Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


Matthew Brown
Photo Courtesy of Digital Youth Network

Matthew Brown (PhD02) and other Learning Sciences alumni designed the Take a Stand exhibit for young visitors to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. As children control frogs on a screen, they must decide what actions to take in response to a group of bullies.

Robots Blogs and Frogs: New Media and Kids' Learning

By Lisa Stein
Boston Museum of Science Kids
In an inventive exhibit designed by assistant professor Michael Horn, children at the Boston Museum of Science use blocks and a webcam to write computer programs that control a robot.

A visitor to the Robot Park exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston will see children doing something that children have been doing for a long, long time: playing with wood blocks.

But these kids aren't just building structures. By placing the interlocking wood pieces in a certain order, they are also writing basic computer programs that will control the movements of a robot. This seemingly simple play involves fairly complex technology, teaches early math and science skills, and can give children as young as four or five a taste of computer programming that they can build on.

"We wanted to break programming out of the box, so that kids didn't need a mouse and keyboard and didn't have to crowd around a computer," explains Michael Horn, assistant professor of learning sciences, who designed the exhibit with colleagues from Tufts University. "We're taking a familiar material — wooden blocks — and using them to introduce a more abstract, less familiar concept."

In creating Robot Park, Horn adapted a technology known as the "tangible programming system," which has been around since the mid-1970s. Horn's adaptation, called "Tern," uses a standard webcam attached to the ceiling that takes a picture of the children's wood blocks and then converts it into digital code that is transmitted to the robot through a wireless connection.

Welcome to the vanguard of teaching with new media, which comprise mainly digital technologies such as the Internet and computer games. Alumni and faculty in SESP's Learning Sciences program regard new media as both tools with which to teach academic skills and as subjects in their own right. New media also give educators the chance to introduce sophisticated ideas through playful activities in venues such as museums, libraries and homes, in addition to classrooms. Venues outside school offer freedom from the restraints of some schools' limited supplies of monitors and overcrowded computer labs, as well as some teachers' discomfort with new technology. They also bring new media to a wide swath of students who might not otherwise have access in their schools. For example, Robot Park, which opened in October 2008, attracts roughly 20,000 visitors a year.

"At the museum our learning goals are to change attitudes and preconceptions about computer programming and technology," says Horn, who also designs curricula for classrooms. "We hope that if a child tries out our exhibit and walks away thinking computer programming is easy and fun, that child might be more predisposed to try it in another setting, maybe an academic setting."

Horn and other educators see another crucial component to their work with new media: empowering students to become producers rather than mere consumers of technology.


This concept drives the groundbreaking work of Nichole Pinkard (PhD98), an advocate for digital literacy. Pinkard created the Digital Youth Network (DYN), an after-school and in-school program that provides guidance with the latest digital technology to middle and high school students on Chicago's South Side. DYN artists work with students to create movies, video games, music, graphics and stories that reflect their experiences and surroundings.

Pinkard sees digital literacy as nothing less than a requirement for all citizens. "We're making the assumption that by the time a sixth grader today is out of college, the ability to create with media will be an essential literacy," asserts Pinkard, associate professor in DePaul University's College of Computing and Digital Media. "If people don't know how to create podcasts or engage in blog discussions, they will find it hard to be participants in society."

Central to Pinkard's vision was DYN's use of settings other than classrooms. "Most high schools haven't really reached an understanding about how to bring digital media into instruction. Our vision wasn't to have traditional teachers use a curriculum in the classroom but to help kids develop the ability to use digital media outside of the school day," she says.

In addition to teaching students in DYN's studio and in after-school programs, DYN offers a social network — with security blocks — so that kids can communicate and share their digital creations with instructors and each other at home. Recently DYN partnered with the Harold Washington Public Library in downtown Chicago to complete the New Media Space, a hightech place for kids to create digital works, "geek out" in a variety of digital workshops, access the Internet and hang out with friends.

Pinkard hopes that DYN's efforts will ultimately have a galvanizing effect on schools' views of new media. "We enable schools to say, 'Our kids have skill sets — let's get on top of it.' If schools today have to choose between content and new media, content will win."


Another SESP alumnus whose new media projects reach young learners outside the classroom is Matthew Brown (PhD02). Brown joined Pinkard and other fellow Learning Sciences alumni Eric Baumgartner (PhD00), Ben Loh (PhD03) and Brian Smith (PhD98) in founding Inquirium, a company that designs educational software and, more recently, museum exhibits. Since 2000, Inquirium has consulted with or created products for the Museum of Science and Industry, Brookfield Zoo, Adler Planetarium, Intel and Adobe, as well as a host of university-sponsored K–12 projects.

In April 2009 Inquirium's most ambitious project to date debuted: the Take a Stand exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. The exhibit immerses participants in a virtual world where they must come to grips with a group of bullies threatening another group.

Rather than impart facts and details about the Holocaust to young visitors, Take a Stand engages them with universal themes. "We want people to think about what it means to stand up when you see something wrong going on, to help others take action to defend themselves, to recognize that the actions of one person can make a huge difference," Brown says.

When they enter the exhibit, visitors become part of an unfolding story of life in a pond that is projected on a wall-sized screen. Their movements are tracked by an invisible, touch-free tracking system created by Inquirium, allowing them to control the actions of a yellow frog. They can swim around the pond, jump on lily pads and eat flies. A docent tells children to capture as many flies onscreen as they can; whoever gets the most flies wins. The yellow frogs must compete for flies with computer-controlled red frogs.

As participants go about collecting flies, however, something strange happens: a green frog appears and begins bumping red frogs off their lily pads. Participants must decide either to ignore the green frogs or stand up to them. If players ignore them, the green frogs will multiply and eventually disable all the red frogs, and the situation quickly escalates out of control. If, however, the players intervene on behalf of the red frogs, they can prevent the situation from escalating. The catch is that players who stand up for the red frogs are also targeted by the green frogs.

When the game is over, participants exit the space to talk with a docent, who asks questions such as "Who were those other frogs? What were they doing? How did that make you feel? What would you do differently?" Then visitors play the game a second time.

According to Brown, "Most kids end up interpreting the green frogs as bullies, but a few kids might come out saying [the green frogs' actions] were OK because the red frogs were their competition. That's when interesting discussions happen. We want the situation to be messy, not clearcut, and not tie it up in a neat little bow. Kids are not going to learn about this if they aren't compelled to grapple with these tricky issues."

Although Take a Stand is designed for children ages eight to 11, Noreen Brand, the museum's director of education, says the exhibit resonates with visitors of all ages, including Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley and new recruits to the Chicago Police Department. Brand adds that she was impressed with Inquirium's creativity in finding just the right technology and story. "Matt and Inquirium were so visionary and so willing and wanting to step outside the box to create something totally unusual that had major educational value. They never gave up."

If there's one thing educators can count on, it's the quick and constant evolution of new media in the future. However, the use of digital media both outside and inside the classroom must do more than merely entice students with the latest technology — it must facilitate and build enthusiasm for learning.