Youth as Co-developers in a Process to Gamify Science Data

How do you support youth learners to participate as co-creators in a rapid prototyping process?


For over four years, our youth programming has invited youth to create with us – card games, mobile games, augmented activity guides and more. Since this past summer, we’ve been developing prototypes that invite visitors to interactive with digital data, seeking insight into the museum of the future. Recently, we ran a four day sprint to see what happens when we bring the two together, and called it Escape the Planet. Throughout we had a team of internal evaluators (graduate student interns from NYU and Columbia, and one high school student intern) track the process of youth claiming their roles as co-developers.



We ran the program with 19 high school students, all day, for four days, on a Tuesday through Friday. In New York City, there’s a test called the Regents, offered for a week in January. On most days most students don’t have any tests, and don’t go to school. This is a perfect opportunity for us to offer new high-risk learning experiences. Enter Escape the Planet.

Escape the Planet was inspired by the rise of escape rooms (see recent post), in which a small group are “locked” in a room and solve problems together, and the recent movement to adapt them for education. Like all of our prototypes this year, we started with the data – in this case slices of our Digital Universe database – and two driving questions: What are the opportunities for increasing the social aspect of interacting with digital data? and How might games and play affect how visitors interact with digital data?

At the start of the first day of the program, led by our staff science educator and an outside digital learning expert, the youth were told that by the end of the week they will have worked with us to create a prototype for a science-based escape room, which they would test with the public. At first blush, this is a rather abstract concept, and most had little way to understand what this could mean, but the challenge had been established: they were going to need to work together to make… something.

Our job on day 1 was to provide them with the tools required to play a meaningful role in the up-coming ideation and development process. What knowledge and skills were required, and how could we develop them in a rapid period of time?

Day one they learned about various topics in astronomy – such as how to model the size and distances of the planets in our solar system, and how to make predictions about the locations of the planets in their orbit. They learned about digital data, playing with the Digital Universe dataset on a laptop through the Partiview software (which we have used for years in our Digital Flight School program). They learned about puzzles, taking on astro-themed challenges created by the educator, and playing Keep Talking and No One Explodes. They learned about escape rooms, playing one designed by Breakout EDU for classroom settings, using their amazing lock boxes (which we hoped to use in the final prototype). They learned about augmented and mixed reality, experiencing two different interactive data sets we designed for Hololens.

So on the first day the idea of creating something was more of a promise we made, an expectation, something still beyond reach. When we took them in Hololens through the AR Constellation – allowing them to walk through a star field and explore constellations – one youth turned to the Eozin, our tech lead, and said, “You should add more constellations.” That for me captured the relationship most felt towards the project on the first day. “You” should do something – it was someone else’s, not their own. The comment was offered not in the spirit of a request but as casual feedback. There was little expectation that their feedback would be incorporated, even SHOULD be incorporated. There was no sense of ownership.

That would soon change.





The first half of the second day continued like day one – developing knowledge and skills. They explored, for example, how a constellation is a 2d projection on our sky of stars in 3d.

After lunch, we took them to the next level. It was time to start creating.

We reiterated what we had told them at the start of the program – that we were together designing a prototype of an astro-themed escape room – but now we started getting into the details. We provided them with some constraints and expectations. For example, 1. the puzzles need to connect with the science content, 2. we had imagined 5-15 minutes for the experience (which later grew to 20 then 30 minutes), 3. the narrative needs to be on Mars (as that was the data we thought we’d work with), 4. our goal was for a playable prototype and nothing more.

To start the work, we took them out of the classroom and into the Halls. The space reserved for Escape the Planet is called the Black Hole Theater. It’s a small movie theater at the lower level of our Hall of the Universe, showing two films on a loop, all day. For our program, we closed it to the public, turned on the lights, and took over the screen. We brought in the students and essentially offered it to them. This was their space to design for the escape room experience. They could make any change that wasn’t permanent (e.g. hang things on the walls) and touch anything but the overhead projector.

“Can we walk on the benches?” one teen asked. The room has fixed rows of wooden benches that face the screen.

“Um… sure, why not?” And so they did. They climbed onto the benches. They explored, walking from one to another, then jumping across, then running the length of the room across them. Something had clearly been unleashed, They were claiming the space, marking it with their bodies. As they continued to explore how they might use the room, on their own and in ad-hoc groups, many worked standing up, on the benches, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Now, it was no longer “You should…” but “Can we…” They were beginning to let their minds explore the possibilities. This was the start. It wasn’t yet “We will…,” as they were still asking permission. But it marked their transition.

For the rest of the day, we kept them engaged in creating. They made their own physical astro-based puzzles. And then we tasked them with developing an idea for the narrative – why are players crashed on Mars and how can they escape – and to design the puzzles.




Day three began with a pitch, from the youth to me, to describe the narrative that will shape the visitor experience and the puzzles they will face. This reinforced the idea that some staff in the room, like the educators, are their collaborators – one making sure the science was strong, another making sure the game design was sound, another technically implementing their modifications to the AR experiences – while there was another set as well, more like a client, whose needs they needed to meet. That role fell to me.

So one student stood before the class and shared their ideas so far, with me standing on the other side of the room. If something wasn’t clear I pushed them to make it clear. If something was undecided I pushed them to make a decision. If something was convoluted I forced them to simplify (for example, if you had to escape before running out of air AND get a message to a passing rescue vehicle in time, that requires one timer too many). I always explained why something looked to me like it wasn’t working or where extra attention was needed and I challenged them to solve it, right there, with me, as a group, using the program staff as a resource they could draw from.

We arrived at a point I am familiar with from past programs like this – half the group wants to go in one direction while the other prefers a different direction. In this case, one group wanted the two AR-based puzzles to be solved in parallel, with the players splitting themselves into groups to tackled them. The other half wanted the group to focus on one puzzle at a time, to lower the cognitive load and tie them together sequentially. We gave them lots of time to hash it out, to listen to each other respectfully but state their cases, but ultimately it was going no where. It was slogging down the process.

I reminded everyone that EITHER idea is fine and escape rooms use both techniques. And that maybe in the abstract we were stuck but perhaps we should let the puzzles lead. Could the puzzles work sequentially – did that make sense?

So we looked at each one.

Constellation Puzzle: In the first step, players would use the black-light flashlight from Breakout EDU to unlock secret messages embedded in constellation posters on the wall and then use an “answer key” to identify the right constellation. Then, using AR Constellation, the player would locate that constellation. Something in that constellation would then be combined with the results from the second puzzle to win the game.

Solar System Puzzle: In the first step, the players would have a series of photos of the solar system. Learning how to use Julian time, the players figure out the chronological order of the photos and, flipping them over, discover a code. Or codes. Or something. And then in the AR Solar System the player would change celestial time and observe the different orientations of the planets until they find the right one (say, the one in which Earth and Mars are closest together).

I proposed that these puzzles don’t sound sequential at all, and that they might work best in parallel. I didn’t tell them what we would do, nor what they should do – I just made a recommendation for them to consider, as a way to get past the impasse. They discussed it and accept it. More importantly, they owned it. They hadn’t come up with the solution (as I’ve seen other groups do in the past) but they’d explore it and made it their own. As development progressed, I never heard one word of regret for the decision and, in fact, as we fleshed out the details, it seems to work just right. (At the program’s conclusion, when asked via survey to share examples of their contributions, their involvement in this decision was the most cited).

The impasse resolved, the narrative and AR-puzzles in place, they had done it – the core concept was in place. It had felt tiring getting stuck in the impasse, but liberating to having worked our way through it. They could now break into separate groups knowing that they were in synch, contributing their own piece towards the whole. Our challenge to them now, to keep them focused, and on time, was to do a mock-up, in the Black Hole theater. Not a walk-through, but just a way to experience all the pieces together, and in context.

We went to the theater and explored each aspect in the space, identifying what would go where. We made a quick prototype of what the opening and closing videos might look like, with a timer in-between counting down the seconds. This process helped them to both identify how much they had developed but also how much work remained. The rest of the day was spent developing all of the required assets, with the next goal being a full walk-through, with all elements, at the start of day 4.

By the close of the session, after various iterations, we concluded by reminding them how far they had travelled from the start of the day – how strong and coherent the design had become – and yet how much work remained before the play testers would arrive.

After this session, all the educators gathered. There were still some problems to resolve. The narrative was not yet cohesive. There was this idea that oxygen was running out but none of the puzzles dealt with the topic. We also weren’t sure how much work was required to signal to a player in either of the AR experiences that they had, in fact, solved their problem.

Working backwards, we realized we could just tell each group of players that each AR experience concludes with the discovery of two numbers, which, when combined, would provide the four digits needed to open a lock box. That meant we needed something in the box, and a way to deliver it. Returning to the beginning, we also realized 1. we could put each Hololens and all of its puzzle requirements in their own lock box, 2. Hiding the physical keys to each lock box in magnetic hiding cases could be an entry-level puzzle to get the escape room started and 3. In one of the lock boxes there could be a smaller locked box, this one requiring the final four digits, containing a crystal (an amethyst we ran down the hall to buy in the museum shop) that was the “Communicator Crystal” that the team needed to deliver to the youth facilitator.

This solved a number of technical and narrative challenges, while streamlining and scaffolding the puzzles: your objective is to get the missing Communicator Crystal to the facilitator to send out your distress signal in time by moving through three levels of puzzle – first the two hidden keys, then the two AR data puzzles, then the final lock box.

At least, these were our ideas. Now we needed the youth to make them their own.




Photo by Denis Finnin

Day four began by explain to the youth everything we understood about the user flow experience, incorporating the modifications we came up with at the end of Day 3. We explained why we came up with these modifications – what problems we were trying to solve – and explored with them the various implications of accepting them (for example, that the facilitators now had an in-game role, as one to receive the crystal; were they a ship’s communicator, an A.I., a robot, etc.? And if so, what should their names be?).

After a short time, they integrated the ideas into their own vision for Escape the Planet. They spent more time completing their assets, tweaking their puzzles, creating print instructions, drawing art for the wall posters, recording final audio for the intros and outros and, just before lunch, we did a full walk-through.

At 1:00, invited experts came to experience the Room, along with some Museum staff, who later provided them with some feedback. At 2:00, a school group arrived, teachers, parents and students, who as one large group of 20 took on the room. The flaws were glaringly evident, which Nick Fortugno, a visiting game designer, pointed out to the student was the point of the playtest – your first prototype of a game will fail, and that’s why you test it. And in general the youth seemed to take the criticism in the right way, as part of an interactive design process. But with a few tweaks to the timer, each group completed the puzzles (often at the last moment) and the sense of excitement was palpable throughout (especially with the school group.).


Photo by Denis Finnin

Back on our own, at the end of Day 4, we discussed the program, and what they had learned, and filled out a survey. They shared many things, but on the main topic for this post, they made it clear that, for the vast majority, this was an incredible and unusual learning experience (one youth called it “radical”) and they felt ownership over and pride in the final prototype.

For example, in the survey, the vast majority could give examples of contributions they made that survived into the final prototype, such as writing the instructions, developing the narrative, and adding “the idea of focusing on planetary alignment”. More importantly, the vast majority could explain why other ideas of theirs never made it in, or were changed by others along the way. They responded that we lacked the required resources, that bad ideas got changed or removed, and that it’s just a fair part of the creative, group process. In other words, they were fine with the changes. As one youth wrote, “‘Tis simply the creative process.”

They felt a sense of ownership, but it was with confidence; they could share the project with others and (in most cases) considered it fair or even better for the project when their ideas were changed or rejected.

Finally, when asked whom the ideas in the final prototype were primarily contributed by, they responded equally among “Us students” and “An equal combination of students and staff”. None reported the staff alone. This was our goal for the week – all students felt this was a project developed with their youth voices.

In the end, some reflected on how great it was to be part of a team creating something for visitors – “I know how fun ‘escape the room’ games are & I was really thrilled to watch others enjoy one that I helped to create in only two days!” – and working with others to create it – “It was very rewarding and I felt a strong sense of pride in the team’s work, especially given the time frame!”

And, for many of the youth, the clincher was getting to combine their interests for both science content and games. “I love science, so this program was fun because it incorporated science and games,” wrote one youth while another told us, “It is very exciting to create an Escape the Room game with science incorporated in it.”


Photo by Denis Finnin

(You can check out more photos here)

About Barry

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