Exploring New Technologies and Learning Envirionments at the New York Hall of Science

by Jason Yip, PhD
March 3, 2014
New York Hall of Science

New York Hall of Science. Photo by Jason Yip.

One of the great opportunities I’ve had here at the Cooney Center is being able to meet a diverse group of people from academia, industry, and non-profits that really cares about the question, “How can digital media help children learn?”  I’ve recently had the privilege of sharing my work and research at The New York Hall of Science in Queens, NY (NYSCI). I was invited by my good friend, Matty Lau, Director of Pre-Service Science Teacher Education Program, to give a lunch time talk on my research. Briefly, much of my research examines how we can promote youth to become more engaged and increase participation through the design of new technologies and learning environments. Specifically, I examine how digital technologies can connect homes, schools, after-schools, libraries, and other domains to support how children can see themselves in science. I also research how children can take a more active role and work together with adults to create and co-design future technologies for other children. So I came in already really excited to see what kinds of intersections NYSCI had with my own research on children and digital media.

During my talk, we discussed and debated many topics, such as, what is the connection between participation in science and learning and how can communities come together to support co-designing new technologies with children? It was clear to me that NYSCI is a community that really cares about serving the community through engagement in science. All this stimulating conversation took place over some great pizza, too.

After my talk, I was able to meet many members of the NYSCI community who were just as excited about the role of digital media and technology in learning. I was able to interact with researchers and stakeholders who really take seriously this notion of how digital technologies can promote and support learning in children and families. Coming into NYSCI, you immediately get a sense of wonder and amazement at the possibilities for increasing participation in science. Here, science isn’t just a series of facts and abstract knowledge. Instead, children can physically explore the exhibits and participate in new conversations about science. What people might not realize about NYSCI is that it is also a hub for research and development into the innovative technologies for science engagement and learning.

For example, I spent time learning about a future exhibit opening next year called Connected Worlds, an immersive experience focused on the water cycle. This is not your old-fashioned textbook view of the water cycle. In Connected Worlds, participants and visitors enter the Great Hall, where they can see an entire ecosystem and the water cycle. Instead of just a video on a single wall, Connected Worlds uses multiple projectors onto different walls to display forests, animals, rivers, plants, and other parts of a complex ecosystem. Using Kinect-based technologies, NYSCI participants can interact with the room through gestures, touch, and even tangible control. Instead of a static video, the entire room response to changes in the water system. Animals can come and go to water sources for drinking. Transpiration can been seen in the plants. Water can evaporate from the sources into the clouds. Rain comes when the clouds are saturated. All of these pieces come together as a large simulation of a complex system. Researchers at NYSCI are interested in how to promote systems thinking and show how connections in the ecosystem and environmental stress can impact the amount of water available in the simulation. I will have the great privilege of seeing Connected Worlds as a test demonstration very soon at NYSCI and hope to write more about this experience.

NYSCI researchers and members are also greatly interested in professional development with science teachers. Specifically, NYSCI is looking to address how a science and technology center, with many resources, can make a deep impact into educating and working with teacher practitioners to promote science engagement. This means going beyond the walls of just traditional professional development. NYSCI community members are actively using online communities and platforms, as well as working with partner organizations such as the City University of New Y ork and the New York Department of Education to work with teachers and teaching candidates to deepen the teachers’ pedagogical, disciplinary, and pedagogical content knowledge. In the future, NYSCI wants to develop new ways in which teachers all over the country can work with the science and technology center to sharpen their skills in the classroom.

Finally, the work of NYSCI looks into makerspaces and increasing participation through creativity, design, and sharing. One initiative on the forefront of NYSCI is “Little Makers”, that is, how can we promote creation and building in children 18-months and up. Here, researchers are looking for way to understand how learning happens when children are given the chance to build and create. Researchers at NYSCI are asking the question of what the principles of engagement that we can observe in making and what kinds of quality making experiences can be supported between young children and families.

Overall, my visit to NYSCI was extremely productive. Looking into the future of my own research, I really see science and technology centers as central hubs and partners to promote science learning beyond just the local visitors. NYSCI’s approach and commitment towards state-of-the-art technologies, teacher professional development, and early childhood learning demonstrates that science centers are not just tourist attractions, but places where deeper thinking into STEM learning can take place.