New Project: Informal Learning and Transmedia Storytelling

I’m thrilled to announce a big new collaborative project on educational ARGs and transmedia storytelling funded by the National Science Foundation (a combined 1.2 million dollars for the first two years, with another $500,000 expected for Year 3). The project is a joint endeavor between Brigham Young University and the University of Maryland in partnership with NASA, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Computer History Museum, plus leading game designers, educators, scientists, and researchers. We’ll be designing, implementing, and conducting research on two large-scale games–“authentic fictions,” as Ken Eklund calls them–one focused on computational thinking, the other on deep-time sciences; the games will target youth aged 13-15, with a special emphasis on girls and other groups underrepresented in STEM. The project will iteratively design and test two distinct types of transmedia fictions (closed- and open-ended) to study their effects on learning.

One of the most exciting aspects of the project for me is the amazing team we’ve managed to assemble. Props to my collaborator and friend, Derek Hansen (BYU, leading this effort), who thought in really creative, ambitious ways right from the start about the kind of multi-institutional partnerships we’d need to put in place to make this happen. Our open-ended ARG–the one grounded in the deep-time sciences (think Astronomy and Astrobiology)–will be led by the brilliant Ken Eklund, who created World Without Oil, the game that launched the forecasting game genre in 2007. We’ll also be working closely with Jeff Sheets, Director of the Laycock Center for Creative Collaboration in the Arts at BYU. Jeff has previously overseen transmedia advertising campaigns for major companies–including Nike, Gatorade, Doritos, Taco Bell, and Ford Motor Company–with millions of viewers. He is also fluent in Spanish (as are several students who will be working on the project), allowing us to develop and distribute some of our game materials in both English and Spanish. And as mentioned above, NASA, The Computer History Museum, and the Smithsonian are all directly involved (one of our goals is to incorporate the Babbage Difference Engine into the game, a working replica of which is on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California). At UMD, our core team consists of me, June Ahn, and Beth Bonsignore. June did his PhD in Education, and Beth is a polymath with a background in English, Computer Science, and Education, who also spent much of her career as a signal analyst for the US Navy. We’ll also be working with my colleague Allison Druin in the HCI lab–drawing on her expertise in participatory design–along with a group of teen co-designers. We’ll soon be hiring both graduate and undergraduate students as well.

Having one ARG devoted to the deep-time sciences is also grist for Hopeful Monsters, my book-in-progress on long-term thinking. Deep-time sciences are those sciences that deal with processes that occur over thousands or millions of years, such as the evolution of the galaxies or the continental drift of the earth. This type of thinking is future-oriented as much as past-oriented, as Lorraine Daston eloquently observes:

What all sciences of the archive have in common is not past- but rather future-consciousness: they imagine the archives that they have taken such pains to amass and conserve as a bequest to their successors, to the archaeologists, astronomers, geneticists, geologists, and demographers of the future. To create and curate an archive is to assume disciplinary continuity, sometimes across centuries or even millennia (as when astronomers in the year 1900 decided to bequeath a complete photographic record of the sky to the astronomers of the year 3000). There is always a utopian element in the sciences of the archives, a vision of a community that will endure – and cherish the collections so carefully laid up as provisions for future research.

Among other things, the deep-time focus should allow us the opportunity to create a number of experimental design fiction artifacts, and really think through methods and approaches for doing so. I’m also eager to gather data on what role they might potentially play in the learning process and how they function from a cognitive perspective within the context of transmedia fiction.

When preparing the grant proposal, I reached out to Dr. Woodruff Sullivan, an astronomer at the University of Washington, to see if he would be willing to serve as one of the consultants on the project. Sullivan, notably, participated in the Department of Energy’s 1991 task force to develop a marker system to warn future civilizations for up to 10,000 years about the hazards of radioactive waste stored near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Those of you who know me and my work know how obsessed I am with the extraordinary report that resulted from that project, and so the opportunity to work with Dr. Sullivan is just incredibly exciting.

I’ll wrap up by mentioning that there’s a preservation component to the project that will extend some of our prior research on increasing the longevity of ARGs and transmedia fiction. We’ll be working with my colleague Jimmy Lin who, along with one of his students, has created a prototype implementation of the Wayback Machine on a 16-node Hadoop cluster and will soon be developing new analytical tools for scholars to browse and research large web collections.

Much more on this project in the months ahead.


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  • adatoole

    This NSF project is incredibly exciting and I look forward to working with you. I know Ada Lovelace would be pleased with how learning is enhanced by the computer simulations you have proposed.
    Betty Alexandra Toole, author of Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers:Poetical Science

  • KariKraus

    Thank you so much, Betty! We can’t wait to work with you!