Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Guest Post: A New Role for Science Museums--Playground for Scientists

One of the greatest gifts of my babymoon is the opportunity to share the Museum 2.0 author's desk with brilliant colleagues who inspire me. First up is Beck Tench, a "simplifier, illustrator, story teller, and technologist" working at the Museum of Life & Science in Durham, NC. Beck is the brain behind the risk-taker/space-maker paradigm I've shared here in the past. In this post, she writes about Experimonth, an intriguing set of crowd-sourced projects that connect scientists with research participants in surprising ways. 

As a person who works for a science museum, I work in an environment that supports play. But at my museum, the support doesn't stop at our visitors.  I'm also given the space to take risks and to play as my work. It's resulted in some of my favorite work ever: games like #namethatzoom, projects like FeederSketch, adult-only Ball Pits, and most importantly, the creation of Experimonth, which is what I'd like to blog about today.

Experimonth started out as play. Back in 2008, I devised a plan to outsource my New Year's Resolutions. I tweeted and Facebooked a request for friends to suggest things I could resolve to do over the course of 2009. Once compiled, I also asked folks to vote on them, promising to do whatever the top twelve were.  I charted them across the year and pledged to try one each month, inviting others to do them with me and blog about the experience.

Thus began a year of play. That is to say, we engaged in each Experimonth for the pure enjoyment of it, rather than any real serious or practical purpose.  I met many new people and learned a lot about technology and community, but the learning wasn't the point, enjoying the resolutions was.

Fast-forward a couple of years and I'm taking a shower one morning and thinking about a talk a colleague recently gave about the placebo effect and I thought to myself, "we could probably do an Experimonth about that at the museum." I'd just met a local researcher and I thought she'd be a great person to talk to about it. I came to her with an idea I called "Gut Sense." A way to explore doing a blind study on one's self. I imagined people weighing themselves everyday without looking at the scale and then also guessing what their weight was. After a month, they'd compare the numbers to see if there were any correlations between what they sensed and what was quantifiable.

The project didn't go far due to the sensitivity most folks have around numbers and their weight, but it did launch a conversation with the researcher about mood and emotion that ended up becoming the museum's first official Experimonth, Experimonth: Mood. We recruited folks and designed software that texted them five times a day for thirty days, asking one question, "Rate your mood 1 (low) to 10 (high)."

The project blew away our expectations. We retained 96% of our participants throughout the month. They were 81% compliant with texting back their mood. And we generated over 18,000 mood data points for our researcher, Frances Ulman, Ph.D. The most surprising thing to me, however, was what she had to say about the experience:
Experimonth is like playing for scientists.  A critical part of the scientific method is the development of a hypothesis, which can then be tested with well controlled research.  The rigorous and fast paced setting of academia can rarely provide a sort of experimental scratch pad that is ultimately generative for new hypotheses and methods of inquiry. Experimonth can provide this generative experience for scientists, where the flexible interaction with participants allows for potentially new hypotheses and ideas to form.
If the lightbulb had already gone off, it certainly got brighter for me at this moment.  Experimonth had the potential to generate new scientific knowledge.  All of a sudden, I looked at my town as a place teeming with scientists in need of play.  And my museum, and this new model, as a space for them to do so.

We ran with it and have since generated data about decision-making, cooperation, competition and negotiation for scientists (and also some artists) to play with. For example:

  • We worked with a local psychologist to create an implicit associations-based game called "Smart, Hot, Honest or Not?" as a part of Experimonth: Race. Using facial morphing software to change a player's avatar to a different ethnicity, we fed the game with hundreds of photos that were judged in a "hot or not" type interface and gave players a view of how intelligent, attractive, and trustworthy others perceived them to be as two different ethnicities. 
  • We worked with a neuroscientist studying cooperation and competition to develop Experimonth: Frenemy, a prisoner's dilemma-based game where players decided to friend or enemy an anonymous opponent based on one piece of information.  We generated nearly 10k data points and hundreds of text-based confessionals that he's already successfully used to model cooperative behavior and is considering publishing on it.
  • We worked with a social scientist studying the power of being able to walk away from an uncooperative environment to develop Experimonth: Freeloader, a public-goods game where players decide whether to invest in their group or freeload.  She'll have enough data from this that she can compare actual human behavior to what she's only been able to simulate via modeling software so far.
  • We worked with an anthropologist studying the evolution of coordination to develop Experimonth: Do You Know What I Know You Know?, a game where you only get points if you choose the same thing as everyone in your group but you don't have any way of communicating with them about your decision.  He'll be able to watch how certain activities evolve into coordination and what kinds of histories the people who most easily coordinate have in common.
  • We also developed Experimonths about trading objects, matchmaking and electronically racing across the country, where the data and/or purpose are less defined -- but we trust it will surely teach us something, even (or especially) if it fails.
There's something magical about the cognitive surplus most of us have at this point in time and then applying that to the challenge of doing something for 30 days.  I wholeheartedly believe it has the power to advance science (and art and cultural heritage) through the power of play. I invite you and your museum to join me as we conceive, launch and complete new Experimonths. In fact, we'll be hosting Frenemy, Freeloader, and Do You Know What I Know You Know? this fall. Sign up to indicate your interest or contact me directly to play a part.

Beck will be checking in to respond to your comments and questions here. 
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