Friday, November 30, 2012

How Many? How Much?

We’re happy to welcome a clever new display created by Museum Exhibits Intern and Play Guide Sarah Oh, a junior in Industrial Design at RISD.  How Many? How Much? challenges visitors’ eyes and teases their brains as they count and estimate the quantities of intriguing objects stacked and packed in the Museum’s atrium walkway window boxes. Sarah reflected on her creative process and her work with Exhibits Director Robin Meisner.

How did you choose your materials and how to display them?
Robin and I wanted a combination of unusually shaped things and more commonplace objects that kids see at home or at school. We also wanted to combine manmade objects and natural objects. Then I thought of how to display them that would transform them from ordinary to something special.

What was your concept for the vibrant graphic panels you created to line the boxes?
I took inspiration from the colors I’ve seen around the Museum. I wanted a lot of variety, a lot of diversity in the shapes – some are radial, some are more linear and geometric, others are more curvy. I made all of the designs I could think of and matched them to displays. For objects I planned to display more radially, I matched them with tessellations.
I put mirrors on the sides of each box so the idea of spatial thinking and repetition of objects wasn’t confined to a box but could be extended into infinity, where the mirrors reflect one another.

What was the most challenging box? Your favorite box?
I think I spent more time on the boxes like the nuts and bolts and the clothespins and binder clips because those are very ordinary things. They were more fun, too – trying to display objects in a way that from far away they’re transformed into something else and then close up you get that “aha!” moment of recognizing what it is. My favorite was the animals – it was a lot of connecting to my inner child!

Visitors have been quite engaged since the display debuted, eagerly peering into boxes to figure out what the objects are and guess their quantities. A grandfather with his grandson  commented, “You can see them on both sides – they really use the space beautifully!”

The boxes are paired with a hunt that challenges visitors to identify whole boxes based on a picture of part of their objects and a talk-back board that asks, “Do you wonder how many there are of something? What?”

Check back to see some of their wonderful responses, and thanks to Sarah for her beautiful work!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

ThinkSpace is NOW OPEN!

Our vibrant new ThinkSpace exhibit has opened to rave reviews! We invited a dozen kids, ages 3 to 11, to come in for a sneak peek to test things out for us. Kids of all ages (and their grown-ups!) were intensely engaged in tackling building and design challenges, creating geometric patterns, solving puzzles, exploring shadows, navigating mazes and so much more. We were thrilled by their enthusiasm but also by the depth of their focus and concentration, and we witnessed lots of wonderful collaboration between kids and among adult/child pairs. We can tell that the activities will hold visitors’ attention for a long time, and that they’re going to come up with many interesting challenges of their own.

Some scenes from ThinkSpace...

Stacking, nesting and building with Wedgits – colorful octrahedron and rhombus-shaped blocks. Kids can try replicating designs on our challenge cards or come with their own constructions.
The Soma cube, a giant 3-D puzzle in which seven pieces fit together to form a cube. There are 240 distinct solutions, although it's a challenge to figure out even one – a challenge both kids and adults take very seriously! 
Arranging artfully painted wooden cubes to reproduce patterns or invent new designs.
Exploring the graphics on the navigation column.
Using the senses to guide a ball through the hidden twists and turns of the mystery maze boxes, then trying to map the path it traveled.
Creating intricate kaleidoscopic designs by layering, ordering and rotating colorful cutout shapes in countless combinations.
Experimenting with shadows and scale, transforming 3-D objects into 2-D representations and creating imaginative shadow scenes.
Constructing domino chain reactions, negotiating spacing and alignment to topple series of spirals and zigzags.
Building with wooden unit blocks in our brand-new block building area, designed to inspire even more creative construction.

And see the exhibit in action in this Providence Journal video:

You HAVE to come see ThinkSpace for yourselves – please let us know what you think, and which activities are your favorites!

Thank you to National Grid for their lead sponsorship of ThinkSpace, as well as to The June Rockewell Levy Foundation and everyone who supported the Thrive Drive for helping to make this new space a reality. 

Click here to learn about the inspiration for and process of creating ThinkSpace.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Finishing Touches...

We are just about ready to share ThinkSpace with the world! Here's a look at the final steps of the process over the past few days...
Hillel, Zach and Chris install a giant dodecahedron on the entryway sculpture. (You may recognize this scene from a similar photo in The Providence Journal this week.)
Fitting together a frame which will contain colorful blocks – puzzle pieces that form a giant cube.
Intern Marianne preparing the shape sorter, one of the exhibit's activities specifically for toddlers. (Interns have played a huge role in helping this exhibit come together – many thanks to Marianne, Robin, Allison, Kristen, Andrew and Eunice!)

Hillel installs the shape sorter.
Mounting many labels.
Graphic designer Valerie created absolutely gorgeous graphics for ThinkSpace – a mix of informational labels and intriguing images that support the exhibit content, give activities context by connecting them to real world experiences, and will inspire visitors' exploration.

Hillel prepares wooden beads for a bead maze.
The final step – Robin adds letters to the entry sculpture, bringing the ThinkSpace logo to life!

It's been months and months of planning, designing, prototyping, fabricating and just plain hard work by the exhibits team, and it was well worth it. Join us to celebrate the opening of our beautiful new ThinkSpace exhibit all weekend long, beginning tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Getting Closer....

ThinkSpace is starting to look like a real (albeit plastic covered) exhibit! Check out some of the progress over the past few days...

The block area with completed mural and new flooring (in a spiral that comes from the Fibonacci pattern).
Testing out the size and placement of the intro label – the real ones will be much more colorful!
Hillel preps the maze wall that will be the backdrop of the mystery maze boxes activity.
Chris prepares panels for the entry sculpture, which is made from over 300 pounds of steel and will stand floor to ceiling when installed – an amazing visual to frame the ThinkSpace entrance.
Chris and Zach construct a sculptural "navigation" column that consists of four colorful stacked octahedra and will house a selection of fun hunts to do throughout the Museum.
X team members couldn't resist leaving their mark in the base of the column before it was built!
Chris and Hillel lay out carved wooden tiles, which will become the backboard of a geometric design activity.
The construction corridor! Hillel and Chris install the carved tiles at right, and the table at the left will be a kaleidoscopic designs station.
Hillel adds image panels to the "lenticular" wall. Once this is fully assembled, it will create an illusion of movement as its two images are viewed from different angles.

Just a few days left to go and many more exciting things to come!

Monday, November 5, 2012

PlayWatch: Prototyping ThinkSpace

This story of spatial thinking exploration while testing ThinkSpace prototypes was shared by Museum director Janice O’Donnell.

The mystery maze prototypes were covered wooden boxes enclosing mazes of varying degrees of difficulty, with openings at two ends for a small wooden ball.  The object: roll a ball through the maze and out the other side.  By listening, feeling and observing, figure out what the maze inside looks like.  Draw a diagram of the maze as you picture it.  We had cards so kids could compare their drawings to maze diagrams.

Asked if solving the mystery maze was difficult, a 6 year old said, “I like it when it's a hard challenge.  I pictured it in my mind.”  His mom told us that he doesn't like to write or draw but loves this kind of challenge.  That was obvious.  After solving (pretty accurately) all of the mazes, he stayed around coaching other kids.

An 11 year old approached the mystery mazes very methodically.  She experimented a bit and then decided, “I'm going to draw as I do it.”  She tilted the box, ascertained that the ball rolled to the left, and made a horizontal line on her diagram.  Tilted again, heard the ball roll down, and drew a vertical line.  Tilted again and lost track, so she started at the beginning, checking her drawing and adding new lines as she discovered the ball's progress through the maze.  When it popped out the other side, she rolled it through again, carefully confirming her diagram.  She followed this method with several of the boxes, then said, “Now I'll teach my sister how to do it!” – and she did.

Engaging children of a wide age range for sustained periods of concentrated exploration, the mystery mazes are a keeper!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

An Interview with Robin Meisner

Meet Museum Exhibits Director Robin Meisner, who guided the exhibits team in creating ThinkSpace.

Describe your background and your role at the Museum.
I first came to the Museum in 1998 as an AmeriCorps member and was on the Head Start team.  When I finished my AmeriCorps year, I was hired to be the Museum’s science developer in charge of school-age science programs, exhibits and community outreach through the Learning Club team.

After four years, I went to London to graduate school for a PhD in Education Research. I studied and filmed three exhibits at Providence Children’s Museum, three at the Exploratorium in San Francisco and three at the Science Museum in London to see how exhibits encouraged children’s play in different types of museums. After I graduated, I was director of programs at the MIT Museum and then came back here as director of exhibits.

Robin with a Learning Club, during her first stint at the Museum!

How does the Museum choose exhibit topics?
We’re working toward an assessment of all of the Museum’s exhibits, of the range of activities they offer in terms of play value, types of exploration and different disciplines – humanities, social sciences, sciences, arts – so we can make sure we have a nice balance. We’re also thinking about maintenance issues. In the future, this assessment will help inform what exhibits we take out and what we put in next.

With ThinkSpace, we knew the space in the Museum that needed some attention, and the exhibits team was very excited about shape. It’s something the Museum has had an exhibit about almost since opening and is relevant for our audience.  We wanted to take it beyond the basics of shapes to spatial thinking, which encompasses a much broader look at the world around us.

Robin, Janice (Museum director) and Valerie (Graphic Designer) in conversation about ThinkSpace graphics.

What’s unique about ThinkSpace?
It’s a challenging physical space – long and narrow and as much a hallway as an exhibit. It was a really interesting design challenge to transform that space into all of the purposes it has.

In terms of process, this is the first time we systematically prototyped almost all of our exhibit components by building cheap, quick mock-ups.  For example, we made a shadow booth out of cardboard and silhouettes of thick paper taped to skewers. During our first prototyping session, we tested three activities – we gave visitors some prompts and watched to see what happened.

We discovered one of them wasn’t going to work and that was very valuable for us. It was something the kids really enjoyed doing but not something we thought was sustainable in the exhibit, so it might become a program. We learned that our shadow box was too big and kids wanted to climb inside it, so the one in the exhibit will be much narrower. We learned that kids are really intrigued by the activity but that we need to manage how many objects we give them at once.

Exhibit Designer Chris prepares the shadow booth for prototyping.
Our prototypers observed kids, then interviewed them about what they liked, how much fun they had, if they’d want to do it again.  We also asked if they had ideas of how to make the activities better and got some interesting suggestions! Often kids liked that it was challenging – that it was hard but they were able to figure it out.  It gave us confidence that giving kids something difficult was something they were excited about.
Another activity prototype – creating kaleidoscopic designs.

What are you most looking forward to in ThinkSpace?
I’m really interested to see how our visitors use the space.  We’re designing an exhibit that is targeted at ages 4 and up but among the components for the big kids will be, at a low level, activities designed purposefully for very young children.  I’m curious to see whether little kids and big kids know which activities are meant for them and if it will make the space work for families that have both older and younger kids in a way that some other exhibits might be more challenging.

Kids test out the soma cube prototype.
I have my favorite activities.  I’m very excited about the mazes because they’re challenging and kids and adults loved testing them. I love dominoes and I’m eager to see how they’ll help kids think about spatial relations.  For dominoes, spacing makes a huge difference in whether the chain will work and also its speed.  I’m excited to see what kids create and what sort of challenges they make for themselves.

Friday, November 2, 2012

ThinkSpace Preparations

Following the deinstallation of Bone Zone and Shape Space came a few days of environment updates, like painting and installing new paneling and a beautiful mural in what will be a new block building area.

ThinkSpace colors!
Block mural
Then new carpet was installed in the ThinkSpace area and also in Iway – which meant moving most of that exhibit’s components.

The team reassembled Iway in a new formation, which more closely incorporates the steamroller and rock play area to make more room for ThinkSpace.

They put up temporary walls around the construction area, allowing interested visitors to peek at the process, and are ready to start moving in some of the new ThinkSpace components, most of which are built and ready.

Changes are going to come even more quickly. Stay tuned!