On October 5th, 2012, I began working in the Education department at the American Museum of Natural History, as their new Associate Director of Digital Learning. It has been an incredible four years. Now, as I move into a new role within the Museum, I wanted to take a few minutes to recognize all we advanced during this time, and then attempt (wish me luck) to explain my new position.
Working with our youth learners, and our amazing staff of science educators, and creative staff across the Museum, and talented 3rd-party partners (game designer, app developers, writers, artists, and more), we developed and produced digital layers of interpretation that enhance the visitor experience and deepen their learning, in such areas as:
- games (Pterosaurs, Killer Snails, Gutsy, and MicroRangers)
- video (Video Bridge)
- augmented reality (Dreams of the Haida Child)
- tools for Hall facilitation (Crime Scene Neanderthal)
These were developed through a new process that engaged youth learners in a co-development with the Museum – some lasting more than two-years – leveraging a user-centric design process that relied heavily on rapid prototyping and iterative design. We also introduced new or enhanced modes of learning, through tools like Minecraft, science data visualization, and 3D scanning and printing.
In short, the efforts to implement a digital learning strategy within our youth-serving programs were effective. We increased the number of digital tools in use, we doubled the use of digital tools of science, and, so importantly, deepened the integration of substantive digital practices within our courses. While once siloed, the sites of digital innovations have spread throughout the department. In addition, significant infrastructure challenges that prevented the application of digital learning have been resolved.
So the work remains strong as I move out of my old area, Youth Initiatives, leaving much in the hands of my remarkable colleague Hannah Jaris (with whom I will continue to work closely with from my new position), as I move across the building to an area originally founded as Science Bulletins.
The transition occurred drip by drip over this past summer and I am now fully ensconced in my new position. Some history might help to give it context.
Science Bulletins was created almost twenty years ago, developing video content for our halls (and the halls of other museums) bringing visitors visually compelling updates on expeditions and science advances around the world. While SciBull will continue to produce videos for the Halls, it will increasingly expand (I’m far from the only new person here) into an emerging media lab.
This happens as a variety of factors converge. I don’t pretend to have a high enough view to see all the swirling forces, but I suspect the mix includes: the innovative, digital engagement co-developed with youth described above, the recent two year-long cross-departmental collaboration that brought new digital engagement to our Hall of Northwest Coast Indians after a rigorous public prototyping process, and efforts to flesh out the “innovative” in our momentous new building, the “Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation.”
So imagine all these coming together to both raise questions – about visitor engagement in a digital age, about how to educate the public about the Museum not just as a collection of exhibits but as an institution of scientists advancing the frontiers of knowledge, about the increase of science data arriving “born digital” (like genomics, gps data, astrophysics data sets, and more) – and to suggest solutions – iterative prototyping (and user-based design) and emerging media like augmented and virtual reality.
What will that look like? Well, in the current fiscal year we’re tapped with developing a series of prototypes that will leverage data generated by AMNH scientists and their colleagues to create digital experiences within our permanent halls. Our goal is to deepen visitor engagement while adding dynamic layers of current science content to our exhibits. The visual content will be based on observed data, models and simulations, CT scans, SEM images, and content captured by cameras equipped for shooting special effects and in 360 degrees for virtual environments. The visualizations will be leveraged across platforms to prototype a range of experiences including augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), gesture-based interactive displays, and responsive environments.
Our immediate objective, however, is less product oriented and more about developing prototypes to help us answer questions like:
- How can we augment static displays and encourage deeper engagement?
- How can we create a social experience?
- Does gameplay enhance the experience or intimidate new users?
- How can we use these engagements to enhance public understanding of data collection and visualization as tools of modern scientific investigation?
- And SO SO much more
So the next time you visit the Museum, keep an eye out for us. In the Hall of Biodiversity you might get a chance to interact with a shark skeleton floating through the room. Or in the Rose Center you might get a chance to walk the surface of the moon. Come join us and help us answer questions that might just inform the museum visit of the future.