Honoring the Past & Looking to the Future
It was 1941 when a group of determined school teachers filed a charter with the State of Texas to create the Fort Worth Children’s Museum. The museum was to be a place to house collections and share knowledge and appreciation of historical, artistic, and scientific interests.
The Shirley Temple doll and, yes, the Red Ryder BB gun immortalized in the 1983 film “A Christmas Story” were top selling toys of the era. The age of science and technology was only dawning, and few could have envisioned the rapid advancements to follow that would usher in the information age before the end of the century. The Fort Worth Children’s Museum quickly adapted. In 1968, it became the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and grew to inspire future astronomers, engineers, educators, and leaders.
“The teachers who established this museum were truly ahead of their time,” said Van A. Romans, museum president. “These women were visionaries who looked beyond the status quo to create a learning environment unlike anything Fort Worth had ever seen. It’s important for us to embrace that legacy and honor our innovative past by looking to the future.”
The age of information morphed into the digital age of today in the early 2000s with far-reaching implications for technology, education, and society in general. In 2014, The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History sought to explore the digital revolution and its impact on culture. Learning Crossroads: The Digital Future was a national forum that brought together thought leaders from MIT, Lucas Educational Foundation, Stanford, and Harvard for a conversation on the future of digital learning for children.
“It was evident then what a radical impact technology was making in the fields of manufacturing, publishing, science, and entertainment,” said Romans. “We could also see how it was changing education and made the decision to be at the forefront of developing technology to foster learning.”
That commitment led to the creation of the Academy of Digital Learning (ADL), headed by Dr. Doug Roberts, Ph.D., the Museum’s chief of technology.
Roberts first visited Fort Worth as a presenter at Learning Crossroads: The Digital Future. “The Museum has a long history of innovation in the field of hands-on learning,” said Roberts. “ADL represents a bold vision that will keep us on the leading edge.”
ADL builds on museum tradition as guests will continue to be engaged as active, creative learners, and activities and programs will appeal to all ages. But the Museum is aiming to ignite the interest of children and teens in science, technology, engineering, and math topics.
The Hammett-Russack Academy of Digital Learning Laboratory was established at the Museum in 2017 and is staffed by Roberts and a team of young scientists. Today’s museum guests use technology very differently than visitors of even a few years ago, and ADL is leading the way in transforming Museum exhibits and galleries to accommodate expectations; in fact, the work of the ADL team is already evident in those spaces.
“The goal of the Academy of Digital Learning, or ADL, is to create new ways of learning personalized for each museum guest using innovative technologies,” said Roberts. “We are mindful that everyone learns slightly differently and that personal interest and passion drives engagement. Some of the ADL initiatives involve the creation of large immersive experiences, and others focus on more personal ways to enable people to learn.”
A renovation of the Museum’s popular DinoLabs gallery completed in 2018 represents the integration of technology into museum collections. In this interactive digital world, movement and technology create an immersive space with the seamless integration of dinosaur specimens and artifacts. DinoStomp and DinoLand provide an opportunity to develop logical thinking, spatial intelligence, and the power of expression.
Guests of all ages move with dinosaurs from the Mesozoic era at the giant-screened DinoStomp, an interactive experience featuring an imaginary 3D landscape. Motion recognition cameras follow and mimic the action of users as they come within range of the Dino Stomp sensors, enabling the dinosaurs to roar and leap in response.
In DinoLand, artwork comes to life in a mixed-reality experience that allows visitors to enter an immersive theater space and interact with a prehistoric scene projected on an oversized wall.
Perhaps the most ambitious of the interactives in the DinoLabs gallery is a first-of-its-kind stegosaurus named DinoGlow, a 3D-video projection mapping activity that is fully responsive. The sculpture is surrounded by touchscreen monitors that control separate projectors mounted above the dinosaur canvas. Guests can control colors and textures to create a dinosaur as whimsical or realistic as they wish.
“There are some things we know about dinosaurs but many details we still can’t confirm,” said Cathy Barthelemy, executive director of education. “DinoGlow is a way for guests to create their own vision of what a stegosaurus might have looked like by manipulating colors and skin textures using technology.”
“I remember my mother talking about a lesson she used in her first-grade classroom when I was growing up,” said Amy Romans, conceptual designer of DinoGlow. “She encouraged her students to use their creativity as they imagined what dinosaurs might have looked like, then they drew and colored their dinosaurs. DinoGlow is the modern version of that lesson with a touchscreen and projectors.”
“DinoGlow started with the idea of a guest experience, which was brought to life by a team of designers, educators, and technology experts,” said Roberts. “The combination of innovative technology and creative design is so novel that the Museum will be looking into patenting the experience.”
The ADL is creating learning opportunities for both younger and older guests. Programs for younger explorers take a single topic, such as space exploration, and provide multiple ways for guests to learn and experience the subject. It allows for the investigation of essential STEAM principles, which incorporates art into the traditional STEM components of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. “Art has been a part of scientific visualization and storytelling for millennia,” said Roberts. “We know everyone interacts with science and history topics differently and want to provide a way for guests to learn that is relevant to them. If they like art, we give them a way to use that passion to make sense of science.”
Much of the code developed at the ADL is made available to other museums for re-use as open source software. In this way, the Museum can help smaller museums and planetariums that can’t develop new tools and media, but this collaboration doesn’t end there. ADL staff has already presented the results of their research at professional meetings all over the world. “It is gratifying to see how many colleagues admire our progress,” said Roberts. “They are eager to carry on the research and development started in Fort Worth.”
Museum programs such as the Infinity Festival which launched last year will also provide a platform for collaboration among scientists, guests, and other institutions. The ADL learns from the best practices in the museum field to create experiences that effectively use technology today to adapt as guests change the way they use technology. Increasingly, the ADL is seen as a source of information and resources for the entire museum community. “The ADL organized the Museum’s first Infinity Festival in July of 2018 that enabled more than 3,000 Museum guests to play with cutting-edge technology,” said Roberts. “The Museum will be planning a bigger Infinity Festival event for 2019 and beyond.”
Roberts is excited about projects on the horizon for the ADL. “The ADL is leading several types of research and development,” he said. “We have created several virtual reality experiences, and we are doing research about how to scale them up to provide the excitement of immersive experiences to a larger number of people. This includes some software development allowing for a group to participate together and hardware development enabling guests to explore virtual reality without any cords at all.”
The work also extends into the community. ADL staff facilitated an after-school experience teaching computer science to students at I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and VPA, a local STEM and arts high school, and college interns helped to create the technology behind new user experiences for Infinity Festival and Launchpad, a new exhibit that opens this spring.
This intersection of invention, creativity, and innovation is what Romans envisioned nearly five years ago when he was inspired to launch ADL. “I envisioned a hub where teachers, researchers, programmers, and designers could work together to explore and experiment,” said Romans. “It’s about giving students the chance to develop digital and scientific literacy so they’ll thrive in the workforce for the future,” he said. “We strive to live up to the legacy of our founders, this small group of teachers who dreamed big and embraced change. Standing still is not in our DNA. As the world changes, so will we.”