Tuesday, November 10, 2009

ASTC Recap: Questions, Colors, and Reflective Research

Last week, the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) held their annual meeting in Ft. Worth, Texas. I participated in three sessions: a Pecha Kucha design blitz, a dialogue on bridging online/onsite connections, and a discussion of the IMLS 21st Century Skills report. This post recaps these sessions, provides my slides, and shares what I learned at the conference.

Designing Questions

Kathy Gustafon-Hilton coordinated a massive Pecha Kucha session, featuring 19 design professionals sharing 20 slides, 20 seconds apiece. Beyond being totally exhausting, this session offered some highly varied insights into the value of prototyping, the dangers of the color red, and what happens when good exhibits go bad.

I spoke about the importance of designing intentional frameworks for asking visitors questions, based on this blog post. Exhibit labels in science centers ask more questions than any other kinds of museums, and yet the questions are often awful--teacherly, overly rhetorical, and totally meaningless. While questions like: "Where were you last night?," asked by a cop or mother, garners the full attention of asker and askee alike, museum questions like "what is nanotechnology?," are fairly meaningless to all involved. I shared examples of question frameworks designed for specific types of visitor experiences: personal framing of exhibits (as in Facing Mars), private sharing (like the Storycorps booths), public dialogue (as in the Advice exhibit), and so on. Download my slides here.

Elsewhere in the session, I was incredibly impressed by:
  • The new Dialogue in Silence exhibition, presented by the same group (Dialogue Social Enterprise) that created the incredibly successful Dialogue in the Dark exhibition. Where Dialogue in the Dark is a tactile and auditory experience led in complete darkness by blind guides, Dialogue in Silence is an exhibition of interpersonal challenges that must be completed in total silence.
  • Two presentations (by Mikko Myllykoski of Heureka and Chuck Howarth of Gyroscope) that questioned whether science center exhibits should be cutesy and colorful. Both of these designers presented compelling images and evidence from exhibit work and child development experts about the idea that you can make sophisticated, muted exhibits that help children slow down, focus, and enjoy themselves with interactive content. Chuck offered a quote from an advisory psychologist who commented that "children should be the brightest thing in the space." Mikko noted that when Heureka switched to digital screen-based exhibit labels from graphics, they saw an entirely new behavior: kids reading labels, instead of their parents reading while the kids hit the hands-on elements. Mikko suggested that the kids saw the screens as being "for them" and felt drawn to read long paragraphs of text when presented digitally.
  • Jane Werner, director of the fabulous Pittsburgh Children's Museum, talked about the Charm Bracelet project, a local collaboration among arts organizations that is both incredibly ambitious (with a goal to transform the troubled North Side neighborhood into a cultural and educational jewel of the city) and wonderful distributed (they make microgrants for small projects that make a difference in the neighborhood). We so frequently over-focus on our own institutions' problems, and Jane and her cohorts in Pittsburgh are thinking much more expansively about their collective power to make positive change in their community.

Bridging Online and Onsite Experiences

Tamara Schwarz (Chabot Space & Science Center), Seth! Leary (NRG! Exhibits), Rob Semper (Exploratorium) and I hosted a wide-ranging discussion session on design techniques for developing projects that involve both online and onsite elements. Rob shared some of the Exploratorium's forays into electronic guidebooks, Seth! talked about the Bellevue Sculptural Travel Bug project and geocaching, and Tamara and I both talked about content experiences that incorporate exhibits, social networks, and in the case of a newish project I'm working on, cellphones. Download our slides here.

I particularly appreciated Rob's thoughtful description of how people use guidebooks in real life - first, as inspiration for a hazily considered trip, then to really plan specifics, then on the ground as a guide to pre-selected and new opportunities, and finally, as a memento, peppered with comments on experiences sampled or postponed for future visits. How can a device-based guide offer the same range of experiences packaged in a small container?

This session also led to some discussion about physical infrastructure to support web-based experience integration. Many museums, especially those of the big old box variety, need guidance and help figuring out how to build data services into their facilities, and I suspect that these kinds of considerations will become a constant feature of new construction projects once a model is developed.

21st Century Skills

In the final minutes of the conference, Marsha Semmel (IMLS) hosted a session with myself, Julie Johnson (Science Museum of Minnesota) and Bronwyn Bevan (Exploratorium) to share the IMLS report on 21st Century Skills. Without getting too deeply in the weeds, 21st Century Skills is a phrase that has gained a lot of traction in US policy circles around education and workforce development. The basic idea is that there is a set of skills that need to be emphasized for kids today to be good citizens, workers, and leaders in the 21st century--skills like collaboration, global awareness, and media literacy. While most of the national discussion has focused on schools and enterprise, IMLS wanted to demonstrate to policymakers that museums and libraries already communicate many of these skills. IMLS also wanted to help museums and libraries improve their skills, both for audiences and for their own professional communities. So, IMLS convened a group of advisors (including Julie, Bronwyn, and I) to consult on the creation of a report and diagnostic tool for museum and library professionals, which you can download here.

During the session, we discussed how the 21st century skills report can serve as an actionable tool both for fundraising/advocacy activities and professional and program development at science centers. Marsha also gave a brief overview of IMLS grants available that support regional groups and institutions performing 21st century skills audits and professional development workshops.

The REFLECTS project at MOSI

In keeping with the session on 21st century skills in museums, I want to report on one other session I attended that really inspired me for its forward-thinking approach to professional development and visitor experience. A team of researchers and floor staff from the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, FL, came to the conference to talk about REFLECTS, a huge initiative in which floor educators are trained to perform self-reflective research on their own interactions with visitors and adapt their behavior to improve visitor engagement.

The REFLECTS project blends practical institutional demands with deep research. The point of the project is to train educator staff to be able to appropriately scaffold visitors' experiences at the museum. The team defines a "successful" visitor experience as one that is both active and engaged (as opposed to passive and disinterested). Floor staff are recorded via both video and audio as they interact with visitors, and then those floor staff go back later and code the recordings for cues that they define as indicating active engagement: visitors making comments about the exhibit, asking and answering each other's questions, making connections to prior experiences, and so on. The researchers don't judge the content of the cues (i.e. whether a visitor asks a silly question or a complex intellectual one), just their incidence. And then they head back out on the floor to adjust their behavior and try again.

In the session, MOSI staff showed video of themselves engaging with visitors before and after working in the REFLECTS program, and the difference was impressive. The educators weren't doing a better job communicating content in the "after" videos; in fact, many of them offered less content in these videos. Instead, they were doing a better job supporting visitors having their own content experiences, rather than trying (often unsuccessfully) to coerce visitors into engagement.

The primary researcher at MOSI, Judith Lombana, offered some hard-nosed business reasons for the REFLECTS project. She noted that in a region driven by tourism, MOSI must do whatever it can to deliver memorable experiences to visitors that will encourage repeat visits. She also noted that museums spend a lot of time giving visitors scaffolding that is not successful at improving engagement or learning, and that this is a business problem. As she put it: "waste occurs with activites or resources that some particular guest does not want."

But Judith also noted some other major professional development values of the project, especially that the floor educators who are engaged as researchers via REFLECTS feel empowered and validated, able to improve their performance as educators and understand the framework in which they do so. Sadly, there is little on the web so far about this project, but you can find a one-page brief at the bottom of this page. Hopefully, they will soon start publishing their findings for the broader museum audience.

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