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By Josh Blair on

Using digital storytelling to help children reflect on their relationship with STEM. Part 1…

How do you bring a complex research-informed idea to a digital experience for children 7-13 years old... and make it engaging, fun and encouraging reflection on everyday life?

It’s not easy, but we think we have an idea. This mini-series charts the creation of a game developed around science capital principles.

Working with the idea of science capital pushes us to provide experiences that help more people make deeper connections with science by accessing the ‘capital’ they already have. Hopefully this can help to change people’s attitudes towards science in the long term. We felt that digital gameplay could be a powerful tool to provide such an experience.

Everyone’s science capital is different. There is no one way to grow an individual’s science capital, so any resource we create can only be one part of their science capital journey, but building on the success of the Science Museum’s games and apps we know we can reach many people through digital and hopefully engage them in a space that is familiar to them.

We defined our target audience early on as the upper end of Key Stage 2 and early KS3. 7 – 13 years old is an important stage in children’s science development and research shows that as children make the step between primary and secondary, it is a key moment of many moving away from an interest in science as other influences have a stronger pull in their lives.  If we can engage children before this stage then we will have more of a chance to influence their relationship with STEM subjects.

 

Research and Development project

Last year we set out to explore what kind of digital experience could fulfil this need through a Research and Development (R&D) project. We didn’t want to limit ourselves by defining the product too soon so we kept the brief very open: it could be a game, a mobile app, a web app, an augmented reality experience, a social media campaign, or a mix of these.

Our aims were to define a product that:

  • Is primarily an online/ digital experience;
  • Is accessible to a large and broad audience;
  • Promotes the relevance of science to young people’s lives;
  • Has a low barrier to entry;
  • Connects with those who aren’t already engaged with SMG;
  • Doesn’t feel too ‘worthy’ or ‘educational’;
  • Is attractive to both teachers and families.

We teamed up with digital agency AllofUs to work on the R&D; the project was split into three stages across three months.

Phase 1

The first phase was about understanding what products are out there that are doing a good job already in the digital space for children aged 7-13, what could we learn from them and what principles would we want to take from these to include in our experience. AllofUs investigated the scope of what is on offer for children in our target age range, looking at behaviours and trends, free play, games and challenges, collaborative games and guided activities to provide an overview of the current market. This resulted in a diverse list of options ranging from YouTube, interactive wearables, AR and board games through to Minecraft and geocaching.

Example of horizon scan from AllofUs

With this knowledge shared, they ran an assumptions workshop with SMG stakeholders to help understand our users and establish the team’s thoughts and expectations for the product, which were wide ranging.

Assumption workshop with SMG colleagues and AllofUs

Phase 2

The second phase was all about taking the learning from stage one, doing rapid prototyping and putting ideas in front of our users to help shape and define viable directions that we could take for the project. The objective was to involve children in the ideation process as much as possible. First we ran a card game activity with children during an event at the Science Museum to understand what trends would evolve if they were to design their own experience. The card game was built on 3 aspects: users, actions and attributes – children were asked to pick one card from each deck and generate 1 to 3 ideas around the three principles.

Card game activity with SMG staff and AllofUs

 

We took all the ideas children had come up with and looked for recurring themes, gaining an understanding of which types of activities were most popular. The results of the card game session helped us identify 4 clear territories for experiences to investigate further;

SAFARI – Explore and observe the real world

GYM – Regular practice for body and mind

LAB – A tool box to satisfy your curiosity

NARRATIVE – Narrative-driven experience with real life challenges

The team focused on each of the territories, generating ideas in detail.  They created three posters representing the three core ideas which were displayed in our Wonderlab gallery. We then asked 45 children to vote on their favourite and least favourite ideas:

– Your Pocket Lab: See it, test it, record it, share your discoveries with the world. An app that helps you explore the world around you by using the features on your phone such as compass, camera and speedometer to make connections with science. E.g. use the camera function to measure the size of things in the real world with an AR ruler, compare what you find and discover the science behind them.

Your Pocket Lab prototype

 

– The Transporters: Travel to multidimensions and face different challenges. A web based game that lets you select characters choose different dimensions and then participate in challenges to reveal science thinking. E.g. choose The Doctor in the ‘Atomic World’, record the sound of your heartbeat, tap it into the game to make cells dance and get blood flowing.

The Transporters prototype

 

– Meeba: Help train your Meeba to develop its superpowers. A Tamagotchi-like chat app, start off with Meeba a blob that needs your help, chat to find out what it needs and complete challenges to help it learn. E.g. Meeba needs to fit through a maze but it’s too big, teach it about melting so that it can change it shape and make it through to the end.

 

Meeba prototype

 

From this we found that the key elements that children were responding to were:

Interaction Model: The chat-based interaction and quirky characters were the most engaging elements.

Narrative: Younger children were attracted by overarching narrative and worlds to discover.

Structure and objectives: Children weren’t engaged by open structure as “it doesn’t have a clear purpose”.

 

Phase 3

We took these principles and created an interactive prototype to test which took the form of a chat-based narrative using Facebook messenger. The prototype engaged users in a story where aliens called ‘The Transponders’ crashed to earth and needed help getting the crew back together by asking the user to take part in challenges.

The Transponders prototype

We tested three challenge options along with the chat narrative; one was purely digital using a maze app to represent a mini-game, one combined digital and physical elements where users watched a video of an experiment and then tried to copy it in the real world, and the last was purely physical where we had set up an experiment for them to do and then report back on their progress to the chat.

This prototype brought together all the research of the previous two months to combine chat-based interactions with characters, an overarching narrative leading to challenges and a mix of digital and analogue tools to complete challenges.

It tested positively with children and so AllofUs went into the final stage of the project which was to further define what this project could be by creating a product definition and roadmap for us to consider putting into production.

At this point we took a pause to reflect on the work that had been done over the three months. It had been an intensive project with rapid prototyping, multiple testing and iteration points, and we felt we needed to take stock before building the proposed product.

To be continued…

Total Darkness is a free online game playable on smartphone, tablet and desktop. Play now at totaldarkness.sciencemuseum.org.uk.

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