We spent this morning doing renovations on the NOAA tank. We deep cleaned, rearranged rocks and inserted a crab pot to prepare for the introduction of some tagged Dungeness crabs. NOAA used to be a deep-water display tank with sablefish and other offshore benthic and epibenthic species, but it has lost some of its thematic cohesion recently. Live animal exhibits bring unique interpretive complications.

All in-tank elements must meet the needs and observable preferences of the animals. This is an area where we cannot compromise, so preparations can take more time and effort than one might expect. For example, our display crab pot had to be sealed to prevent corrosion of the chicken wire. This would not be an issue in the open ocean, but we have to consider the potential effects of the metal on the invertebrates in our system.

Likewise, animals that may share an ecosystem in the ocean might seem like natural tankmates, but often they are not. One species may prey on the other, or the size and design of the tank may bring the animals into conflict. For example, we have a kelp greenling in our Bird’s Eye tank who “owns” the lower 36 inches of the tank. If the tank were not deep enough, she would not be able to comfortably coexist with other fish.

We’re returning the NOAA tank to a deep-water theme based on species and some simple design elements. An illusion of depth can be accomplished by hiding the water’s surface and using minimal lighting. The Japanese spider crab exhibit next door at Oregon Coast Aquarium also makes good use of these principles. When this is done right, visitors can get an intuitive sense of the animals’ natural depth range—regardless of the actual depth of the tank—before they even read the interpretive text.

We’re also using a new resident to help us clean up. The resident in question is a Velcro star (Stylasterias spp.) that was donated a couple of months back. It is only about eight inches across, but the species can grow quite large. Velcro stars are extremely aggressive, and will even attack snails and the fearsome sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) that visitors know from our octopus tank. Our Velcro star will, we hope, cull the population of tiny marine snails that have taken over the NOAA tank’s front window in recent months.

Colleen has been very proactive in taking on major exhibit projects like this, and she has recruited a small army of husbandry volunteers—to whom I’ll refer hereafter as Newberg’s Fusiliers—to see them through. Big things are happening on all fronts, and with uncommon speed.

Do visitors use STEM reasoning when describing their work in a build-and-test exhibit? This is one of the first research questions we’re investigating as part of the Cyberlab grant, besides whether or not we can make this technology integration work. As with many other parts of this grant, we’re designing the exhibit around the ability to ask and answer this question, so Laura and I are working on designing a video reflection booth for visitors to tell us about what happened to the structures they build and knock down in the tsunami tank. Using footage from the overhead camera, visitors will be able to review what happens, and hopefully tell us about why they created what they did, whether or not they expected it to survive or fail, and how the actual result fit or didn’t match what they hoped for.

We have a couple of video review and share your thoughts examples we drew from; The Utah Museum of Natural History has an earthquake shake table where you build and test a structure and then can review footage of it going through the simulated quake. The California Science Center’s traveling exhibit Goosebumps: the Science of Fear also allows visitors to view video of expressions of fear from themselves and other visitors filmed while they are “falling”. However, we want to take these a step farther and add the visitor reflection piece, and then allow visitors to choose to share their reflections with other visitors as well.

As often happens, we find ourselves with a lot of creative ways to implement this, and ideas for layer upon layer of interactivity that may ultimately complicate things, so we have to rein our ideas in a bit to start with a (relatively) simple interaction to see if the opportunity to reflect is fundamentally appealing to visitors. Especially when one of our options is around $12K – no need to go spending money without some basic questions answered. Will visitors be too shy to record anything, too unclear about the instructions to record anything meaningful, or just interested in mooning/flipping off/making silly faces at the camera? Will they be too protective of their thoughts to share them with researchers? Will they remain at the build-and-test part forever and be uninterested in even viewing the replay of what happened to their structures? Avoiding getting ahead of ourselves and designing something fancy before we’ve answered these basic questions is what makes prototyping so valuable. So our original design will need some testing with probably a simple camera setup and some mockups of how the program will work for visitors to give us feedback before we go any farther with the guts of the software design. And then eventually, we might have an exhibit that allows us to investigate our ultimate research question.

Our Free Choice Learning Lab group took our first field trip last Tuesday… Hurray!

We visited the Science Factory Children’s Museum and Exploration Dome and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, both located in Eugene, OR. This field trip and the ones yet to come are intended to get our group out and about! Outside our offices and interacting with others in the  field. The objective is getting to know our local museums, their facilities, staff and  educational programs, making connections and establishing partnerships with those institutions to crate a network supporting professional exchange and development. The Science Factory and the Museum of Art are the first two in a “Friends of the Free-Choice Learning Lab” list I am creating to support such exchange. THANK YOU VERY MUCH!  And… for all of you reading this blog, please let me know your suggestions about what kind of network I should create to better support these forming relationships, as you may know I am not technologically inclined and would appreciate some input as to what you think would be a good way to do this.

I should acknowledge the awesome people we got to talk to during this field trip. From the Science Factory, we talked to Nick Spicher (Education Director), Kim Miller (Operations Director) and Carolyn Rebbert (Executive Director). From the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and UO, many thanks to Sharon Kaplan (Museum Educator for Academic and Public Programs) and Phaedra Linvingstone (Assistant professor in Museum Studies at UO, Coordinator of the Art and Administration Graduate Program). We really appreciate your time and willingness to talk to us about your institution and educational programs and sure hope our group can collaborate with you in the future. We had an awesome time! At the Factory we literally just blended right in with the 48 children around for summer camps. We were also mesmerized at the beauty of the Museum of Art and really enjoyed our experience. Bellow are some photos of us having a really really fun but nevertheless intellectually rich time during our trip.


FCL lab group at the Science Factory.


Recyclotron Exhibit, preventing balls from ending up in the landfill


Laura and Michelle racing wheels


Optical Illusion... Laura was becoming me...


Courtyard at the Museum of Art
Shawn, Katie and Phaedra at the Museum of Art
The group at the Museum of Art Courtyard


If you want to know more about the Science Factory please visit http://www.sciencefactory.org

For Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art visit http://jsma.uoregon.edu/default.aspx

Thank you Dr. Shawn Rowe for providing this opportunity for our lab and thanks to all that joined us and contributed to a very pleasant day OUT AND ABOUT!

Laura brought this to our attention this morning.  It’s a UC Davis project to create an augmented-reality sandbox that models topography and water flow with a Kinect system and projector.  Be sure to check out the videos.

“The goal of this project was to develop a real-time integrated augmented reality system to physically create topography models which are then scanned into a computer in real time, and used as background for a variety of graphics effects and simulations. The final product is supposed to be self-contained to the point where it can be used as a hands-on exhibit in science museums with little supervision.”

In other words, this is the sandbox you wish you had as a kid.  The visitor uses a hand gesture to dump water into the sandbox.  That would be the omnipotent open-palm gesture used almost universally by children to signify shooting lightning/fireballs/missiles/flaming lightning missiles from their hands.  Personally, it’s one of the first ones I try when confronted with a gesture-recognition system.

An AR sandbox lends itself to stream-table activities, but what else could it do?  With a few modifications and a palette swap, it could model volcanoes.  Sand castles could become actual castles.  Green plastic army men could re-enact historical battles, guided by projected arrows.  What else can you think of?

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is hosting an exhibition titled “The Art of Video Games.”  It includes five playable games (Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst and Flower).  Raph Koster speculated on his blog that the entry-level content might appeal most to those “who were mostly reminiscing about the Commodore 64 (based on what I overheard).”

Approximately 25 percent of the adults I know do not play video games regularly (or claim not to do so).  Of these, almost all of them feel that not playing games is a normal behavior—something you grow out of.  According to anecdotal evidence—oh, and market research by those who sell games for a living—this assertion is as wrong as they come.  Females over age 18 play—yes, play, not buy—video games more than males under 17, for example.

Where do we get our attitudes about play?  I’ve never met someone who claimed, with a smug shake of the head, to be “too old” for movies or novels (media with a similar cultural history).  How does someone maintain this attitude about video games despite usually being the only adult in the room who doesn’t play them?  Oddly, I see frequent Bejeweled and Farmville updates on Facebook from my friends who “don’t play” games.

Is the Smithsonian’s exhibition a good way to breach this barrier?  How do you reach out to those who don’t (openly) incorporate play into their identities?  I’ll need to look into this question more in the coming months.

The time has come to get my project underway. I’m developing an ecosystem-modeling game to entertain and to facilitate learning. I don’t want to make a game to teach, exactly. Too often, “educational” games tend to be dreary ordeals with a thin but shiny coat of classroom-style learning content, designed by people who a)don’t seem to play games and b)think games are primarily for children. All games teach. I’ve discussed this sort of thing before, as have numerous others before me.

There are, of course, many examples of great games designed with learning in mind. Last year, my wife spent over a week playing the original version of The Oregon Trail under a slew of self-imposed restrictions just to see how she could leverage the mechanics in her favor–like an experienced D&D player who opts to forego armor just to add challenge and complexity.

The task I have chosen to undertake (perhaps recklessly) is to create a game that stands on its own in terms of game mechanics, but mirrors reality enough to allow players to explore and broadly recreate ecosystem dynamics.

To do this, the game must be modifiable and include thorough documentation. It should allow players to, well, play with it. It should also be freely hackable for anyone who may want to build, for example, an approximation of species interactions within a specific Malaysian cloud forest (people have differing ideas of fun).

It won’t be easy, and I will need lots of help along the way. I want the game to serve as a means of entry into scientific discourse. To that end, I’d like to see a growing library of user mods ranging from challenging fictional scenarios to user-created ecosystem models based on published data. If optimal strategy in the game one day helps to reveal something about real-world animal behavior (as Fold-It aids the discovery of protein structures), I will have achieved my ultimate, maybe-I-shouldn’t-even-consider-it-possible goal.

If I don’t shoot for that goal, I’ll never know how close I can get. At this stage, I’m drawing inspiration from the concepts and mechanics of games such as Wolf Quest, Venture Arctic, Cultivation and Subspace/Continuum (the latter for its simple energy-management system and elegant-but-deep multiplayer experience).

Any and all feedback is welcome. What would you folks like to play?