The DigitalLearningification of Museums

Below is my post from my latest column on DMLcentral:

This past October, I had the pleasure of presenting in Irvine, California at the new home for the Digital Media and Learning Conference on digital learning at museums. With my colleagues Eve Gaus of The Field Museum and Rik Panganiban of the California Academy of Sciences, we tried to identify the leading trends we’ve seen emerging in recent years, given our different vantage points as advocates for digital learning in our respective museums.

Playfully titled “The DigitalLearningification of Informal Learning Centers: Lessons from Three Museums,” we tried to make the case that museums are unique and influential informal learning institutions that can be powerful spaces for young people to learn, connect and create digital media. Museums often have more freedom and resources than a school, library or after-school program to support a variety of digital learning offerings for youth, such as tinkering spaces, youth-led media creation, and exhibit creation. At the same time, museums are moving beyond siloed programs for young people, toward connected learning experiences that better integrate with school-time learning, other institutions that youth are involved in, and their time with their peers.

The major trends we explored:

  • a maturing space
  • youth as co-designers
  • distance learning
  • augmented and virtual reality

A Maturing Space

We each began at our respective institutions four or so years ago. In that time, we’ve each seen digital learning grow and spread within our museums. At The Field, the digital learning team was first institutionalized in 2010, as a way to use technology to engage learners in the museum. A formalized commitment was established with the opening of the Grainger Digital Media Studio in 2012, a digital studio that would host both face-to-face and distance learning programs. At the California Academy of Sciences, the work began five years ago as an independent special project; that project merged into youth programs within the Teacher and Youth Education Department and is now integrated into a suite of youth programming across the education division. A similar process happened at AMNH. Our youth digital learning strategy increased the number of digital tools in use and doubled the use of digital tools of science. Perhaps more importantly, we also deepened the integration of substantive digital practices across often-siloed areas as the sites of digital innovations spread throughout the department.

In other words, at all three museums, pedagogy and practice has been innovated and spread, leaving strong foundations for the years ahead. We’re ready for the next steps.

Youth as Co-designer

We are all seeing youth increasingly treated as not just recipients of knowledge but as co-creatives with the museum to create public-facing informal science learning experiences. There are many examples, from youth councils to game design projects, with topics like whale ecology and global threats to biodiversity. The Field Museum, for example, worked with youth to design curioCITY, a teen-only career night that pairs a scientist with non-scientist to discuss career pathways. The Academy this year launched a youth advisory team called the Teen Think Tank, a group of committed young people who review and give feedback to museum initiatives from new exhibits to social media campaigns and classroom curricula.

Distance Learning

Technology is increasingly bringing visitors into the museum without leaving their home, school or workplace, changing the face of science. At the California Academy of Sciences, their new Science Action Club, a middle school after-school program, has expanded to 350 sites throughout the country, made possible through virtual trainings of frontline educators, using free app-based citizen science tools. At The Field Museum, classrooms across the country are connected to a scientist and educator, who talk about the scientist’s current research and connect that research to what students are learning in the classroom. Interactions like this illustrate that science is an active and ever changing field, that we don’t know all the answers, and works to break down stereotypes about who scientists are and where they work. And all three of us are offering programs and content on sites like Coursera. Khan Academy, iTunesU, and YouTube.


AR/VR has been dominating the news, not just within digital learning but in popular media as well with the rapid spread of Pokémon Go and the development of consumer-grade wearables, like Sony’s new VR goggles. AMNH has launched an innovations lab dedicated to exploring how such tools might offer interactive science data to visitors within our Halls. A CT scan of a Mako shark skeleton augments the one hanging in the Hall of Biodiversity, and can be made to swim and bite. A virtual orchard provides visitors with the opportunity to shrink down to the size of an insect to learn how they breathe without lungs. Meanwhile, at The Field, Google Expeditions are giving teachers VR experiences within their halls.

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Growing Up Minecraft: 6 years of Living and Learning in Minecraft (video)

In October, 2016, my son and I presented together at the Minefair event outside Philadelphia. We presented it on both Sat and Sunday – this video combines the best of the two (big thanks to both my wife and Chris Haskell for the footage, and Steve Isaacs for inviting us both to present).



Wizard Keen (AKA Adam Clarke), the phenomenal Minecraft innovator, who co-hosts Wonder Quest with Stampy, was in the audience on the second day of the presentation. Here’s the lovely tweet he made about it:


If you want to watch more of Akiva’s Let’s Play videos, go here.


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The Making of a Digital Educator

For my recent post on DMLcentral I wanted to explore how digital educators are trained to do what they do… or are we just figuring it out on our own?

You can read the original here or read it below in full.

Last year, I read Elizabeth Green’s “Building a Better Teacher” and it changed the way I understood education in America.

Fundamental to this essential history (of recent efforts at education reform, not just in the U.S. but around the world) is the question of whether teachers are born or made. The book’s subtitle telegraphs Green’s answer “How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone).” If teachers are born, then all we need to do is support those inherently strong at it then push out the rest. If they are made, however, the task is much harder, but more hopeful, as we can instead develop successful strategies to support educators to develop the complex skill sets required to inspire and inform the next generation.

Through my read, I kept reflecting on its lessons and comparing them back with my own experiences, now in my 16th year in after-school learning institutions. As a digital learning educator, was I born or made? What did I learn at Global Kids and, more recently, at the American Museum of Natural History, that made me so effective at weaving digital learning tools, strategies, and pedagogies into curricula? How did I become so skilled at leading groups of 20-30 students through a digitally-infused learning process?

Rather than answer these questions on my own, I thought — on the eve of the Digital Media and Learning Conference — we could explore them together. So, in essence, I pose to you: How are digital learning educators made?

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Four Conferences in Four Weeks: ASTC, MakerFaire, DML & MineFaire

I am getting ready for weeks upon weeks of conference travel. To get me pumped up (both to go and share it with you) I created this video in homage to science museums (using the new video sensation I learned from my kids).

With that out of the way, let’s get on to business. This weekend I am going to ASTC in Tampa, the gathering of science centers (and related natural history museums like ours). The weekend after we’re presenting some AR demos with Hololens at the New York Maker Faire. Then, it’s off to the something-old, something-new Digital Media and Learning Conference (DML) in the shadow of DisneyLand. With the family in tow, I’ll then be heading to Philly for my first Minefaire (a fan-oriented Minecraft event) where I’ll be presenting with my son.

This will be the first time I get to connect with my professional peers wearing my new hat. If you haven’t heard, after four years leading digital learning within our youth programming, I now have a new role at the American Museum of Natural History (you can learn more about it here).

ASTC – Tampa

  • Mobile Apps, Museums, and MicroRangers: Fighting the 6th Extinction with Playful Learning (Session/Poster ID: 5326) (link) Saturday, September 24, 2016: 11:00 AM-12:15 PM – This is a poster session with two key MicroRanger partners – Nick Fortugno of Playmatics and Jeremy Kenisky formerly go Geomedia – talking about what we learned working with each other to create this audacious, augmented reality, exhibition-based mobile game.
  • Puzzling Out Serious Games in Museums – Saturday, September 24, 2016: 2:00 PM-3:15 PM – As a great follow-up to the Poster session, this panel brings together a number of museums to explore the different ways we are developing games for our visitors.
  • Renewing the Currency of Cultural Halls: Reframing the Past to Save the Future (Session/Poster ID: 5227) Saturday, September 24, 2016: 4:30 PM-5:45 PM – If sessions were my children, it’d be more diplomatic to say I love them all equally. But I don’t. I feel like this particulate session might be the most important one I’ve organized in years. It is an opportunity to share with our peers what’s been changing behind the scenes as classic natural history museums struggle with our legacy of indigenous people-focused cultural halls, and its an opportunity to also demonstrate how that change has com about, in no small part, through building renewed contemporary relationships.
  • 3D Printing in Museums: innovation, design, fabrication…and frustration Monday, September 26, 2016: 10:15 AM-11:30 AM – I think the title speaks for itself.

I’d love to speak with anyone involved with a science visualization lab – come find me!


My new colleagues exploring emerging media are teaming up with the Interactive group with Exhibitions to offer this: “Come explore hands-on AR/VR and Arduino/Raspberry Pi prototypes under development at the American Museum of Natural History: explore the surface of Mars, dive deep into the anatomy of a shark, and explore the boundaries of how we sense the world.”

DML – Anaheim

On the first day I will participate and share a paper within: “Power Brokers: Building Youth Social Capital through Connected Learning.” Then, within the main conference, I will co-present with Eve (from the Field) and Rik (from CalAcademy) on our “The DigitalLearningification of Informal Learning Centers: Lessons from Three Museums.” After spending a year collaborating on our podcast Object Oriented – exploring digital learning in object-based museums – DML is a great opportunity for Eve, Rik and I to track how DML has changed education programs within natural history and science museums in recent years and how that has led, in part, to the end of our podcast (I know – so sad). Is it the end of DML or just the sign of a more mature phase?

I’d love to speak with anyone using AR or VR for learning – come find me!

MINE FAIRE – Philadelphia

I have no idea what this event will be like, but I can’t wait to find out. My son and I have 20-minutes to present “Growing Up Minecraft: a father and son explore six years of living (and learning) in Minecraft.” It’s loosely based on a talk I gave last year at Bard College but this time I won’t just be speaking ABOUT my son but WITH him. I’m super excited.



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Introducing My New Position at the American Museum of Natural History

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.

Getting my badge on my first day of work, Oct 2012.

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:

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.



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Killer Snails gets a killer fan-made theme song

Here’s the story from the Killer Snails co-founder, Jessica Ochoa Hendrix:

As you know, Killer Snails attended two gaming conferences this summer. At the first conference, Origins Game Fair, we met a musician who performs as Rhiannon’s Lark. She really enjoyed our Killer Snails: Assassins of the Sea game and loved the backstory.

We saw her again at GenCon and she said that she was writing a song about our game! Without further ado, I present the fan created theme song for Killer Snails: Assassins of the Sea! All credit goes to Alyssa Yeager, the singer/songwriter.

I hope you all enjoy it as much as we do!

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How to Design a Youth Space With Youth: an interview with the Shedd Aquarium’s Wade Berger

This is my third and final interview in a series exploring learning labs in Chicago Museums (the first focused on The Field Museum and the second on the Art Institute of Chicago). In this edition I interviewed Wade Berger, in Spring of 2015, who manages the Teen learning Lab at the Shedd Aquarium. Back in 2013 I spoke with Wade about their use of Minecraft (The Shedd Aquarium, Minecraft, and Virtual Piranha); now we chat about the teen space he runs and how museums can be places for teens to both hang out and geek out on science.

Hi Wade. So please tell us, where exactly would one find the Teen Learning Lab within the Shedd Aquarium.

Well, we actually have an Aquatic Education Center, which is a space underneath our galleries in the aquarium.

So this particular room we are in right now, what is it called?

It’s a Teen Learning Lab. This space was designed by teens for teens. Its a free space to make new friends, work on projects and explore careers in aquatic science.

What do the old style classrooms look like, which I see are still in use down the hall?

Those are like your more traditional spaces which we have for our school field trips and our registered programs; this space is designed to be a drop-in space – teens can just show up, they don’t have to tell us they are coming in ahead of time, and we offer after school hours, weekend hours and summer hours.

Traditional Classroom at the Shedd Aquarium

What is something people might notice when they first walk in, something that they might not be expecting?

The colors, the furniture, all of these things are really non-traditional for a classroom, and they are picked out by teens. We had teens that went through style guides and went through catalogs and picked out the furniture, picked out the color schemes, picked out the technology as well. And they also helped us lay out the room – we had the teens come in and help us move stuff around.  So it’s bright, and colorful. We have teen projects all over the places, including several wall-mounted murals–which our teens designed with the help of our exhibit fabrication team.

Teen Learning Lab at the Shedd Aquarium

What’s also awesome about this space is the amount of technology that we have, including traditional pieces of technology used in aquatic sciences or marine biology and even a 3D printer. We also have Google Glass and other cutting edge technologies, such as high-end Macs, video-editing software,  and podcasting equipment that we allow teens to use for their projects.

And how does the institution set learning goals and how do you adapt them here?

We have a group of Continue reading

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