Learning from the Edges, Part 2: Technologies of Participation

 This is the final posting reporting on the literature review conducted as part of the grant “Inspiring the Technological Imagination: The Future of Museums and Libraries as Mixed Reality Learning Spaces.” This post reviews innovative science center efforts to engage visitors in making and tinkering activities. These efforts might be considered as part of a broader cultural logic that media theorist Henry Jenkins (2006) characterizes as a culture of participation. For Jenkins, this cultural logic is marked by a transition from individualized media consumption to the formation of “consumption communities” that enable new forms of participation and collaboration. The activities and programs offered by these museums are intended to engage visitors in collaborations with one another and in the process of creative making practices.

It is a bit of a misnomer to identify any of the projects reviewed here are truly “edge” efforts. The organizations discussed in this list are well-respected and popular cultural institutions that have been actively involved in using new technologies to stimulate visitor participation for several decades. The 1999 issue of Dimensions—the publication of the Association of Science Technology Center (ASTC)—was devoted to the topic of “Science Centers on the Web.” In that issue, ASTC Director Wendy Pollock reported on a two-year collaborative investigation of how to incorporate web experiences into science center exhibit programs. The “lessons learned” from that investigation, as reported by Pollack in her 1999 editorial, are ones that many museums and libraries are now just coming to appreciate and explore. For example, Pollack noted that the web “opens up possibilities for collaboration on a global scale” and with those possibilities come the management challenges of organizing and coordinating a (potentially) high volume of online visitor responses. (Remember that in 1999 we didn’t have social networking applications that facilitate online peer-to-peer participation.) Eager to explore the potential of the web to augment their educational missions, science centers were early adopters of the use of the web for communication and collaboration with (and among) intended visitors. Pollack ended the editorial by commenting on the importance of keeping focus on core values. On this point, she cites the director of the Science Museum of Minnesota, Joel Halvoron:

Joel Halvoron cited futurist John Naisbitt, who wrote in his 1995 book Global Paradox that “every high-tech revolution is followed by a high-touch revolution.” Less important than how technology is used in exhibits or programs, Halvorson suggested, is ongoing and cross-disciplinary reflection about the nature of the museum experience. Thinking of Naisbitt’s forecast, [Halvoron] said, “the affective dimension of the museum experience should be stressed, to provide the compensatory human response – or ‘high-touch experience’ – demanded for survival in a highly technological society.”

In fact, some of the best discussions about the methods of designing “high-touch” museum experiences using high-tech has taken place on the web. Nina Simon started the Museum 2.0 blog in 2006 to explore the way that the philosophies of Web 2.0 can be applied in museums to make them “more engaging, community-based, vital elements of society.” Simon’s blog has been a well-visited site for discussion and dissemination about new uses of web applications for science centers and and other kinds of museums. Recent postings have explored the design of participatory experiences based on new recommendation systems and creative uses of post-it notes. More to the point of this posting, Simon’s blog includes several substantive discussions on the nuances of the difference between “participatory design vs. design for participation.” As Simon argues: “participatory design means innovating the process,” and “design for participation means innovating the product.” (In fact, Simon is writing a book about the topic. For a sneak preview see her Museum 2.0 blog).

Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 Blog

To explore the differences between these two notions, the following section describes the efforts of two noteworthy science centers: The Exploratorium in San Francisco, and The San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation. Both of these institutions have been discussed frequently in Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog as offering innovative experiments in the creation of participatory museum experiences.

The Exploratorium is one of the most highly regarded institutions for the creation of participatory informal science learning experiences. Exploratorium staff are industry leaders in the approach to design that focuses on “innovating the product.” According to Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich, exhibit designers at the Exploratorium, there are six principles that guide the creation of compelling participatory activities within museums.

  • The activities must evoke intrinsic motivation.
  • The activities must be challenging. The projects must test users so they have to learn new skills and think of new ideas.
  • The activities and explorations of individuals should be designed to contribute to something larger.
  • The activities should build relationships among people, and between people and tools. It is key that museum staff understand how to facilitate the formation of these relationships.
  • The activities must have simple starting points, but be complex enough to sustain interest. Scaffolding of experience is important.
  • The activities must be inspiring and provide opportunities for those who don’t feel they’re artistic, scientific, or creative.

At the Exploratorium, Wilkinson and Petrich have created a project called the “PIE Institute” that is based on their collaborative research with Mitch Resnick from MIT. The Exploratorium PIE Instituteis part of the PIE Network—a network of organizations and projects that explore the PIE approach to learning. PIE (Playful Invention and Exploration) is an approach to using new technologies that integrates art, science, music, and engineering. The Exploratorium’s PIE Institute, led by Wilkinson and Petrich, was launched in 2005 with a workshop that explores ways to integrate digital technologies into construction-based science and art activities.


The Exploratorium PIE Institute Idea Library

The PIE Network of projects has been supported by the National Science Foundation since 2000 and is based on Resnick’s work with the Lifelong Kindergarten research team at MIT. In addition to events at the PIE Institute at the Exploratorium, the PIE network has (by 2009) included events held at several institutions such as: Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, Ft. Wroth Museum of Science and Industry, American Museum of Visionary Art, Science Museum of Minnesota, the MIT Museum, and the Singapore Science Center.


The PIE Learning Philosophy

The key elements of the PIE learning philosophyare identified as the following:

  • Constructionism: Refers to two kinds of construction: constructing ideas and constructing personally meaningful projects.
  • Hands-On Inquiry Science: Science museums provide opportunities for people of all ages to learn through hands-on exploration of natural phenomenon.
  • Bridging Physical and Virtual Worlds: PIE activities bridge the divide between digital technologies and the physical world, allowing artful exploration of the world beyond the computer screen.
  • Informal Learning: PIE activities generally take place in informal learning environments.

The Tech Virtual Test Zone is a new area in the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation that opened on June 3, 2008. When it first opened, it showcased several hands-on, interactive exhibits conceptualized and developed originally in the virtual world of Second Life (virtual-world-to-real-world exhibits). These new exhibits were the result of The Tech’s virtual exhibit design initiative and competition, called The Tech Virtual, which was launched in December 2007. The projects were originally developed in Second Life by creative amateurs from around the world and submitted electronically. The Tech Virtual was launched as a two-platform system: a website and a Second Life island. Of the many projects submitted, seven were initially chosen to be installed in the real Tech Museum. All projects incorporated interactive multimedia including streaming video, musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) controllers, rear projections, avatars and web cameras. The first theme featured in the Test Zone was Art, Film & Music, which is also the theme of a new permanent gallery that The Tech plans to launch by 2010, featuring some of the people and innovations from Silicon Valley that have contributed significantly to this field. The next Tech Virtual Museum Workshop will invite visitors to participate in designing advanced and interesting museum exhibits—using the newest interfaces available–in the areas of art, film, music, and games.

Among the concepts and equipment that this exhibition will employ are 3D screens, PhotoSynth type applications, tangible interfaces, haptic interfaces, telepresence, gesture recognition, RFID, virtual worlds, augmented reality, holograms, accelerometers, surface computers, particle and physical software effects, web cameras, Arduino boards, 3D printers, flexible displays, synthetic experiences, real time photo manipulation, accessible low cost technology such as One Laptop Per Child, HD cameras, multi-touch interfaces, technology and the future of digital entertainment. If you were to build the ultimate destination where visitors could immerse themselves in the latest technologies while becoming engaged, informed and educated users of it, what would it look like?

The Tech Museum Virtual Tech Test Zone

The Tech Virtual Museum is an example of what Nina Simon refers to as a participatory design. In fact, she was one of the people involved in initiating this ambitious experiment involving people in the exhibit design process. Simon describes some of the key lessons that guided the development of this experiment in participatory design (these are six of her top 10):

  • Give away the fun and easy part. Do not ask people to design whole exhibits; The Tech Virtual community contributed great ideas for exhibits.
  • Level the playing field, or tip it in their favor.
  • Contests are good for raising awareness and focusing behavior, but not good for building sustainable communities or work in a flexible environment.
  • Provide a way for folks to build their exhibit. The participants should have the tools to prototype the exhibit.
  • It’s more important to have social instigators lead your community than authoritative professionals.
  • The community provided great exhibit inspiration but their projects required heavy translation to become real exhibits.

As an example of a co-created museum experience, The Tech Virtual Test Zone was an experiment in working with the public to create museum-quality exhibitions that involved the redesign of the process of exhibit design and fabrication. In this case, the exhibit design process unfolded in a virtual world, Second Life. Other museums are experimenting with the creation of dedicated physical spaces for the creation of participatory making and discovery visitor experiences.

There are more than 250 science centers and museums throughout North America that have hands-on exhibits or laboratories that encourage visitor participation in discovery and making activities. Many of these are feature focused, hands-on learning experiences for school groups that are integrated with state-based learning objectives and curricula. Some of the other noteworthy examples include:

The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago The Crown Family Playlab includes real artifacts and specimens, and offers six themed play areas such as digging up dinosaur bones, grinding corn in a pueblo, putting on an animal costume and crawling, hopping, or flying, listening to stories and other family programs.

Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago The Idea Factory provides children with opportunities for scientific exploration through interactive activities that allow them to discover scientific principles for themselves.

The Fab Lab—a small-scale fabrication workshop—that was opened in 2007 by Argonne National Laboratory, in conjunction with the University of Chicago.

California Science Center, Los Angeles The Big Lab is 32,000 square feet of space to do hands-on science.

The Discovery Rooms are designed to foster and support science exploration of young children (age 7 and younger). These learning environments provide opportunities for interactive, inquiry-based investigations that prepare young visitors for later science experiences.

The Ontario Science Center The Weston Family Innovation Center is a new environment that encourages visitors to take on and find practical solutions to current world problems.

The End of the Literature Review, The Beginning of New Conversations?

This is the final post of the literature review of the project. We invite readers to make comments on individual posts that offer pointers to other projects, activities and initiatives that illustrate some of the key points or themes discussed in these reviews. We are hoping that by blogging the literature review we will be able to encourage a dynamic forum for the circulation of scholarship where the initial reports (such as these postings) serve as the beginning of collaborative note-making and reporting.

The next, and most final posting will include a comprehensive bibliography of citations and web addresses of the literature and web sites discussed in these posts.


Hein, Hilde. (1990). The Exploratorium: The Museum as laboratory. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide.New York: NYU Press.

Pollack, Wendy. (1999). “Science Centers on the Web.” ASTC DimensionsSeptember/October. (online) Retrieved on July 19, 2009 from: http://www.astc.org/pubs/dimensions/1999/sept-oct/sconweb.htm

Resnick, M. (1994). Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams.MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Resnick, M. (1996). “Beyond the Centralized Mindset.” Journal of the Learning Sciences5, 1: 1-22.

Resnick, M., A. Bruckman, and F. Martin. (1996). “Pianos Not Stereos: Creating Computational Construction Kits.” Interactions3, 6: 64-71.

Resnick, M. (1998). “Technologies for Lifelong Kindergarten.” Educational Technology Research and Development46, 4.

Resnick, M. (2006). “Computer as Paintbrush: Technology, Play and the Creative Society.” In Singer, D., R. Michnick Golinkoff, and K. Hirsh-Pasek, eds. Play=Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth. Oxford UP, New York.

Resnick, M. (2007). “All I really need to know (about creative thinking) I learned (by studying how children learn) in kindergarten.” Proceedings of the 6th ACM SIGCHI Conference on Creativity & Cognition.

Author Bio:

Anne Balsamo directs the Interactive Media Division’s Co-Design Lab in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She teaches courses in design across the curriculum, public interactives, and culture and technology for the Interactive Media Arts and Practice program, the Interactive Media Division, and The Annenberg School of Communication at USC. She is also a freelance museum exhibit developer and curator who has created interactive exhibits for the International Museum of Women, the San Jose Tech Museum, the Papalote Children’s Museum in Mexico City, Liberty Science Center, and the Singapore Science Center. Her new research effort called “The Tangible Culture Research Project” investigates the design of evocative (mixed reality) knowledge objects and the role of tinkering in a digital age. For more information about her current work and new transmedia book project, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work visit http://www.designingculture.net (to be launched August, 2009).