Ridiculously Awesome!: An Interview with Rik Panganiban, CalAcademy’s New Senior Manager of Digital Learning

This week Rik Panganiban became the Senior Manager of Digital Learning at the California Academy of Sciences, the oldest scientific research institution of its kind in the western United States. He is responsible for leading the Academy’s efforts to engage young people in authentic scientific inquiry and science storytelling using digital tools, from mobile games to 3D printing to digital dome shows. Rik is also a great friend and old colleague of mine and I was delighted when he let me interview him as he steps into his new position,

Rik, thanks for taking some time to talk with us about how CalAcademy built its educational capacity to expand its digital media and learning (DML) footprint. But first, congratulations on your new position! What is your new role?

Thanks, Barry. As the Senior Manager of Digital Learning, I have the honor of leading the development and deployment of cutting edge programs for Bay Area teens that combine three things I’m passionate about: science exploration, digital media creation, and youth civic engagement. Seriously, each of those things are amazing on their own, but together they are ridiculously awesome!

I am also responsible for ensuring that the methods, approaches and tools of digital learning are infused into the rest of the Academy’s youth programming and our work writ large. And I make sure that the Academy is connected to and contributing to the larger field of Digital Media and Learning. I feel very fortunate that I get to do what I do, in an amazing and supportive institution, with a top notch team of science and education professionals.

Please explain to those unfamiliar with your museum how CalAcademy is both new yet has a history that goes back into the 19th Century.  

I like to say that the California Academy of Sciences is both very old and brand new.

On the historical side, the Academy was founded in 1893, exactly 160 years ago.  We had a beautiful six-story facility in downtown San Francisco that saw 80,000 visitors a year. And then in 1906 everything changed when the Great Quake destroyed most of San Francisco, including our museum and nearly all of our research collections.  We rebuilt our museum and constructed a world-class aquarium and planetarium in Golden Gate Park.  And then another quake in 1989 caused structural damage to our facility, leading to an even bolder plan to re-vision everything we do here.

Last week (September 27) was the fifth anniversary of the Academy in our new headquarters in the middle of Golden Gate Park.  Our facility, designed by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano, combines a natural history museum, aquarium, planetarium, living rainforest and a scientific research institution all under one living roof.  It’s a super cool place to work!

So how (and when) did you come to the museum and what were your hopes around DML when you arrived?

I joined the Academy at the beginning of 2012 to run our first digital learning youth program, the Pearson Young Scientists program. On literally my first day I was working with a group of teens who were tasked with conceiving and creating a digital game on earthquake preparedness.

Prior to that, I had worked as the Assistant Director of the Online Leadership Program at Global Kids

OLP Staff @ Global Kids When I was director of the program! You were an awesome partner and those were some great years.

Yes, for sure! At GK, as you know, I designed and led digital learning programs for at-risk teens in New York City, focused on youth leadership, civic engagement, and 21st century citizenship.  During my time at Global Kids, I was profoundly moved by the potential for digital media to open up young people to new ideas, new possibilities and new visions of themselves and their place in the world.

When I joined the Academy, I hoped that I had found another place that was ready to walk the risky path of digital learning. How would a venerable, 160 year old institution deal with the sometimes messy, kludgey, and uncharted nature of digital learning?  I just didn’t know.

How did you turn those hopes into a reality?

Those first few months here were very… educational for myself, for our youth, and for our institution.  On the one hand, we had a team of teenagers who were struggling to use a just-out-of-beta software package to create a digital game about earthquake preparedness. We had a youth facilitator (me) who had very little science background and was new to the Academy acting as their “guide on the side.” And we had an exhibits team that was scrambling to complete work on our newest exhibit “Earthquake: Life on A Dynamic Planet.”

There were lots of unknowns. Would the digital learning kids finish their game in time before the semester was over? Would their game pass muster with our research, legal, marketing, and exhibit departments? Would the exhibits team be able to incorporate the kids’ game into their exhibit in time for its launch? Would the public be interested in playing a computer game created by a bunch of teenagers in an after school program?

As it turned out, the answers to all of those questions was “yes!” The game designed by our Pearson Young Scientists youth — dubbed by them “Earthquake Academy” — was approved and incorporated into the Academy’s “Earthquake” exhibit in May 2012. More than a million visitors to the Academy have been to our “Earthquake” exhibit, with the game designed by our youth being played literally thousands of times.

But this project could easily have gone another way at various points in the process.

After the launch of “Earthquake Academy,” I knew I was in the right place. It was tremendously gratifying knowing that I was at an institution that was ready to take calculated risks in piloting untested digital learning programs with youth, and disseminating to the public the work created by those teens.

 What sort of resistance did you face and how did you deal with it?

Most of the tension that we had to navigate related to the timing of our youth program (ending in April 2012) and the launch of the exhibit (in May 2012). In our naive view, we thought, “Oh, that gives our exhibits team a month to review the kids’ game and integrate it into the exhibit.” But exhibits at the Academy are typically planned down to the tiniest detail months and months in advance.  So we probably caused our exhibit designers some unnecessary stress that could have been avoided with better planning and communication on our part. But our exhibits team were troopers about it and got “Earthquake Academy” integrated into the exhibit in record time.

Looking forward, my Digital Learning team learned from this that the youth media creation process is typically much, much faster than how a professional museum operates.  On the flip side, our exhibits department is working on becoming more nimble in their design process. For example, our last exhibit “Built for Speed” was conceived and launched in just a few months, rather than over several years. So our youth are teaching us.

What sort of internal and external partners were required to make it happen?

For this particular project, we had a number of allies to create a successful outcome for our youth and the public.  Internally, I mentioned our exhibits team.  The lead exhibit project manager Aaron Smith was a fantastic contact point for our youth, giving them detailed insight into what it took to create a professional museum exhibit, from conception to execution.

Outside of the Academy, our youth connected with an expert in earthquake science and preparedness at the Southern California Earthquake Center in Los Angeles. He helped them understand the rationale behind what was most essential to have with you after an earthquake event, and where were the safest places to be during a quake. Our youth had several Skype calls with him and he vetted the content of their game over Google Drive.

To give them insight into the game development process, we brought in a game developer who had worked with the same platform we were teaching our youth. He helped them to see the possibilities for what they might achieve, and the harsh realities of what was too ambitious to complete in time before the end of the program.  And the same game developer helped the kids finish the final 15% of the work on the game code and design, acting as a consultant for them.  Giving our teenagers the opportunity to assign and vet the work of a professional game developer was definitely a big first for them.

So how are these programs structured within the Museum – are they within their own digital learning department, a thread within diverse education areas, or some other structure?

Digital Learning youth programs at the Academy are managed by the Digital Learning team, currently composed of three staff members. Institutionally, Digital Learning is part of Youth Programs, which is nested within the Teacher and Youth Education Department, which is part of the Public Engagement and Education Division of the Academy.

Phew! Sounds like a Russian matryoshka doll (and where I work). Is your focus to use digital media to expand youth’s science literacies, motivation for a career in science, science leadership skills, or some combination?

Our focus is to help our youth see themselves as science storytellers to the public, using the digital media and tools we expose them to. For some, science may be on their career path. For others, it’s one interest among many others. But we want all of our youth who come through our Digital Learning programs to get to do their own science explorations and investigations, connect with working scientists, create their own science stories, and use some form of digital media to tell that story to the public.  It’s that combination of science learning, digital media creation, and youth collaboration on a group project that we mix together in all of our programming.  And so far, we think it’s been really successful.

When you bring youth voices to the public floor, how to do you balance the need for quality with a youth-led process and/or youth-created experiences?

That’s a good question that we are still figuring out. Our conversations with exhibits and marketing have focused on balancing Academy standards with authentic youth expression.  On the one hand, anything that reaches the public, either on the public floor or online or in a school, has to meet the Academy standards for scientific accuracy and quality.  On the other hand, we don’t want to hold our youth to such a high standard that they can not hope to reach in the limited time they have in our programs and limited experience that they have.

Our teens often have much higher standards for themselves and are much harder on themselves that we are.  So our role as educators is to affirm them that their work doesn’t have to look exactly like what our professional videographers or designers create.  In fact, what makes their work often more compelling to the public is that it is created by young people.

We have run several youth science filmmaking programs at the Academy. And the more I do them, the less I am interested in our teens pretending to be adults, and the more I want their work to really reflect who they are as individuals. So in this last batch of “Science in Action” videos you can see more humor, more youthful energy, and more fun reflected in their work.

Just like me at AMNH, you were new to museums when you started at CalAcademy? What was your transition like?

I think my transition was fairly smooth, compared to what I’ve heard from others in our field.  I have had the benefit of having awesome supervisors who helped me navigate the complexities of a huge science institution like the Academy, and shielded me from some of the aspects I didn’t need to know about.  Getting to concentrate in my first year on just designing and running fun and engaging programs for youth has been really satisfying. As I got more familiar with the Academy and it’s many departments and divisions, I’ve been able to slowly add more internal collaborators and partners to our list, and build more partnerships outside of the Academy.

I like to tell our Digital Learning youth that I’m just getting out of kindergarten at the Academy and entering the first grade.

What do you want us to keep our eyes on in the next year at CalAcademy?

We’ve got a lot cooking this school year (literally)!  One program we are very excited about is called “Food Sleuths.” Food Sleuths brings together a team of Bay Area teens to investigate where their food comes from, and explore the various ethical, environmental, economic and cultural lenses the shape food choices that people make.  This semester our Food Sleuths will create digital maps to tell the story of different food items and how they get to their tables, and where they go afterwards.  The following semester, the Food Sleuths will produce a web series to educate the public about food choices and food pathways.

Our other awesome youth program we are calling “Virtual Expeditions.”  We wanted to create a program where our teens could learn first hand from our scientists what they do in the field. Every year our scientists travel all around the world to research various species and phenomena to further our understanding of the planet and the life on it. Virtual Expeditions challenges a group of teens to translate what our researchers do while on field expeditions into a fun, game-like experience for our visitors.  Our hope is that our teens create a museum experience using digital and physical assets where our visitors can “walk in the footsteps” of our own Indiana Jones’s.

Sounds great. Anything else?

There’s a lot more on the horizon that I’m not ready to spill the beans about yet!

To sum up, I’m incredibly excited about what Digital Learning and our many other educational programs at the Academy are going to achieve over the next few years.  And I’m tremendously honored to get to guide and support some of that work. There will certainly be “failures” and challenges along the way, which is part of what makes this road such an interesting one to walk.

Thinking back on the history of the Academy, we’ve had to “pivot” a number of times to respond to external challenges. Literally the foundations of the Academy were shaken to the ground… twice! And yet the institution managed to rebuild, re-vision, and come back better than ever.  That’s a profound lesson for other institutions, professionals and for our youth to emulate.

About Barry

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