About Digital Learning at the Cal Academy: From Space Shows to 3D Printed Fish

Food Sleuths interviewing public

To get this blog started, I wanted to provide some background on what the Digital Learning program at the California Academy of Sciences has been doing since it was launched about three years ago. Over that time, I've loved getting to design fun and engaging youth programs that combine my interest in tech and my curiousity about science.

Digital Learning is one of a collection of youth programs that we offer at the Academy, all of which provide opportunities for Bay Area young people to learn about, conduct, and explain science.  Our other programs include:

The Digital Learning youth program focuses on employing the affordances of digital technology to help teens understand, explore and most importantly construct their own stories about science.  Put another way, we use young people's existing interest in digital technology (video games, 3d design, memes, etc.) to lead them toward a deeper understanding and engagement with the natural world.

Over the past three years, we've piloted a bunch of fun and diverse programs for young people employing a variety of media tools.  These include:

  • GAME DESIGN:
    • High school teens created an iPad game on earthquake preparedness that now is a part of our Earthquake exhibit at the Academy
    • A group of middle school youth designed digital scavenger hunts that allowed visitors to a local nature preserve to understand the native flora and fauna better
    • Teens created a digital game that demonstrated how scientists collect fish specimens in the field using a "fish zapper"
  • DIGITAL SHOW DESIGN:
    • Teens produced and presented a series of digital dome shows on different astronomy subjects, including life in outerspace, science fact and fiction, and the life cycle of stars
  • SOCIAL MEDIA:
    • A group of teens created a social media campaign to encourage people to use less plastic using Instagram, YouTube and Facebook
    • A team of teenagers researched and wrote blog posts about current science topics that were posted to the website of local public media station KQED and shared with classrooms around, who then discuss the topic over Twitter
  • ONLINE VIDEO:
    • A teen video team created a series of videos on different food and sustainability topics like GMOs, organic foods, and the California drought
  • 3D DESIGN:
    • Middle schoolers used a variety of media to create their own marine animals adapted for speed, from drawings to clay to 3d printed models

 As you can see, a wide variety of media, science subjects, and ages of youth. We've also experimented with different time scales of programming, from one day to an entire school year.  

We've certainly learned a lot from all of these pilots and all of the hundreds of fantastic teens that we've had the opportunity to work with. For example, one of our mantras is "constraints breed creativity," i.e. providing a limited set of media tools and subject matter can lead to more creative thinking and innovation than a completely wide open sandbox of possibilities.  

And we're just getting started.

I'll write soon about the future direction of Digital Learning at the Academy. We've got a lot cooking that we believe will take our programs to the next level.  And lots of questions that we'll be seeking the answers to along the way.  Come along for the ride!

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