All my science center pals, please feel free to come to this event.

All my science center pals, please feel free to come to this event.

False Conviction at the World Science Festival

Last night, the World Science Festival and NYSCI presented the first WSF event outside of their normal spring programming.  The panel was organized around the themes presented in the iBook that NYSCI produced called “False Conviction: Innocence Guilt and Science” authored by Jim Dwyer.

It was held at the Cardozo Law School and had about 225 people in attendance,

Here is a summary of the event:

I had the opportunity to frame the discussion at the outset, and here is the text of my introduction.

I met peter neufeld 4 years ago at the google campus in silicon valley at a conference called Sci Foo.  Somehow we both found ourselves in this conference of very high-end scientists, big data and big think types, and as a result we both totally stood out from the crowd. 

Peter introduced himself as the co-founder of the Innocence Project, which of course I knew about.  I assumed he was there to talk about new DNA analysis techniques or some similar specific set of technologies.

But it turns out he had a much bigger agenda, which was to look critically at the underpinnings of science, the fundamental attributes of the way scientific knowledge is generated and used, and to apply to that to the most profoundly personal and social questions of innocence and guilt.

 In Peter’s recounting I began to hear what we at the NY Hall of Science are always looking for:  a way to connect science with personal experience.  At the core of innocence projects work and and peters narrative narrative is a very powerful emotional response, a horrified personal identification, to the psychic distress of being imprisoned for 25 when you know you are innocent.

As Peter and I talked , we realized that the power of that narrative, its kind of breathless, pit in the pendulum grip, could be the mainspring for a profound examination of the role of science in society. 

By now, most of you as sophisticated science and criminology people recognize that CSI style forensic science is a bit of a fantasy.  But I bet you didn’t know that most of what we think of forensic physical science, hair identification, fingerprint ID, various chemical assays are themselves suspect and for a very specific reason:  They were all born in the crime lab and the courtroom, in litigious contexts, and therefore lack the fundamental qualities and processes that make good science.  DNA identification, by contrast, was born in the laboratory and has been subject to the rigors of peer review science because it did not originate in order to bolster one side or another in a court room.

As cognitive science evolves, scientists are demonstrating how unreliable we are as witnesses or at recalling and interpreting any facts from our day to day lives, including the facts of a crime.  Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that the testimony of an eyewitness, once held as the gold standard of prosecutorial evidence, is terribly unreliable.  In our guts, we want to trust our eyes, and so do juries.  But we are wrong.

So, untold hundreds or thousands of innocent people are serving decades in prison because of a fundamental misapprehension of science.  False confidence in physical science born of the courtroom, and the false trust we place in our own perceptions, has forced the reopening of thousands of criminal convictions. 

Peter and I were very fortunate to work with Jim Dwyer, who captures the pathos of the wrongly convicted prisoner married with cutting edge research in the physical and cognitive science, and spins an extraordinarily compelling narrative in False Conviction:  Innocence Guilt and Science.  This ibook, available at the apple ibook store for a special World Science Festival price of $2.99, uses state of the art interactivity and compelling media to enrich this narrative.  It is the rich and moving exploration of the real impact of science on our public and private lives.

We are grateful to the alfred p sloan foundation for supporting the collaboration among The New York Hall of Science, the Innocence Project, and Jim Dwyer, and grateful to the World Science Festival for this opportunity to share this important work with you this evening.

Thoughtful critique by NYSCI’s Steve Uzzo of the Next Generation Science Standards

Steve is NYSCI’s vice president of science and technnology, with a PhD in network science and a passionate believer in the interdisciplinary nature of contemporary science. 

The Next Generation Science Standards have a living web site, and a process for inviting critiques, here:

Here are steve’s very thoughtful notes, which I am posting with his permission.  Thanks Steve!

"There are some really interesting and compelling critiques of NGSS, some of which were mirrored in my feedback to them, others that really get to the heart of issues around curriculum and assessment in all K-12 learning, which could be summed up as permitting form to negate function. In particular, some important issues include (these are excerpted from my responses, but mirrored in the linked critique):

- Math is the language of science, and with the emphasis on engineering and technology, highlights the paltry attempt to integrate ideas from the math standards into the science standards. God forbid they use and equation anywhere. As reflected in the standards documents for both math and science, they continue to be safely siloed. What this means is that math will continue to be the teaching of equations, and science will be occasionally  “disrupted” by some of these equations.

- Widely assumed in the standards is the understanding of underlying concepts and definitions of terms whether they are part of the standards or not. Ideas like:
 - Analyze and interpret data
 - Construct explanations
 - Engage in arguments
 - Construct models
 - Empirical evidence
 - Scientific reasoning
Cross cutting concepts are even more cavalierly used. things like:
 - Flows and cycles
 - Cause and effect
  - Differentiate between cause and correlation
 - Systems
 - Patterns indicating causality
 - Feedback mechanisms
 - Dynamic equilibrium
 - Define the boundaries of a system (gets into cybernetics territory will teachers be teaching cybernetics?)
There is no indication that these ideas will actually be taught,

- There are concepts that are simply misstatements of the facts. For example, they state that color is a characteristic of light, when in fact color is a characteristic of vision.

- Evolution has gotten better since the first draft, but there are still fundamental ideas that are missing, like human evolution, the function of the central dogma (molecular evolution), or other basic mechanisms like lateral gene transfer or endosymbiosis.

- They make sweeping and overreaching statements like: “scientific knowledge assumes an order and consistency in natural systems (3-PS2-b)” When we know that emergent systems abound in nature (we have an exhibit on this upstairs), and making believe nature is consistent and orderly ignores much of 20th century science, nevermind 21st. Anyone who watches the weather report knows this is just incorrect

- They are still scared by any form of complexity (except the traditional ones) and deliberately avoid seeing science in light of many new ideas. I can understand why they might not address morphogenesis, but they also avoid some of the key complexities around biodiversity- more is still better.

- They talk about modeling everywhere, without indicating even the most basic examples from traditional science, never mind more advanced ones. The pretext seems to be that software and computer simulations will save the day, without even having defined models or created any framework for scaffolding modeling. Kids are just supposed to model everything… of course without grounding any of it in math or computer programming. Its just supposed to happen by magic.

- the most important ways science is crosscutting through interdisciplinarity in systems science, sustainability science, network science, ocean sciences, even earth systems sciences, are not addressed in any systematic way, just stated as if they are just name dropping.

- throughout the standards is the gnawing teleological assumption that humans are different from nature and no effort is made to dissuade people from thinking this. There is a constant mantra of distinguishing the human made world from the naturally occurring world. It is extremely useful to compare how we behave and what we do as compared to other animals and plants as fundamental to understanding the role of behavior and the brain (something else that is conspicuously missing). But to make the artificial distinction between natural and human made is simply erroneous and makes everything from animal behavior to ecosystems ecology, more confusing.

This document ( is long, but not as long as the standards themselves. It is helpful in going into discussions about the progression of STEM education, and the potentially important role institutions like NYSCI have in moving science learning forward. I hope we can all begin a useful, ongoing dialog about the implications of these new standards and how we can respond to it productively in our work. Honestly, I had hoped we would leave the 1980s behind when we went into the 1990s, but I feel like we are reliving them all over again. It looks like the opportunity to really teach science will be missed again as the gap between the teaching of science and science practice continues to widen.

Teaching Again: the Kids are Alright

After a two year hiatus, I am back to teaching in the NYU graduate program in Museum Studies.  The core of our class in Museum Management is a semester long project in “creating” a museum from scratch.  The intent is for them to master what I consider the fundamental skill set for working successfully in a museum:  Take Something Vague, and Make It Happen (or at least make it less vague).  So the parameters for this exercise are very simple:  they work in groups of 4 or 5, and they have to dream up a museum that they would find exciting.  Drilling down, the exercise gets to the heart of the issues that we deal with in museums:  what’s distinctive about the place (another contemporary art museum in NY?  why?); what is the audience proposition, and can it be readily articulated?  These are essentially exercises of creating the mission.  Though they are free to dream, there is a constrained budget of a million bucks/year for operating (they get to invent how they got the building and permanent infrastructure funded, and they get utilities for free).  So that forces them to think about how to staff the place and create programs, and what is the development and marketing program to bring in audiences, who is the target audience.

All this is in the context of a museum that was dreamed through negotiation among the small group,which may include people with backgrounds in contemporary art, anthropology, history, and media etc.  So there is a strong element of collaboration.

Finally, they have to prepare a compelling hour long presentation, with visuals, background information, due diligence level financial and staffing info, technology plans etc.

Since the first time I did this exercise with students several years ago, one thing has changed dramatically.  In the first couple of years, people were interested in technology infused experiences, with a lot of talk of virtual museums and online collections etc.  By 3 years ago, all that had gone away, everyone wanted a social space supported by social media,  lots of “first friday”  style gathering places, places to convene and discuss pressing social issues, a big focus on the social aspect of museums.  This year, though we have met only once, I detect a strong tropism toward “authenticity”  real objects, real places, real experiences. 

These ideas will evolve no doubt, but there was some very compelling thinking already about art in a contemplative space, so a museum about contemplation and individual interactions with art pieces;  another about art and conflict, the art that arises from war;  a third about performative or interactive art; and a fourth that is a kind of traveling and changing suite of exhibits that travel around to natural areas with ways of engaging people in the local environments. 

All pretty cool ideas, no?  I found myself energized and even moved to see how ready these young people are to jump outside the museum box and free themselves to imagine new hybrid experiences. 

Great Blog Post by Curator Steve Dietz on the installation of ReGeneration, opening Oct 27th!

An amazingly simple and effective art piece about urban sustainability.

ReGeneration at NYSCI: Urban Sustainability, Art, and Science

My colleagues and I have been working hard on the design and production phase of a major new contemporary art and science exhibition at NYSCI called ReGeneration.  When we invited artists to submit proposals for the 11 new commissions we planned for the exhibition, we talked with some fervor and fuzziness about the theme of Urban Sustainability.  You can see the call for artists here.  I can say with all honesty that in defining this theme, I was groping for something that wasn’t yet entirely clear.  As the exhibition comes closer to fruition, and as the work of the individual artists comes into focus, what we mean byUrban Sustainability is also becoming clearer.

The artists are mostly in their 30’s and 40’s, the generation that came of age assuming that our environment was under threat.  But it is also a very urban group, most of whom live in one of US coastal cities like NY and SF, and some of whom have roots in other countries from Asia to South America.  While they think of sustainability as a matter of protecting the planet, they also think of it as a way of building healthier communities. 

As a result, their work explicitly invites participation by the community, focuses on the human aspects of sustainability, including health, education, immigrant culture, as well as the more traditional foci of the sustainability movement,  flora, conservation of resources, technology, waste, air quality, climate change, etc.

Future Farmers is planning an ethnobotany project that explores local flora and the ethnobotanical knowledge of local residents.  They will conduct weekend programming into the Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a huge park that NYSCI is part of, used prinicipally by local immigrant communities.  These explorations will form the basis of an ethnobotanical cart and exhibit in the museum.


(this is an installation in San Francisco done by FutureFarmers)

Shih Cheh Huang is an artist from Taiwan who is lives and works in Brooklyn.  He builds gorgeous living breathing sculptures from things that he finds in local dollar stores.  He has explored dollar stores all over New York, and tells us that they are different from community to community.  Through his eyes, these sculptures are not only compelling and fascinating, but find beauty in the story of local consumption, cheap goods frequently made elsewhere in the world, and commerce.

Check out this video

I will share more examples of the artists’ work in ReGeneration in future posts.  For the moment, though, I want to focus on the core idea of the exhibition, the idea of urban sustainability.  It turns out that this is a very rich vein to mine in thinking about how science centers, particularly urban science centers, communicate about sustainability.  For a few years we have been groping our way toward finding a meaningful and compelling way to discuss this pressing issue.  In several projects, we have been reaching for connections to our urban audience that would be meaningful, beyond the frankly unsuccessful strategies that attempt to influence people’s beliefs based upon the very real global threat of climate change and species extinction. 

As pressing as these issues are, presenting them through the media, through museum exhibitions, books, articles, school curricula have not changed the trajectory of our patterns of life and consumption. Research is very clear that people respond to local conditions that they themselves experience, and feel empowered only to make changes on a very local level.

So, what if sustainability was repositioned as a deeply urban issue?  If education, health, transportation, child care, immigration, jobs, and green spaces were the topics of conversation when we talked about sustainability?  All of these factors can plausibly be influenced by local action.  And all of them will make a meaningful contribution to the quality of life of the community. 

Alaka Wali, a brilliant anthropologist who works at the Field Museum and conducts research both in the Amazon and in Chicago, wrote:

"[Urban ecology] enables us to treat human populations as integral to the rest of the environment. This is in contrast to previous approaches. From the late 19th century, when industrialization and urbanization began to dominate social processes and become subjects of sociological concern, to the present, we have tended to characterize urban life as Ymnatural," "alienating," and"chaotic".  We have separated the cityfrom nature and drawn them as polar opposites."

Connected Worlds Prototypes

Back after a lengthy hiatus, a lot has been going on.  First of all, it was delightful to see so many friends and learn so much at AAM.  I had a chance to engage in some great and contentious discussions along with relaxing into the cloud of friendship and support of the museum community.

The day that I left from NY, we held a prototyping session/advisory committee meeting for one of our major exhibition programs, which we are now calling “Connected Worlds.”  This will be the centerpiece experience in our Great Hall, which in turn is being renovated as the centerpiece of our 2014 50th year anniversary celebration.  2014 used to be a long time from now, but it isn’t any more.  So it is time to get down to cases.  Connected Worlds is built around the idea of sustainability, which we are hoping to approach from a more human, local context rather than the beyond-all-hope-and-control global context.  Its kind of funny/sad how Al Gore’s passion translated into his being such an ineffective bummer. His film has become kind of the touchstone of what we don’t want to do, scaring people about this global phenomenon that they can’t really do anything about and using data in misleading ways.

We have had had many long discussions with our invaluable advisors about where we stand with global warming (a fait accompli), and what we do next to mitigate its worst effects.  I would refer you to the work of the CIESEN group at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Lab, who have been our principal scientific advisors, as well as the research on cooperation of David Rand at Harvard to explore some of these ideas.
Suffice it to say that it is a difficult topic surrounded by a roar of conflicting opinions and advice. 

The prototyping session involved 3 interactive full body-scale gesture based screens in which changes in one area either automatically effected other areas or could be moved through clever RFID design into another area.  Design I/O did an incredible job of providing us with something really substantive to test, and we learned a huge amount.  Here is a video of the prototype

The experience is of three large screens that you figure out how to interact with with very little or no guidance (you show one and it seems you are good for about 20 minutes before someone else seems flummoxed).  The right hand screen is a representation of reservoirs in the mountains with water flow controlled by a discarded cable spool that you can crank.  The middle screen is a corn farm, where by gestures you cut corn, and using a piece of rope, water the corn.  There is a silo on the right that fills up with corn, and can be emptied by placing a RFID’d box next to the silo.  The screen on the left is the city, where there is either enough water, food, and population (a balance) or not enough food and water.  In this aspect, you can pump a pump and water flows into the city (this and the corn field both effect the water levels in the rightmost screen), and you can add the corn you have brought from the silo.

Given how complicated the set of interactions is, there was a lot of great game play, lots of people self organizing (or organizing under big brother’s [literally] thumb), lots of engagement, not too much over the top cranking/button pushing/jumping around like a maniac (not that there is anything wrong with that).

As far as literal learning goals, most of what people had to say had to do with water as a scarce resource and how it is needed for everything, etc.  Overall, lots of positive stuff, and certainly indicators like engagement and excitement were in evidence everywhere.

We were very fortunate to have Cornelia Brunner, from EDC’s Children and Technology program participate in the prototyping/advisor meeting, and a follow up staff meeting.  She was able to articulate something that we have been grasping for, and I will do my best to restate it.  When she works with game designers, 90% of the work is in creating a great game.  10% is embedding some experiential learning in the game.  0% is given to overlaying educational “content.”  As she said, as soon as a kid smells PBS in a game, you’ve lost them.  I know not everyone would agree with this approach (there are some NYSCI staff who would argue strenuously, Hi David K).

This depends on a deep and mutual confidence between the museum team and the designers, and that is the subject of another post.  I think we have the chops to pull it off, both on our side and on Design IO’s side.  It also requires being crystal clear about the experiential learning

After much discussion, we have narrowed down our experiential goals to help people experience and explore “systems thinking” and “balance.”  These ideas are a big step toward making the exhibition more experiential and less didactic.  People can experience aspects of systems thinking, like feedback loops, and also engage in the idea of balance, as in water seeking its level.

As a matter of fact, water seems like a good organizing principal/metaphor because it is an essential resource for life (both biological and social) and also a bit mysterious.  I always wondered why we should conserve water, its a closed system, water isn’t going anywhere.  If anything, water is being added incrementally to our environment.  The most recent exhibition on Water, done by AMNH and Science Museum of Minnesota (which is traveling, and has a number of excellent qualities), didn’t resolve this problem for me.  Maybe I missed it, but if I did, probably a significant number of others missed it as well.

So now we crash on to the design development phase of this work, ending in, you know, a design…this is where the you-can-do-this and you-cant-do-that comes in, which I actually thrive on. 

A question for the readers.  If you wanted to create introductory and follow on experiences, whats wrong with a plain old high quality video?  Ever since we hosted 1001 Inventions, and ever since Martin Weiss did Charlie and Kiwi, and Sean Duran’s wonderful videos for Amazon Voyages (mudfish!), I have become kind of focused on the 5 minute video.  Yes, I know its not interactive, but so what?  Also, we hired the brilliant Geralyn Abinader who started and ran the media program at AMNH for a decade, so I know we have the in house capacity to kill in that form.

I’ve been running a high fever this week, and had feverish dreams from about 6-9 AM about all the projects that still have open questions.  We are placing our markers on some major commitments to new approaches as we speak, and its great to be able to share these ideas with NYSCI’s and others who read this post.

Design Lab Progress

When we first started working on Design Lab, we invited a number of exhibition firms to come in to talk to us about how we might collaborate on this project.  This process helped us to realize that we were not really creating an exhibition space per se, but rather an armature or environment that would support design-based learning activities.  We would not be trying to tell a unified story through the space, but rather inviting visitors to build things, to test them, and to evaluate and share their work.  The predilection of exhibition design firms to design…well…exhibitions made it difficult for us to communicate the nature of the space we were looking to develop.

Through extensive discussions we ended up by engaging an interesting, brilliant, and complicated team of two design firms with very different skill sets.  We are working with Local Projects, a growing shop that has a focus on digital media; and Situ Studios, an artisan shop of architects/builders who pride themselves on building what they design.   We are just ending the concept design phase, and are at a moment of thinking…wow…this is actually coming together.  And the Design Lab team has been so deeply gratified by the success of this unconventional pairing. 

Local Projects was started by Jake Barton, a graduate of the ubiquitous ITP program at NYU.  It first came to prominence with the revolutionary and inspirational StoryCorps kiosks that opened around 9/11, and Local Projects has continued to grow and innovate through projects such as the 9/11 Memorial, the BMW/Guggenheim Lab project, work with digital media in museums, parks, and other public venues.  Increasingly they are being asked to work on experience design more generally, but their core competence is around digital media, interactivity, and story telling.  They have devised some really creative approaches to working with collections in museums as well as a suite of media education tools for the Jacob Burns Media Arts Lab

I first encountered Situ Studios through a group called Solar One, an urban environmental education group that operates Stuyvesant Cove Park on the East River of Manhattan.  I serve on the Solar One Board, and was blown away by a series of installations that Situ did in the park for community environmental arts days.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one, because these installations ended up by being adapted for public arts/environments festivals around the country.  Here are some images of this work

We have reached the end of the concept phase, and the amazing thing is how the two firms are gelling as a team.  The image at the top of this post suggests the kind of integration of digital and physical that we are planning.  Without going into too many administrative details, there was a lot of contract negotiation that went on to delineate the role of each team.  The conceptual design phase was let as one contract with LP in lead and Situ working collaboratively with the LP team.  The design development/cd phase, as we are currently planning it, will be two separate contracts as each firm’s work becomes more specific.  So it will be up to us to integrate.

In the mean time, we have been prototyping activities with the public.  You can see more about this in the Design Lab blog .  This month we had visitors creating and sharing shadow puppets in conjunction with an installation of Design-io’s wonderful Puppet Parade interactive( see Design-io’s blog for more on our work with them).  Its worth mentioning that the combination of Puppet Parade, the traveling exhibition from OMSI called Animation, and our design based activities, we have had record visitorship, with 4,100 people coming on one day, 50% higher than our previous record.

This week, we have been harvesting staff comments from the operations, public programs, education, and development staff on the Design Lab concept documents.  There have been some really valuable and substantive responses.  For those of you reading this who are at NYSCI, please feel free to go into the North Wing Conference Room and look at the drawings and connect with Peggy Monahan or me with any comments and questions. 

For those of you reading this offsite, we will make selections from the concept design phase available online.

Museums and the Web, a noobies report day 1

Ai Weiwei Zodiac

I went for the first time to the Museums and the Web Conference in San Diego this past week.  This is a new community for me, and I spent my time trying to get oriented, finding points of concordance with our work at NYSCI, and sharing what we have been doing with new colleagues.

I went to a preconference session called something like “social media strategy,” and this revealed one of the thick threads running through the conference.  People are trying to find ways to capture the energy of social media with two principal aims.  First, to build audiences; second, to create and disseminate content.   To me, the people who were talking about the social web to build audience were mostly looking backwards, reviewing what has been done:  what are the existing channels, and how can museums feed those channels?  You know the drill, from facebook to instagram to whatever has just emerged while I am writing these words, museums want to build audiences using these networks.  This is typically managed by the external relations staff within the institutions, and the whole idea of digital medial strategies is fostering a whole ecosystem of consultants, experts, and software infrastructures (is django>druple?  inquiring minds want to know.)

The second group were people who were engaging with social media to build content.  Crowdsourcing, folksonomy, and other ways of engaging audiences in curation and program creation were represented with some lively examples, including the winner of the Best of the Web contest, the Walker Art Center.  The home page of their web site, below the fold is all content harvested from other sources.  I am not sure it is curated, or frankly why it won the best of the web, but it is a model that many were discussing for creating digital content.

From NYSCI’s perspective, we are creating content by engaging staff and project leaders people in what I learned is called “microblogging.”  I am not sure that the term has really come into focus, though I heard it frequently.  From our point of view, we are inviting visitors to become more attached and intimate with NYSCI through the creation of blogs like this one, as well as the new and Many people expressed interest and admiration for this approach, and I do think it is a strategy that at its best can both attract/retain visitors and provide rich content for our web presence.

In the afternoon, I went to a pre-conference session on alternative interfaces, in which we talked about and played a little bit with arduino and kinect interfaces.  There was a lively discussion about how exhibition developers think about interfaces (developer: kids just go around slamming randomly on buttons, banging on them like whackamole; me: then stop putting buttons on exhibits.)  A cool demonstration of the potential and shortcomings of rfid (radio frequency tags with unique identifiers).  The long and the short of it is that you have the option of knowing where a lot of them are at close range or a few of them are at long range.  Still not ready for prime time for tracking visitors and allowing visitors to automatically personalize their visit (this is id#33, I like picasso, so show me what else I would like.)

An opening reception on the first evening showcased the San Diego Contemporary Art Museum featured a great piece by Ai Weiwei (shown at the top of this post) and a beautiful Doug Wheeler.

Doug Wheeler