Merging Learning and Design: The Makings of CHM’s New Education Center

This post is part of a series covering the making of the Computer History Museum’s Education Center.

The Computer History Museum (CHM) is in the midst of an exciting phase of expansion and transformation. This year CHM will launch a large-scale exhibition on software as well as a new Center for Software History, both of which are part of their larger software initiative and follow the June 2016 launch of Exponential, a center for entrepreneurship and innovation.

Early expansion plans by Van Sickle & Rolleri (VS&R) for Computer History Museum including new Education Center

Early expansion plans by Van Sickle & Rolleri (VS&R) for Computer History Museum, including new Education Center.

A crucial component of CHM’s transformation is the recognition that education needs to be more of a conceptual driver for the Museum’s exhibitions, programs, and outreach to the community.  Within the field of education as a whole, traditional assumptions about what learning is and where it takes place are currently being challenged. Awareness is growing that learning is not limited to schools, nor is it “better” when it takes place in a formal environment than in an informal setting such as a museum. Regardless of where it happens, learning is a deep, complex, and very human process that truly transforms lives. Among museum professionals, this understanding has led to the recognition that museum education is not limited to disseminating information about collections. Rather, museums must have a more inclusive objective: to provide unique educational programs that foster and support dialogue, participation, and empowerment, especially within underserved or under-resourced communities. Moreover, because museums are open to interaction and involvement, they are and must be essential places of learning, stimulating creativity and supporting innovation within and beyond their walls.

Museum educators are also beginning to take a closer look at the importance between space and learning. Today, facilities that encourage hands-on inquiry and learner participation are increasingly important in space design, especially when promoting skills such as active learning, interaction, and social engagement. While platforms and applications may come and go, the psychology of how people learn does not. Those activities that encourage learning can be translated into principles that inform design decisions, ensuring that educational spaces serve and support a clear educational purpose.

CHM Education Center under construction

Consistent with this growing awareness, and acknowledging the need to prioritize and reshape its education mission, CHM is embarking on design and construction of a new Education Center. The center, which is scheduled to open in mid-2017, will provide a much-needed dedicated space for the Museum’s growing education programs. The Education Center will be a 3,000-square-foot flexible-use teaching space that will take advantage of cutting-edge technologies for use in onsite and distance education, with the physical construction facilitating the kinds of active, collaborative, inquiry-based learning that exemplify the Museum’s educational strengths. Installations and programs will allow students, educators, families, and community members to understand and experience the technological innovations that have shaped our modern world. Events will focus on the processes and products of creative problem solving and will include interactive workshops on a variety of topics, including coding and engineering design, the impact of software, and the history and future of computing.

It is important to point out that for most of its existence CHM never had dedicated space for its education programming. The majority of education programs have taken place in a room that once served as the Museum’s library, sharing time with venue rentals, meetings, and other events. This arrangement had its limitations. Education programs had a limited window for priority scheduling. The space’s relatively small dimensions (350 sq. ft.) restricted the number and size of programs that could be offered. Its physical location on the Museum’s second floor often constrained the timing of educational programs, especially those that incorporated a visit to the Museum’s main exhibition galleries on the first floor. Students lost valuable learning time walking up and down stairs from one space to the other. Having an education “space” physically separate from other exhibitions and activities in the Museum made it difficult to integrate activities in the upstairs classroom with the rest of the Museum.

CHM CEO John Hollar (far right) with CHM staff and community members during Education Center planning meeting

In addition to easing program logistics, having a dedicated education space will present a multitude of opportunities for engaging new audiences, designing innovative programs, facilitating closer examination and contextualization of artifacts, experimenting and prototyping exhibitions, and facilitating closer collaborations with outside educators and researchers. It provides opportunities for collaborative projects inside the Museum as well (for instance between CHM’s Education and Exhibitions teams), while also supporting broader research on issues in informal learning and teaching. According to John Hollar, CHM’s CEO, the Education Center will “… help facilitate thought leadership. It will be a place where learning is as much the content of the Museum, as are the artifacts.”

CHM Education Department brainstorming ideas for Education Center

The planning and management of such a multifaceted initiative can be challenging for any institution; for museums, it is highly unusual. Faced with this new challenge, CHM was inspired to collaborate with IDEO, one of the world’s leading design and innovation firms. IDEO has spearheaded the use of participatory or generative design processes and principles to create distinctive and integrated solutions for space and usability in a wide range of settings. An interdisciplinary IDEO design team led a series of “human-centered design” collaborative workshop discussions and activities with CHM staff and stakeholders to research the needs of local communities and generate creative concepts for the space.

In addition to informing the architectural layout and user experience of the center, this collaboration has provided CHM with an abundance of unique information and opportunities to adapt IDEO’s design methods for usage in a range of future projects as well, from exhibitions to new education programs.

CHM End of Phase. Courtesy of IDEO

CHM End of Phase. Courtesy of IDEO

This is the first in a series of blog posts (on the CHM site and elsewhere) that will document and explore activities and experiences that represent the scale and diversity of the Education Center’s design, planning, and implementation process. A primary goal of this blog series is to open up a dialogue and engage more proactively with the many diverse members of the CHM community. For a museum to be authentic, it means sharing both the good and the bad in addition to the reasons, circumstances, context, and challenges faced on a day-to-day basis. For the Education Center project, the Museum is asking a lot of questions they don’t yet know the answers to and are proposing to do it in a very public way. Creating these blogs not only opens up this process to the public, but provides an opportunity for CHM to share their work more broadly, allow Museum staff and partners to reflect on what they do, critically assess decisions, learn from mistakes, and inform other planning and development activities. Information will be gathered through interviews with project participants and through observations of key project meetings and workshops; the primary method of reporting will be through a combination of periodic posts featuring brief research stories and updates.

By sharing this experience, CHM hopes that readers will contribute their own thoughts, ideas, and experiences. The Museum is interested in your feedback on what they’re trying to accomplish and how you view the role of education not only for CHM but also for museums in general. CHM is looking for suggestions on how it might use this new education space to attract and support diverse audiences, as well as ways the community might be more involved in the Museum’s educational programming, etc. The Museum is interested in what if anything you are learning from these posts, and how they might be improved. CHM hopes to encourage interactions not only between itself and its readers, but also among the readers themselves.

The following posts in this series will more closely explore specific facets of the center’s design activities. This will include a look at some the underlying assumptions of what CHM staff felt the Education Center should represent, conceptually, aesthetically, and functionally. We will also look at some of the challenges confronted in formulating a structure to manage this large-scale project, as well as more in-depth examination of how CHM with partner IDEO incorporated a fluid collaborative thinking/user center methodology to shape both an aesthetic and functional vision for the Education Center.

ABOUT SCOTT BURG

Read all posts by Scott Burg

Scott is a Senior Researcher at Rockman et al (www.rockman.com). He has a formal background in adult education, instructional systems design, and qualitative research. Scott has worked with CHM as evaluator and researcher for some of its education and exhibit programs. Scott has also conducted studies on the impact of design thinking in school, ...

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