Friday, September 16, 2016

Forces At Play


Photo Credit: Richard Tsong-Taatarii

Museums use the word engaged in describing visitors wholeheartedly involved with activities. They are engaged when they try different features of a component, repeat actions and add variations, show others what to do, talk about what they are doing, or stick with an activity for a long time. Engaged is what museums hope for in creating exhibits and programs, in connecting people with one another and with the museum, and in having an impact.

In Forces at Play at Minnesota Children’s Museum, children and adults are ENGAGED. They are engaged with water, air, and bubbles; with hoses, cranks, and valves; pipes and pumps; sprayers and suds; blowers, brushes, and balls; with children and adults, with people they know well and with friends they just met.  

Opening on August 31, Forces at Play is the first new permanent gallery of the Museum’s $30 million expansion and renovation to be completed in April 2017. This IMLS-funded project makes what children (and adults) find fascinating–air and water–intriguing, accessible, and joyful.  

Designed for a primary audience of children 4 through 10 years and their caregivers, the gallery’s secondary audience is children 3 years and under and their caregivers. An overarching focus is on actively engaging visitors’ critical thinking through open-ended, self-directed play and materials exploration, and reinforced with an engineering layer. Along with creating a compelling water experience, the Museum wanted to add air as another medium for investigation. With this combination, the Museum also hoped to move the upper end of the age range closer to 10 years.

The exhibit’s design, activities, real materials, and abundant loose parts wholeheartedly invite everyone to try something, to fit pipes together, twist tubes apart, press levers, aim a hose, or pull on a gate valve. The promise that doing something will make something interesting happen is met. Ping pong balls hover in the air; feathers fly; suds climb through tubes; dots of light appear by pressing a wet finger. The words “wash me” appear seemingly from nowhere as warm water spills across a surface.

From Air Play to Water Play
Two main areas, air play and water play, both with designated tot spots for very young children are connected by a ramp. Giant hanging dryer tubes line the ramp; they are both functional–for drying off–and for investigation–making the overhead Mylar strips dance. In air play, visitors connect tubes, aim blowers, and adjust valves to launch ping pong balls at the Blower Build Stations. They start a chain reaction by pumping air into tubes at various air sources and trigger spinners and propellers. And they use prediction and timing in launching ping pong balls into traffic cone targets.      

In the water play area visitors crank the giant blue carwash brush to make it spin; draw images with water on a panel of LED lights; fill a series of basins with water to start a cascade; and transform trays of bubble solution with dichroic gels. Undoubtedly, the main attraction of the entire gallery is the Car Wash Bonanza. Parked in the car wash is a fantastic vehicle constructed from parts of 13 different vehicles. If pretending to drive a car is fun, then driving one with the hood of a VW bug, the door of a police car, the back of a city bus, and wheels of 4 different sizes (including a giant tractor wheel), is a dream beyond belief.  

The vehicle’s varied contours, surfaces, and colors beg to be washed, rinsed, and polished. When the car wash cycle begins, the wash, rinse, dry lights light up in succession dispensing suds, a clean rinse, and puffs of air. At the 4-cylinder bubble engine, children crank and pump bubbles delivered through 4 different tubes. Nearby, dozens of brushes that do work of every sort, hang ready for scrubbing and buffing. There’s a job, a brush, or a hose for everyone.

The SteamPunk Side of Seuss
Forces at Play is designed by Gyroscope, Inc. (Oakland CA) and built by Kidzibits (Minneapolis, MN) and the Museum’s in-house fabricators.

The design brief expressed the gallery’s look-and-feel as the SteamPunk Side of Seuss. More than a clever trope, this image inspired a deconstructed design aesthetic that is spare, inventive, functional, whacky, beautiful, and occasionally surprising. Conceptually, it served to strip away layers from how we often experience the forces of air and water in museum settings and everyday situations. Right at the entry, four powerful air blowers stripped of casings are visible through a glass window and help make obvious how air is delivered to the floor blowers that lift balls and float feathers.

Decisions in lay out, materials, and surfaces contribute to the transparency. Open sight lines keep the large, 3,400 square foot space visually simple, mechanisms visible, and freedom of movement easy. Stripped to essentials, the car wash and vehicle are simple frameworks with intriguing elements and quirky twists: the rearview mirror of a Mack Truck, the hood ornament of a Minneapolis Moline tractor, old license plates, or suds oozing from a hose like soft-serve ice cream.

A consistent use of stainless steel panels throughout brings order to abundant brushes, raincoats, and visitor comments. Against neutral gray walls, the orange traffic cones and yellow fans pop. Beauty is in the details of the copper pipe Water Contraption, the shallow pools of the Ripple Effect, and the bubbles spilling through the Water Graffiti.  

Wet and Whacky
Although Forces at Play is still new, the Museum is dealing successfully with operational issues many museums face in less ambitious exhibits: water, loose parts, text, and adult engagement.

With multiple water hoses around the care wash, Forces at Play is definitely wet, especially under the vehicle. Floor contouring, drain, and water-proof non-porous surfacing result in surprisingly little standing water. Raincoats with hoods in all sizes and distributed in several areas are handy. Drying off is easy, engaging, and accessible: at a bank of hand dryers, at the dryer tubes on the ramp, or from a rub down at the big carwash brush. Children will get wet, a little or a lot, but so far no one seems to mind. That may change when an Alberta Clipper passes through Minnesota in January.

The Museum does not just tolerate water and loose parts–tubes, ping pong balls, brushes–but embraces them. Essential to materials exploration, brushes, dichroic gel, suds, feathers, tubing, ping pong balls, water, and air are plentiful. Brushes are intended to travel from the tool bin to the Car Wash to Water Graffiti. Loose materials, says the exhibit’s developer, Mary Weiland, are meant to live on the ground where they are visible, accessible, and suggest possibilities.

Signs are scarce and, when present, are short. One says, “Directions. (There aren’t any.) And that’s on Purpose.”  The absence of signs telling what to do or why it is important makes a point. If play is a strategy for learning then big play provides big learning opportunities. In Forces At Play, concepts like flow and pressure can be experienced directly. Understanding them well may be in the future, but the joy of investigating them, working with others, and making things happen with water or air–are decidedly in the present where it matters.

On my two visits to the gallery, I saw everyone get into the act, from wobbly walkers to 10 and 11 year olds, to parents, grandparents, and staff. In contrast to so many exhibits where adults hang back, look on, or tap their phones, here they were as active as the children. The exhibit makes it easy to connect over a ping pong ball flying by or a water hose misfiring. One parent slipped away from the family at the Feather Blaster to tweak the chain reaction one more time.     

Conversation flows. A father explains what windshield wipers do; a mother suggests her son increase the water pressure; a grandmother asks, “what if we…?” Often, and with adults in the lead, silliness and group fun erupts. Families blow their hair into crazy styles, shoot ping pong balls at each other, strike silly poses with squeegees, and give each other rubdowns with the giant blue brush. Staff gets into the act too. Jordan put on a soapy mit and polished the vehicle’s red truck door, directed the air hose at the Mylar strips, and danced with the air dancers.

Off Kilter and On Target
Before Forces At Play was a wet and whacky car wash temporarily called Scrub Hub, it was a STEM gallery with more structured water, air, and light experiences. The design was strong and the exhibit was accomplishing its broad goals. Following an advisors’ meeting during Schematic Design, the Museum team seriously considered the advisors’ input and rethought the exhibit approach. The result was a much deconstructed exhibit, with a car wash that hit harder on critical thinking, play, and materials exploration. In my role as a project advisor, I was initially hesitant about changing direction at that point in the process and where a car wash exhibit might lead. The team’s instincts were on the mark.

I applaud the Museum’s courage to look critically at its work and create a wet, windy, and whacky experience. At many points in the planning process, the museum could have backed up and, conceptually, mopped up the experience. Very likely, the exhibit would have been engaging. Instead, MCM chose to venture where museums often talk of going, but seldom do: creating open-ended exploration around what is fascinating to children (and adults) and involves abundant loose parts and a play-rich mess as a way to explore STE(A)M.

This is play as we seldom see it in museums. Unlike the structured play that exhibits tend to provide, here is a glimpse of play among children of different ages directing their play, following their ideas, and transforming objects. This is play that flows, folds an interruption into a planned scenario, expands to include more children, even children who don’t know each other.

The promise that anyone can make something happen in this gallery is ever present. I watched a 3-year old girl carefully load 3 ping pong balls into a clear tube laying on its side near, but unconnected to, a blower. She focused intently, as if expecting the balls to move. When nothing happened, she placed 2 more balls in the tube and waited. When still nothing happened she looked into the end of the tube; she then shifted the tube one way and then the other. She continued making small adjustment after small adjustment. When she accidently passed her hand across the blower, the ball she held flew up and hovered in mid air. The delight on her face predicted a new round of investigation.

To the forces at play with water and air in this gallery, I would have to add the forces of curiosity, persistence, thinking, and delight that are at play and make this a success.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Question-Powered Learning Frameworks

Strandbeest: stille strand Apodiacula 2 by Theo Jansen
Every museum has a de facto learning framework. Ideas and assumptions about learning have some degree of presence across the museum. They are enlisted during exhibit and program planning and in setting project goals, sometimes incidentally. There is, however, little assurance that these ideas are well understood, shared across the museum, thoughtfully connected, build on one another, are applied intentionally, and reflected on.

The difference for a museum between a de facto learning framework and one that is deliberately developed is significant. An explicit learning framework shows staff where they can contribute their enthusiasm and expertise to create stronger learning experiences and serve visitors. It allows a museum to align messages about learning and its learning interests internally to staff and board and externally to stakeholders and partners.

But getting started on a learning framework can feel overwhelming, especially the first time. Figuring out where to start, imagining what the midst of the process will feel like, and wondering if it will be worth the effort are just some of the thoughts that surface. I sense this when colleagues who are thinking about developing a learning framework for their museum talk about it. Both interest and hesitation are present.

For first-timers, the challenge may be how to describe the learning framework to others or bringing along reluctant colleagues. From experience, I know of several ways to ease into projects including Planning to Plan and adapting one museum’s process to a different museum. Another approach, even better suited to developing a learning framework, is working with a set of questions that addresses key ideas and probes important understanding. Eight questions have been helpful to me and to several museums in this process.

1. How does this museum view learning? How a museum views learning is related to how it sees its role with its visitors and in its community. Learning frameworks explore and consolidate a museum’s learning interests: what’s important about learning to the museum, for its visitors, and how it delivers learning experiences and value. Introducing this question early in the process helps create a shared view of learning, one that very likely draws on research, considers the nature informal learning setting, and focuses on the learner. While composing this view of learning may require a couple of passes, it helps to anchor other framework discussions and decisions.

2. What principles about learning grounded in research and theory support the museum’s view of learning? Exploring and describing a museum’s view of learning surfaces beliefs and assumptions about learning, learners, and the role of context in learning. By taking time to track down 5 - 7 principles from theory and research that are consistent with its view of learning, a museum is both strengthening its understanding of learning and underlining what it feels is of importance. This step also facilitates making these underpinnings accessible to staff during training and demonstrates its seriousness about learning to supporters and funders. Addressing this question recognizes the connection between research and practice and creates an opening for the museum to engage in research itself.

3. How does the museum view its learners? How a museum views its visitors influences how it plans for them. If it sees them as learners–as active learners starting at birth and learners throughout life–it will serve them as learners. While there is tremendous variety among visitors, they also share some similarities as learners that are worthwhile to note. Significantly, they have found their way through the museum doors, logged onto its website, or participated in programs and events. In considering the qualities of learners that it wants to engage in particular, whether it is curiosity, persistence, or empathy, a museum is reinforcing its view of learning, setting a course for learning experiences, and pointing to likely learner impacts across the museum.

4. What experiential and learning platforms allow the museum to deliver learning value? A museum has multiple valued and complementary resources through which it delivers learning experiences and value. In addition to its exhibits and programs, it may have collections, a school, planetarium or digital theater, nature area, library, research center, or historic building. These  are learning assets or platforms. This question is an opportunity to identify them, describe the attributes that make each platform distinct and valuable, and identify the related activities and the learner groups they serve. Addressing this question assists a museum in assessing and building the capacity of each platform to make an impact on or for learners, the organization, or the community.

5. In what areas should the museum focus its expertise and resources to build learning value and to distinguish itself from other groups serving a similar audience? A museum’s mission, audience, community priorities, and collections help inform its primary areas of focus. Drawn from a museum’s strengths, a few selected focus areas such as creativity, STE(A)M, well-being, play, or global  awareness, set priorities for developing learning experiences. Focus areas help locate themes and topics for exhibitions and initiatives; they serve as multiple contact and access points to the collection, assist in being more intentional about developing and delivering experiences, and guide staff and volunteer training. Too many focus areas, however, disperse a museum’s efforts, while areas of disproportionate magnitudes create inequalities. Related learning approaches–conversation, making, design thinking, inquiry–that actively engage learners and are used consistently and well support and advance the focus areas.

6. In what areas does the museum intend to make learning impacts? Identifying learner impacts is where a museum’s aspirations for its learners intersect with its internal capacities and the nature of learning. This is often a challenge. Important clues about what it hopes will happen for the learner are implanted in the other framework parts, its view of learning, image of the learner, focus areas and approaches, and learning experience platforms. Does it hope learners will construct meaning from their experiences? Develop new attitudes? Change perspectives? Make a personal connection? Develop a new skill or skills? A technical skill? A thinking skill? How does each possible outcome relate to the focus areas and learning approaches? What might an outcome look like for a learner? How does the museum think it can encourage it?  

7. What criteria assist in selecting, shaping, assessing, and strengthening learning experiences across the museum? This question identifies the characteristics that all learning experiences share across all learning platforms to achieve quality, consistency, and greater or consistent learning value. Criteria aligned with the view of learning and learning principles guide development of new activities, programs, events, and exhibits. Clarity about what “socially engaging,” “active participation,” or “multiple points of view” mean cultivates fluency with them, greatly assisting in assessment and improvement. Familiarity with these criteria across learning platforms helps in eliminating less promising choices and facilitates finding successful examples of how criteria have been applied. The deeper the familiarity with the learning experience criteria, the more staff is able to engage in innovative thinking that creates and strengthens learning experiences. 

8. What experiential qualities unify the museum’s experiences across platforms? Every museum has an experiential brand embedded in its learning experiences. Regardless of its size, particular experiential learning assets, or its awareness of it, a style comes through that supports–or undermines–a museum’s learning intentions. Exhibit activities, programs for different audiences, graphics, an on-line presence, and thousands of interactions with visitors broadcast a museum’s experiential brand. It is echoed in its public spaces, color and material palette, and the care of wear-and-tear. Articulating the set of experiential qualities that connect and unify these experiences expresses the museum’s essence. Once captured, a museum can work those criteria deliberately, consistently, and confidently distinguish itself from other settings serving a similar audience.

True, even a stellar set of questions doesn’t eliminate the need for a collaborative group, good thinking, persistence, or the necessary time. Thinking over these questions, however, will suggest who needs to be part of this exercise and the information and documents needed for engaging in lively discussion. The questions help guide the process, inspire thinking, and shine a light on what parts of a framework contribute and how they connect with one another. More than a standard list of plan parts or a table of contents might, questions ensure that each museum’s learning framework will serve its mission, reflect its community, and build on its existing learning interests.

When colleagues engage with these questions and with one another, they are likely to transform a de facto learning framework into a shared understanding of the museum’s most important ideas about learning and learners and its role in serving them. They are also very likely to find more questions that will power more learning.