InterMedia 10 Year Jubilee

InterMedia, the research center where I am based, celebrated its 10 year anniversary last Thursday. It was a really nice event, with a few talks, as well as an exhibition demonstrating some of the technologies and research developed by the center. I was particularly interested in a few mobile technologies that were presented. Two of them used GPS phones to turn public spaces into interaction points. I'll have to describe these in more detail later - but one embedded audio texts at coordinates around the city - so walking into a particular space with your phone gets a text playing. The designer stated that there were no real learning goals, but it's easy for me to imagine creating learning interactions with the technology.

One funny anecdote -- totally relevant to mobile technology interactions -- During one of the talks, the speaker's computer began "ringing," and the presentation slide was interrupted. He was receiving a Skype call. Anyway, the speaker declined the call, and the computer began ringing again. This repeated one more time, and the audience continued to laugh. It was a funny moment, raising questions of privacy and what it means to be available for communicating - is it rude to answer a computer call in front of others? I made sure my phone was on silent. It turned out that the skype caller was in fact the next speaker - trying to connect to give his talk remotely.


*EDIT - Reading this again, it really doesn't seem to be that funny. You'll just have to trust me.


QUESTION - How can a physical space support mobile phone use?

I think it's time to start asking some questions before I attempt any answers for this project. Again, the general themes include: mobile phones, children, museums, learning, play, design, and public space, among others. I'm exploring how to design "mobile learning spaces" - which I will probably need help defining soon. Today though, I'm going to temporarily put aside a few of these themes and ask:

How can a physical space support mobile phone use?

I believe that we often approach mobile phone interactions and designs from the phone's point of view, or from a user's point of view (there is nothing wrong with these perspectives of course). We think of mobile phones as being small and adaptable to any situation or place. We always have the phone in our pocket, and can access our social network or information just by taking it out, and making a call, or browsing the web.

What if we switch perspectives for a moment and think about the place's role in this interaction? There are some obvious factors - a noisy space such as a concert or party would restrict at least the audio functionality of a phone. Other spaces have social limitations. In a movie theater for example, you might run into some trouble making a call. I'm ultimately looking to design museum spaces that support children's use of mobile technologies, but lets think a little more broadly to begin with. I've pasted some of my initial thoughts below - How can a physical space support mobile phone use? What dimensions of a space effect the use of a phone? Do you have thoughts or intuitions to add to my brainstorm list? Please record them in the comments section below (and don't be shy)!


Space Factors:
  • noise levels
  • privacy
  • safety (dangerous place?)
  • light levels (see screen)
  • multi-tasking (ex. driving car)
  • lack of information (no map? use phone)
  • social disturbance (ex. movie theater)
  • reception/ signal strength
  • co-presence (why call if they're within earshot?)
  • physical barriers (walls)
  • waiting places (ex bus stop)
  • confusing space (hard to find or meet someone)
  • social norms (ex. rude in a restaurant)
  • exciting phenomena (rather send picture from concert than classroom)


3 Lessons From Video Games on Science Thinking In Museums

I just read this wired.com article - How Video Games Blind Us With Science - and found some great parallels to my own studies. The article describes how kids playing online games are unknowingly using the scientific process:

The researcher noticed that kids would collect information as they collectively tried to accomplish a task. For example, how do they beat a boss? Which spells work best? They would then organize these various pieces of data to create a set of rules or model for how that boss worked.
Often, the first model wouldn't work very well, so the group would argue about how to strengthen it. Some would offer up new data they'd collected, and suggest tweaks to the model. "They'd be sitting around arguing about what model was the best, which was most predictive," Steinkuehler recalls.

That's when it hit her: The kids were practicing science.
The researcher, Steinkuehler, concludes that these kids are using the scientific method (collecting information, generating hypotheses, testing and refining these hypotheses) in order to figure out the hidden rules of the video game world - very much the same way that scientists figure out the rules governing our own real world. She concludes that "Video games are becoming the new hotbed of scientific thinking for kids today."

I believe that the interactions and experiences described above should guide the ways that science museums approach and promote scientific thinking. I think there are 3 lessons that museum designers can take from the article and the findings.

1) Social Interactions - These kids are working together. They're using various chat programs and digital communication methods to solve problems, to have debates about there theories etc. How can museum spaces better foster these types of "scientific" discussions, conversations, and social interactions? Exhibits that use digital technologies to support group problem solving would be a great start. Maybe mobile phones could help children gather data to solve problems in a museum space.

2) Process over Content - I believe that the role of museums should be to encourage scientific thinking. By providing children with a method and framework to solving scientific problems, children will be better prepared to approach science later on in more formal settings such as schools. (See Preparation for Future Learning). Ultimately these types of experiences will have a greater impact on children than simply throwing facts and information at them. The key is to make sure that kids are able to take this new "scientific thinking" and transfer it to other experiences.

3) Play and Motivation - These video games are fun.The article suggests that the kids believe they're cheating, and not performing science. In any case, these games are fun because it is intrinsically rewarding (there are of course extrinsic motivators as well) to complete a task or to beat a boss. How can museums utilize these motivating factors to make museum experiences more fun and engaging, while highlighting the scientific thinking involved in the interactions?

I don't think museums should become video games, but perhaps there are some lessons to be learned about the fostering of scientific thinking.



A Quick Look Back - My Fulbright Application Personal Statement

As I get begin to get settled both in Oslo and as a Fulbright student, I thought it would be worthwhile to look back on what I was setting out to do a year ago when I applied. I stumbled accross my "personal statement" recently as I was sharing it with another student going through the application process. This is more to remind myself of what I've been thinking, but here it is:

I have recently come to recognize that my life is dominated by the activity of looking for, and acting upon, connections. Whether these connections involve academic classes, school projects, travel, or social relationships, there seems to be a guiding force, leading me towards bringing together these different areas of my life. This point really struck home for me, when I realized that I had designed my master’s thesis project, literally, around this very idea. To demonstrate this connecting force in my life, I would like to briefly describe this project, and how it has pulled across many of my other experiences.

This master’s project was the final task in my Learning, Design, and Technology program, in the School of Education, at Stanford University. The project was based on a learning problem faced by children visiting science museums. Children tend to view museum exhibits as isolated experiences, as “islands” of science phenomena. However, scientists draw on a broad array of experiences, experiments, and data to generate questions, and grand conclusions. The goal of this project was to get children to think like scientists by approaching science museum experiences as though the exhibits are connected and related to each other. My design solution involved digital technology, an interactive map that encouraged children to seek and record connections between different exhibits.

This project, itself, was drawing on my own past experiences as a museum volunteer and employee, as a product design student, as a child very excited about maps, among others. One particular travel experience also seems especially relevant upon reflection. Traveling with a family friend around Iceland a few years ago, the topic of science museums came into conversation (I was currently employed by one in my home state of Florida). In any case, I asked if there were any Icelandic science centers to show off the wealth of local natural phenomena. He responded, rather boldly, “The whole island is a science museum!” He was absolutely correct. In the span of a few days, I had traveled from volcano to glacier to geyser, and traveling from place to place in Iceland had given me time to reflect on the relationships between the experiences. It is also apparent to me now that perhaps the Icelandic people view learning opportunities as being embedded in nature, a perspective quite different than what I’m used to seeing as an American. I wish I could say that this short conversation directly influenced my master’s project, but only reflecting back now do I recognize the connecting experiences that guided my project.

Thus, in many senses, I have been just like the children that I observed and researched in designing my master’s project. I noticed children running from exhibit to exhibit, totally engaged in each place, but seeming to forget about the previous interaction when finding something new. After introducing my design solution, children are encouraged to reflect and approach these exhibits as though they are related. Similarly, the actual process of creating this design project has forced me to reflect, and approach my new experiences as though they are connected. Iceland is most certainly an “island,” but it took the design of my connections exhibit for me to stop treating my experiences there as isolated.

I consider myself to be a designer, and my ambition in life is to be a designer of “learning things” – whether these things be toys, classroom tools, or museum exhibits. I’ve realized that this design process is really about looking for and creating connections, from thing to thing, person to person, and place to place.



Oslo Children's Museum

So a second museum opportunity has presented itself to me recently. I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend a planning meeting for a new children's museum here in Oslo - the Oslo Barnemuseum (barne means children in norwegian).

The project seems to still be in the planning and design phase which is really exciting for me. The opportunity to be involved in the design of an entire museum - from the ground up is a great opportunity. This is actually my favorite phase in the design process - taking a given framework and generating ideas, concepts for exhibits and exhibitions - really just being able to be creative and innovative. It's not clear to me yet what role I'll be able to take, but several of the designers seemed quite receptive to my interest in mobile technologies.

I also will hopefully get a chance to work with some human computer interaction students at the University of Oslo to design some concepts for the museum. The Barnemuseum also is looking at the Children's Discovery Museum in San Jose as a source of inspiration. This is great news for me, as CDM is where I did much of my master's work at Stanford. My first few weeks as a Fulbright grantee have been very promising.