game for kids to play in an exhibit about astronomy.

What came first? The request to make something for the museum, or to make a game, or to do something mobile? And how did these pieces come together?

It was a mobile game they wanted. They had tried to do other things for this NSF grant, with current science videos, and the project just evolved to their wanting a mobile game. That’s when they came to me.

Who was the person doing the research on the NSF?

The evaluator, Barbara Flagg, had been on the project from the start, and had already done all sorts of testing when I got involved.

What were some of the key questions the museum was interested in understanding through use of a mobile app?

The goal was to create a game for kids to play within the exhibit that would slow them down and help encourage them to engage more thoughtfully with the exhibit content, instead of just bouncing around from one thing to another – to stop, read the text, look at the image, and think about it – and get more out of the exhibit than is typically the case.

We had a number of constraints and a card game helped us with all those constraints. As it was a mobile game we could publish in HTML, we could publish it to different types of devices using PhoneGap, which was more cost effective than building native apps; so that delimited our function to what we could do in HTML. They wanted to be able to change the content at any time and keeping it to text and pictures gave us that flexibility.

So essentially we developed a card game where players collect cards as they go around the exhibit, building some sort of a hand based on matching each card to concepts encountered within the exhibit.

Such as?

So you start out, you play around, you find a 3 digital number on a sticker in an exhibit. You type it in. You get a question – What is an exoplanet? – and you have to find the answer through the exhibit right in front of you. You choose the right answer and then you get asked, “What’s the concept for this round?” So that might be, “Astronomers can detect planets around other stars.” And then you draw cards and you might draw a card about an exoplanet astronomers just discovered. And that’s a good match for that statement. But then you might also draw a card that says, “Life needs food to survive.” Well, that card doesn’t really match that concepts well. That’s the kind of matching you try to do, matching cards with the exhibit’s concept to get a good score on that hand.

So that matching was designed both to be interesting as a game but also reproduces the mechanic you wanted youth to explore as scientific thinkers, matching evidence to theories.

That’s right. The original idea was with a hypothesis, and you gathered evidence for that. It evolved a lot away from that. It was too much for players to absorb, given all the distractions in the exhibit. So we simplified it from that but it still had that core thing of comparing content to this bigger concept.

So the larger idea was to have them research evidence but when that seemed outside of scope you still had the idea of them looking amongst potential evidence to determine which was true.

Right. Compare bits of information with these concepts.

S0 what did you find?

So we iterated a lot on the design, trying to simplify it enough so players could understand the game and get something out of the content. Ultimately, in the summative evaluation
(re: Summative Evaluation of PlanetMania Mobile App in Maryland Science Center’s Life Beyond Earth Exhibit), Barbara Flagg, the evaluator, found that most of the kids liked the game. Some did not. Some found the card play got tedious. It was more reading than some wanted to do. But generally it worked for most kids They played enough rounds that they could understand the gameplay and focus on the content. They showed they had learned new new things compared to what they knew from before playing the game. For many this was shifting from science fictional ideas about life in the universe to factual things they learned in the game. That was really great to see.

When you are thinking about making a mobile game about content in an exhibit, there are three areas you could focus on: content they are learning through the exhibit, content they bring into the room, and content they learn from the game. How did you find a balance between the three and which did you choose to focus on?

Obviously, you want to connect with prior knowledge. In some cases, some of the biology content – the basic essentials that life needs – that was not a problem. They could really connect with that, and connect it with things they knew. Some of the astronomy content was completely new to them. Even just thinking about the scale of the universe, and there are planets around other stars. The difference between the solar system and the galaxy… 4th graders don’t necessarily understand the scale there. So even things like that proved rough.

So where did that content come from?

The exhibit presented this content and the game elaborated on it a bit, or gave more examples. So the exhibit content might introduce the idea that astronomers use a variety of methods to explore exoplanets. The game content would then go into more detail, offering eight different cards of different exoplanets that have been discovered each using an example from a different method. So the game would give more examples and elaborate on the content in the exhibit, to extend it.

So what’s next?

One of the goals was to develop a platform we can use to make games for other exhibits. We are actually doing that now. So there is an interesting tension between using the game platform we came up with or modifying it to tailor it to take advantage of the opportunities the subject matter in the new exhibit offers. We are trying to strike a balance, to take advantage of those opportunities without creating a whole new game. You know, building on it, iterating a big further. So it will be interesting to see how that turns out, because the new exhibit is about electricity, with much more interactives. Rather than quiz questions people answer at the beginning – rather than looking for text information in the exhibit –  it will be about asking youth to do this interactive and look at what happens. That is the answer the game will look for. So we will be encouraging them to look at what happens in the hands-on interactive and it is that that goes into the game.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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One Response to A Close Look at the Development of Planetmania, a Museum-Based Mobile App: an interview with developer David Schaller

  1. Barbara Flagg says:

    An update: The ‘new’ game that David Schaller refers to at the end of the interview is called PowerUp! and is associated with Maryland Science Center’s newest permanent exhibit about electricity. The app is on iTunes and Google Play. The summative evaluation is available at http://informalscience.org/evaluation/ic-000-000-009-666/Summative_Evaluation_of_Power_Up

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