An Evening of Play at the New York Hall of Science

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From Left to Right: Priya Mohabir, Dorothy Bennett, Dr. Leilah Lyons, and Dana Schloss

On March 5th, 2019 the Children’s Media Association and the National Association for Museum Exhibition hosted An Evening of Play at the New York Hall of Science. The evening included a panel moderated by NYSCI Vice President of Youth Development, Priya Mohabir and exploratory play with Dr. Leilah Lyons in the Connected Worlds exhibit and Dana Schloss on the Design Lab floor. The experience made for an all-around good time since we also had the museum all to ourselves! The intimate interactions with the exhibits made for in-depth talks into the mechanics of the work being done behind the scenes at NYSCI. Here is a rundown on some of the fun we had:

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Connected Worlds works using Microsoft Kinect cameras that are mounted on the walls and detect visitor movements.

After light snacks and chatter, we were split into two groups of those who wanted to check out the Connected Worlds exhibit and others who would like to start with the Design Lab. I eagerly made my way to Connected Worlds, where Dr. Lyons waited to greet us. Upon reaching the second floor, we were instantly impressed by the scope and size of the mixed reality exhibit. Created and designed by DesignIO, Connected Worlds, was built using OpenFrameworks, an open source toolkit. Dr. Lyons explained how this “participatory simulation” is intended to be used to “explore concepts related to ecosystems and sustainability”, and that the experience teaches the user how environments “are not just independent green spaces that exist apart from our human worlds…that they are not areas that we have control over, but that their health affects us, whether we like it or not, and whether we choose to manage them or not”.

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NYC Chapter President, Jennifer Treuting feeds birds in the Connected Worlds exhibit.

Created to immerse visitors into a living ecosystem, Connected Worlds relies on those interacting within it to maintain one large ecosystem with four different biomes, which include: a desert, grasslands, jungle, and wetlands. In the simulation, visitors dictate and assist the flow of water from a waterfall, mountain valley, and reservoir, as well as track migrations and feed animal life. But the fun doesn’t stop there, you are equipped with a tablet that uploads live updates to you and your teammates on the various functioning parts of the ecosystems. With the tablet, you are able to track the productive life (or lack thereof) in each biome.

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Guests experience the desert biome in Connected Worlds.
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All hands on deck in the Connected Worlds exhibit.

For our special experience, Dr. Lyons shared guidelines on how to interact with Connected Worlds but she also allowed us to explore through trial and error. She noted that typically visitors would get 30-minute sessions and an Explainer (museum employees placed throughout multiple parts of the museum to explain or assist in tasks) to facilitate their time in the area. During that time groups are taking in not only standard science concepts but also curriculum-based content in the subject areas of water cycles, models and simulations, and complex systems.

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Guests attempt to zoom Sphero Bolts through various obstacles on the Design Lab floor.

Next, we headed back downstairs to the Design Lab floor, where I snuck in some Sphero Bolt time before heading over to the panel. As a fairly new addition to the Design Lab, Sphero allowed visitors to explore ideas in computer science and engineering in order to maneuver Sphero through obstacles. Still in development as a teachable tool in the museum, the Sphero exhibit runs on the same software that is available to the public through most payable app stores. The app has varying levels of functionality that allow the player to draw movement paths and to code instructions. Our task for the evening was to draw paths that would get Sphero through a variety of obstacles on the Design Lab floor.

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The panel made for a fun mid-program break to listen to some of the minds creating all of this interactive play. Mohabir, Dr. Lyons, Schloss, and Director of Creative Pedagogy at NYSCI, Dorothy Bennett, sat down to share their experiences at NYSCI. Mohabir kicked it off with a question that proved to be a hot subject, she asked how the museum used visitors to create or direct their own stories and experiences in the museum. Schloss shared that in the Design Lab, they like to leave things open to the visitor’s interpretation, instead of giving all of the information up front. In fact, this method allows for varied results rather than exact goals and expectations for how one should interact in the spaces. Lyons added that by giving information and bits of data, visitors are more apt to explore, instead of being told all the information and not feeling that there is a purpose in the space or that it’s a passive experience. Schloss ended the response by suggesting that the segmented nature of some interactions, like that of Chain Reaction, allows visitors to take part to an extent that feels satisfying but not overwhelming.

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NYSCI has scaled many of the Design Lab activities for younger attendees who want to try Chain Reaction (above). (Not shown) Ramp It Up! allows pre-k to second-grade kids to also experience the fun of design and engineering.
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CMA attendees flexed their physics and problem-solving skills in the Chain Reaction exhibit.

After a brief question and answer segment, visitors were able to seek out more areas of the Design Lab floor that they may have missed initially. This led some to the Chain Reaction exhibit, where patrons are tasked with creating a full chain reaction that ends with you feeding a dog. Schloss has been a part of the physics and problem-solving task for two years and has seen it through several design evolutions. But its main aim has always been to frame the concept of simple machines and the interactive design process. Many found the task challenging but also fun, as it required a more endearing invitation (that adorable dog) to exercise their engineering skills.

As the night came to a close, many attendees agreed that NYSCI was a fun experience they’d like to do again in the near future. Through sharing ideas on how to create inviting and educational experiences around science and technology, attendees felt inspired to implement and explore more concepts around interactive learning in their own work.

For more information on NYSCI and visitor information, check out https://nysci.org/