Play the Past -- Reinventing the Fieldtrip for 21st Century Learners

Photo of youths using mobile devices

Minnesota Historical Society

National Leadership Grants for Museums

Wendy Jones
Museum Education and Public Programs

Exhibit Website

If they want to be vital education partners tomorrow, museums need to pull out all the stops
to creatively engage 21st century learners today. Play the Past takes the traditional fieldtrip
and launches it into the future.

-- Wendy Jones, Director, Museum Education and Lifelong Learning

Fun and Games – With Serious Learning

The Minnesota History Center’s Then Now Wow is a dynamic, interactive exhibit and a natural magnet for school fieldtrips. The Minnesota Historical Society felt its biggest exhibit ever could have even more impact by creating a new model for fieldtrips. With IMLS funding, and in partnership with the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Games Learning Society, the museum is using mobile and web technology to capitalize on children’s gaming skills and interest, while meeting the needs of learners with diverse learning styles.

Targeted to students in grades four through eight, Play the Past is demonstrating how museums can use technology with large numbers of students to create self-directed, collaborative, and responsive fieldtrip experiences. The program content is aligned with national and state academic standards. The technology allows students to have deeper engagement with museum content, during the fieldtrip itself and through follow-on classroom activities. The project contributes to the development of 21st century skills through activities that cultivate technical, research, analytical, collaborative, and communication skills in classroom projects to produce presentations, videos, posters, websites, stories, or blogs.

Hands-On and with Mobile Devices On

Each student gets a brief video orientation to the exhibit and applications and checks into the exhibit using a QR (Quick Response) code and a mobile device to set up a personalized account. Students use an in-gallery mobile app to embark on quests in which they solve challenges based on the experience of real Minnesotans. The quests are tied to one of the exhibit’s interactive explorations or “hubs” focused on the fur trade, iron mining, and life in a sod house.

For example, students can scan items in the replica fur trading post, trading them with other players by bumping mobile devices. In the mining exhibit, they choose jobs based on the level of physical risk, which determines how much “money” they can earn. They then “blast” dynamite in the mine, with their mobile devices assessing how well they perform. The items students scan or collect during the game are stored in digital backpacks. Students also digitally record their experiences by taking pictures, recording audio, and capturing notes for later classroom activities. Teachers use a web application to access their students’ accounts and share collected content for classroom follow-on.

A Learning Process

With Play the Past scheduled to launch in October 2013, the development process itself has already been highly educational for Historical Society staff, technical developers, and the more than 1,200 students and teachers involved in testing and tweaking the game. Students and teachers enthusiastically tested, critiqued, and vastly improved the design, functioning, and content of the prototype mobile game. They provided real-life, large-scale testing, not just for this project, but also for the open source ARIS educational software used for the project.

The Historical Society quickly learned just how challenging it is to design a 3-D environment and experiences. It demands a great deal of resources, along with finding ways to work effectively across museum departments that don’t regularly collaborate, including collections, IT, exhibits, education, and marketing. Students proved to be very sophisticated users, able to quickly master game elements, point out flaws, and provide a wealth of suggestions for improvement. Historical Society staff and ARIS developers were surprised by how different— and effective—testing is with youth as opposed to adults.

On the content side, teachers emphasized the importance of trusted resources and sources for additional content. The project team mined resources from the Historical Society’s collection and incorporated relevant online resources from other museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution.

Formal evaluation will be conducted in October and November and shared in early 2014. Historical Society staff will share results through free webinars in August, September, and October, upcoming museum conferences, and a project website. Perhaps one of the best early indicators of project success is the nearly universal question from student testers: “When can I come back and play again?”