Morphing a Digital Classroom into a Museum Hangout: An Interview with Eve Gaus of the Field Museum

Last March, when I was in Chicago for the Museums and the Web conference,  I ran around the city to meet with my colleagues in museums and libraries who were willing to share their youth spaces and how they’ve been designed to support digital learning. My first post offered a rapid tour of your spaces around the city. This is my first of three related posts that highlight interviews with staff from those locations. Our first stop: The Field Museum!

Hi Eve. Welcome to Mooshme. Please introduce yourself.

My name is Eve Gaus.  I work at the Field Museum, and I am the Digital Learning Manager here. I have been here a little over 2 years, about 2.5 years now. I started in November 2012.

We are sitting in the Grainger Digital Media Studio which is a place where we hold all of our teens programming.

Please tell me what programming looked like when you first started?

The programming that used to exist here was highly structured programming that was very classroom based.  It was phenomenal program where we had teens come to the museum once a week for the academic year to learn about how museums work and then actually build their own museum exhibit. They got academic credit to be there and  it was great.

The issue however was that there was a very small group of students that could be a part of that particular cohort. That was the only programming that we offered during the course of the year; during the summer we offered programs which focused on using different areas of digital media to explore the collections and research of the museum. We did a movie making program on Antarctic Dinosaurs; we did movies on Mummies; we have done an exploration of cultural anthropology through sound and, made games with the ARIS mobile gaming platform.

What are some of the challenges you faced in developing and delivering those programs that you have now been implementing changes to address?

The biggest change that we have been working on is broadening the accessibility of our programs and trying to make the physical space into a digital studio that is more of an open space for teens to come to.

The Field Museum is a very large institution. We sit on the Peninsula. It’s an impressive building but it can be very intimidating.  So the idea is to make the building a more welcoming and accessible place for teens who might not otherwise see themselves in this institution.  So part of our change has been to ask, “How do we make this a place that teens feel they own within the institution?”

So we are increasing the type of programming that we have done throughout the course of the year.  So we have instituted after-school drop-in program.  If you can only come to us one day a week, maybe twice a month, that’s great; we have a program that you can participate in.

And previously you didn’t have that?

We didn’t have that. No.

Instead what did you have?

We didn’t have anything. There was the Youth Design Teen Program, which was an academic program, and then that was the extent that we offered for teens throughout the course of the calendar year.  We were also a new team, so we were just forming and figuring out what we could do.

And in those programs youth had to go to every session? They couldn’t just drop-in?

There was no drop-in. If you missed so many sessions there were penalties associated, because you were getting academic credit for it.  So the change now is making more drop-in programs, and also changing the content of the programs more quickly.  So if you are really interested in anthropology there is a six week drop-in program; if you really want to look at biodiversity there are other things that you can do to explore that.  We are trying to identify different areas of interest for teens and then creating programming that happens during breaks, like Veteran’s Day, so that they can come to the museum and hangout and do stuff.

And then we changed our summer programs – we expanded them to make them a little bit longer so that the teens could actually dive into the content a little bit more richly.  And we are also building out more hangout time for them, at the end of the program.  So content instruction and learning technical tools happen during the day and then there is an open hour at the end of the program if they want to hangout here and, you know, continue to just be in the space and play.

We used to start the programs at 9 o’clock. After thinking about teens and sleep, we start the programs now at 10 o’clock in the morning and we go until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We do it for two weeks now in length and then there is the extra hour at the end.  So they can stay until 3 if they want to.

You are talking about changes you are implementing for the youth who come regularly to programs, but I also understand you are talking about making changes to reach youth who don’t regularly come here, and might only come once.  So what would that look like?

I think the after-school programs are a great illustration of that.  We had teens who had come to the museum with their families on their spring breaks and they actually came to our after-school program because they were in the city.  So we had a teen from Colombia, we have had teens from Ohio, we had teens from Florida – all who just happened to be in the city with their family on vacation, saw our programs and then came that day, because they were only going to be here on that one day to do that program. So next year we are thinking about actually expanding out our spring break programming to have more programming offered during times when schools commonly have spring break. So maybe not so much after-school but more during the daytime programming.

So right now this room looks like a classroom.

It does.

With a whiteboard — it’s a really cool classroom with 3D printers, and the whiteboard is actually painted on the wall, right? But you are talking about moving it away from the classroom towards… what exactly?

The idea is to make it more of a fun, hangout space.  There has to be the tables, there has to be the chairs, but the idea is asking the teens how do they want this space to change in ways that we can accommodate.

How do you think that might change the types of young people who are coming in and using this on a regular basis?

I think it makes it more clear that this is a space for them. Right now, it’s a beautiful space with the glass doors. It’s a space that people often look into. But what I want to do is remove that barrier of “this is us inside the space” and “this is you out in the museum”. I want a permeable space that really calls out to teens.

Right now, because we have so much technology in the space, we can’t just leave it open for people to wander into. We have to physically be present in the space.  So the idea is staffing this space on a more regular basis so that if a teen is with their family – let’s say on spring break – and they don’t really want to be hanging out with their family, but they want to be doing something cool at the museum, they can come to the studio and play around, do some 3D printing, maybe make a game, do what they want. They can learn and meet up with their family after the family is done.  We want to give them an alternative space where it’s really clear that they are welcome and they are wanted. It’s giving them a different way to do that type of exploration.

As you move from more of a classroom model to a clubhouse model, who are you looking to as examples and is there research or writings that you are drawing inspiration from?

Well, so I really like the idea of third space and that’s certainly something I think about a lot. I mean obviously the HOMAGO model is a huge model that we look to.  YOUmedia is right down the street from us – they are obviously a tremendous influence.  All the publications on DMLcentral and Connected Learning. I was thinking about how do we make this space incorporate aspects of teens life that they might not necessarily be thinking about, but we can kind of help facilitate those bridges so that we are not just this institution on an island that we are really part of the fabric of their lives.

What’s your favorite space in the museum that’s available to the public that you think is under appreciated?

I think it’s Bunky Echo-Hawk’s exhibit because I think it shows where natural history museums are moving, that we are constantly evolving and changing, and how our relationships with the community and people is completely different than what it was in the past.

Bunky Echo-Hawk is an artist, from Oklahoma, who does both visual art and audio. He does rap that’s playing in the exhibition, and then paintings, and there is also some art on skateboards too. I would describe it as fun. It is vibrant. It’s not what you would expect in a natural history museum.  And I think that’s kind of what I love the best about it. It looks at all these different mediums and it really connects the experience of native people in the modern day to their history from the past.  As museums, how do we work to tell stories with people that so it’s a co-telling of stories?

I think that model of working in partnership with communities is exactly the type of model we want to have with teens.


About Barry

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