Inquirium’s Evolution: Two new WGBH/NOVA interactives

WGBH/NOVA approached us to build two web interactives on the topic of evolution to go with their new PBS television shows. They were specifically looking for data-driven investigations. “Great!” we thought. We’ve done web interactives! We’ve done evolution! And no one does data-driven investigations like we do! Where’s the catch?

Oh, you want it done in 3 months?

Both of them?

After a very frantic 3 months, we are happy to announce the launch of Inquirium’s latest creations, a pair of web-based investigation tools for teaching high school students about evolution.

On the surface, these interactives look like just another database and animated diagram. But we’ve designed the interactives around an activity context which draws students into data-driven investigations.

  • Bones of Contention has students playing the role of a physical anthropologist trying to identify and classify “mystery” fossils using a database of most of the significant hominid fossil finds.
  • Regulating Genes introduces students to the evolutionary processes at work during development (and technically, at conception) by having them explore how mutations in both coding and non-coding areas of genes lead to different morphological features in a fictional creature.

Cramming what could easily have been two year-long research and development projects into a single 3-month timeframe was an interesting challenge. We sharpened our teeth building similar software for longer term grant-funded projects, which afforded more opportunity for background research, formative evaluation, and design iteration. For this project, we had to adapt our design process to fit a new sort of timeline, forcing us to commit to certain design decisions very early in the process and leaving very little wiggle room to explore emergent ideas. There’s nothing like a short timeframe to make us reflect on our design process and pare down our cycles only to the bare essentials.

While the interactives are simple by necessity and by design (both are scoped to work within 1-2 class periods), they draw upon models of inquiry and investigation that, unfortunately, still do not see much light beyond the realm of academic research and school reform projects. Kudos to NOVA for bringing this approach to a wider audience.

Both tools were created to accompany NOVA episodes commemorating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species. One episode, “Becoming Human,” explores human origins, and the other one, “What Darwin Never Knew,” explores the emerging science of evo-devo.

We conceived, designed, and produced both tools. We also created a complete set of classroom materials that include background essays, student worksheets, and teacher guides.

Inquirium’s “Take a Stand” exhibit makes Time Out Chicago’s Top 8 highlights for kids in 2009

Time Out Chicago highlighted the Miller Family Youth Exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in its list of 8 Highlights of 2009 for Chicago Families.  Inquirium’s Take a Stand exhibit occupies 30% of the exhibition, using virtual reality technology to provide kids with an immersive social experience in which they encounter the challenges and rewards of standing up for others and taking action to benefit society.

Take a Stand & the Youth Exhibition Dedication at the Illinois Holocaust Museum

The IL Holocaust Museum dedicated their youth space this last weekend. We finally got a bit more coverage than we had in the past by the Pioneer Press. An excerpt:

“So here on a Sunday afternoon were the invited guests to the dedication, many of whom brought children and grandchildren to experience the offerings in this unique space. State-of-the-art technology is reflected in familiar computer screens as well as a not-so-familiar movie theater-size screen in a separate room. The all-enveloping screen is a part of an exercise that allows children to take on the role of frogs and make important decisions along their journey.

Still, even with technology that would rival the best of Nintendo and X-Box games, it would be a serious mistake to suggest that the exhibit serves simply as another venue for children to play with computer toys.

“The space we’re dedicating today is not a game room,” Harvey Miller said. “It is not a demonstration of the latest computer graphics. It is not a space for relaxation and resting. It is a teaching experience. It is meant to help provide the skills that parents, teachers, caregivers and the children themselves need in order to understand and use the lessons of the Holocaust. “

So it’s great to hear that our technology wowed the reporter. But I’m really glad Harvey Miller (the donor) was there to set the record straight.

The exhibit is admittedly hard to pin down in words.  Even docents can have a hard time with it. On the surface, it looks and feels like a video game: you control characters on a screen, you have some goal that you’re trying to achieve in the space (catching flies), and you have a score that tells you how well you’re doing.  But our goal was to deliberately use people’s expectations against them.  And not so much “teach” per se, but to provide a touchstone experience that could spark conversations about the universal lessons of the holocaust.

Now that the exhibit is open and I have a little more time, I hope to spend the next few weeks relaying some design stories from our experience.