CMNH 21st Century Naturalist Activity

Josh LeFevre
Mar 21, 2018 · 14 min read

Client: Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH)

Jan-May 2018

Extend investigations of the 21st century naturalist beyond the
museum context by designing experiences that leverage pre- and
post-visit opportunities to engage youths in rich learning that has
the potential to positively impact their thinking and behavior.

Highlights from the first part of our project:

Feb 1–6 Defining problems and mapping stakeholder relations exercise: we considered learners’ objectives, problems, and perspectives.

Feb 6–13 Defining learner states (current vs preferred) and bridging gaps. It was hard to think about the current state and preferred state, but bridging gaps was fun! We’ll be iterating on this mapping as we move further into our project.

Feb 8 Revisiting the We Are Nature exhibit at CMNH to refresh our memories and explore the exhibit in more depth.

Feb 17 Weekend meeting to map out some ideas. We started thinking about the hierarchy of learning goals ‘humans as part of nature’ is higher level, ‘identify ways humans use nature and natural resources’ is more specific). We noticed that McCarthy’s 4MAT stages mapped pretty nicely onto our possible learning goals.

Initial Research

3/7 Interview with Breann and Brandon

We chatted with Breann and Brandon who help with camp programming and coordination at CMNH. Here are some of the main takeaways:

Why no camps for teens?
- They offer volunteer opportunities and classes for teens but not camps
- Typically teens are only interested in activities that are something they can’t get access to on their own (ex: fires and dissection.)

What are barriers for participation in activities?
- Money
- Transportation (may not have car)
- Parent’s ability to participate

What are learning objectives for naturalist camps?
- Do real science
- Make observations
- Use tools (magnifying glass, binoculars, etc.)
- Learn how to appropriately interact with nature (don’t damage it)
- See interconnectedness w/ humans and nature
- Understand your impact on nature
-Learn to question things and find your own answer

What are kids still talking about once camp is over?
- Going somewhere new (ex: field trip to Powdermill)
-Exploring in a different way (ex: going on a hike)
- Getting to experience something others can’t (ex: behind the scenes tour)

Focused project start

March 20: Project Status Update: Purpose & direction

Over the past few days our team has begun to solidify the direction for projects we want to pursue. Each idea has a slightly different set of values for the answers to who, what, why, where, when, and how.

The following we we know for sure with some ideas about what the where and when could be depending on the activity.

  • Who: Youth 14–18yrs old
  • What: Understand and evaluate nature’s impact on us and vice versa…
  • Why: BECAUSE we rely on nature for our basic human needs of food, water, and shelter. By acknowledging our codependency on each other, we can _______________.
  • When: Evenings, weekends or school breaks
  • Where: Indoor or outdoor in nature

We also explored activites to explain our what without having it become an environmentalist push but instead help participants either gain skills to interact with nature or to take actions toward seeing themselves as part of nature. The top activites we will explore and take to our class idea speed dating are:

  1. Escape Room style learning
  2. Upcycling as a business
  3. Nature skill development

We felt that these approaches could be the most effective method not only for teaching about nature and our codependency on each other but also making the learning fun and engaging for the “missing middle” or overlooked education population. In all of the above we are also considering community making and providing mentors or peers to help encourage each other.

Speed Dating

March 22

Based on the 3 scenarios we came up with from our last meeting we developed 3 storyboard scenarios.

Scenario 1: Escape Room

Youth are given an hour to complete several puzzles related to nature.

Scenario 2: Up-cycling maker fair

Youth are taught how to up-cycle materials that do not degrade easily. At the end they are taught how to promote their crafts and can sell them at a maker fair.

Scenario 3: Outdoor skill building

Youth are able to sign up for outdoor skills they want to learn such as mountain biking, backpacking, or survival skills. They are provided transportation outside of the city to learn and practice the skills.

Escape Room Research

Since we got a lot of positive feedback on our escape room idea we decided to do some first person research on the topic. On Saturday, the 3 of us and two friends went to a local escape room. It was Emma’s first time but Elizabeth and Josh had done escape rooms before.

The escape room we went to was about discovering Carnegie’s secret gems. It was very immersive with decorations matching the period, lots of props, and secret doors that opened when we solved specific puzzles.

At first we didn’t know where to start as there were no provided directions or prompts. We found several items that were clearly clues but didn’t know what to do with them. After some searching and fiddling around we eventually started solving the puzzles and finding more clearly defined challenges. As the challenge went on we had a clearer sense of the main puzzles we were trying to solve and developed better strategies for working together.

We were able to complete the final challenge and escape with less than a remaining!

Elizabeth, Josh, and Emma admiring the gem we recovered through the puzzles
Our puzzle team in front of the clock showing the time we had remaining (it was close!)

Week of March 26

This week we chose an idea to move forward with (escape room/puzzle experience), and fleshed out some specifics to prepare to talk about our idea with CMNH on Tuesday. We also considered how the learning models we’ve been discussing throughout the semester relate to our idea. It’s been an iterative process with lots of back and forth between considering the puzzles and considering the learning models, but with the help of a weekend meeting we made a lot of progress in getting our idea to a more concrete stage.

Learning Models

Seeing some examples from previous iterations of the class was really helpful in giving us an idea of what a learning model applied to our idea might look like. We wanted to make one learning model that combined several of the theories we had discussed, but we had trouble choosing which models since all of them were relevant in one way or another to our project! At the moment, we’ve tentatively settled on a combination of 4MAT and CCAF, with Salen and Zimmerman’s magic circle and the goal hierarchy from Understanding by Design.

We felt the magic circle was extremely relevant to the immersive and engaging puzzle experience we hope to create, since that would have a large play element. 4MAT frames the whole experience nicely, and reminds us to focus on context (setting up the story) and what if (what happens after the puzzle experience) as well as the what and how (more the actual puzzle content). CCAF helps us think about individual puzzles, in particular, the need for feedback. The goal hierarchy is useful in considering where our big ideas and more specific learning objectives come in throughout the experience.

Our sketches of ideas about learning models for our experience

Idea Development

We’ve been brainstorming a lot in the past week about puzzles and narrative ideas for the escape room, since usually escape rooms have a storyline that ties all the puzzles together and create an immersive experience. For example, in the escape room we did last weekend, the narrative was that we had to find Andrew Carnegie’s hidden gems. We’ve been trying to come up with some more specific ideas than the one we presented in speed dating last week.

So far we’ve faced several challenges: Coming up with puzzles that relate to our goals instead of just superficially relating to nature, tying puzzles together (figuring out what form the solution is in and how it directs you to the next puzzle), and coming up with a compelling narrative that also relates to all the puzzles.

After a lot of discussion about puzzle ideas and learning theories during Tuesday and Thursday’s classes, we met this weekend and made a lot of progress on coming up with puzzles that are more related to one of our learning goals.

Since one of our goals is for learners to become more experienced at using scientific tools, we decided to make a list of lots of scientific tools to see if this inspired us. This turned out to be really helpful — once we had the list, we marked some that seemed more relevant to naturalism, and started coming up with ideas for puzzles relating to them.

After doing this, we fleshed out some connections between the puzzles to come up with a storyboard of one set of puzzles that would be in the room.

We’re still having some trouble coming up with the narrative. We also need to create puzzles around our other learning objectives (that aren’t about using tools to bring in some more of those).

Speaking with CMNH tomorrow should help us move forward on both those fronts. We’re hoping to get their thoughts on our general direction, specific learning content/objectives to design our experience around, and a compelling narrative.

After that, our next steps will be to design some more puzzle ideas around the other learning objectives and start thinking about prototyping.

Week of April 2

CMNH feedback

On Tuesday, we met with CMNH to share our ideas and learning models for the escape room syle learning experience. They loved our our idea and the fact that we were helping tackle teaching the overlooked teenagers ages 14–18 was marvelous.

The synthesis of their feedback is as follows:

  • Cool, do whatever you want
  • Make sure you use scentific tools
  • Work with CMNH to coordinate tools and resources
  • The space issue should be considered int he museum vs. mobile
  • Don’t be afraid to go dark on the conspets to clarify them for the teens
  • Either a broad discussion of food, energy, and water is just as good as going deep on one topic.

Escape Room learning arc

Based on the feedback from CMNH we decided to continue down the escape room path. We set out a plan to reach our functional escape room by the end of the semester.

On Saturday we solidified our narrative and puzzle design arc. We did this by talking about each topic of food, water, and energy to find commonalities and synergies between the topics. From this we ultimately decided to center our story line around a natural disaster that affects these three components. We feel this direction will help us better relay the importance and dependencies of different factors on an overall system.

We specifically discussed how each puzzle could inform each other to make the flow constant and meaningful.

Early Puzzle Prototyping

Week of April 9

This week we worked on creating paper prototypes of the puzzle ideas we decided on last week. We split up the work, each of us developing around 3 puzzles.

This puzzle asks people to sort seeds with their corresponding food and place them on the part of the map that bests matches their environmental needs
This puzzles asks people to test the pH of various beakers of liquid and to identify correct vials to reveal a code


Our initial feedback phase was among each other. We looked through each puzzle to see if it was accomplishing what we intended and if their were aspects that needed clarification.

On Thursday we were able to have other Learner Experience Design students run through our puzzles and give us feedback.

Identifying plants
Decoding a secret message

Testing Debrief

On Saturday we got to work bright an early to recap our findings from testing, discuss next steps, and plan our presentation on our progress thus far. To make up for the early meeting time, we started off the day with some homemade waffles.

Josh making us waffles in our studio kitchen

Testing takeaways

  • We need higher fidelity prototypes to make it clear what is expected in puzzles without guidance from us
  • Certain elements of our puzzles were too easy (ex: plant guide had same photos as the plant photos)
  • Our pH puzzle didn’t have a clear tie in to the environment
  • We need to make it clearer how the items learned in the puzzles relate to each other and relate to the puzzle taker’s lives
  • We should have a stronger narrative throughout the puzzles which could possibly be brought about by a note left from the scientist whose lab the puzzle room takes place in.

Some people also mentioned that they weren’t sure they learned much, making us realize that we need to clearly state our objective with each puzzle. For most of our puzzles we are not trying to get the puzzlers to remember all the material but simple get them to think about the topics. We need to have a shared understanding among our team on what the learning objectives are so we can better evaluate the feedback we get.

We then discussed changes we might make to existing puzzles and materials we need to start building higher fidelity versions. We also discussed what we want are intro and outro experiences for the escape room to be to help set the scene and solidify the learnings.

Week of April 16th

In-class presentations

The presentations in class on Tuesday 17th helped give us some feedback from classmates. Key takeaways were:

  • People need to see actual puzzles to be able to give better feedback, both about puzzles themselves, and about how narrative connects to them.
  • People understand and like the learning gap we identified (14–18 year olds due to lack of engagement). Maybe explain more why our escape room idea would engage our learners (emphasizing the social aspect may be a way to do this).
  • Outro experience after the escape room part is important, and requires careful thought.
  • It would be nice to connect the puzzles more (this would be nice to do, but it’s looking like we won’t have time to do that to the extent that we’d like to).
  • Someone made an interesting point about getting learners to work on puzzles instead of alone. Something to bear in mind as we test in the space.

Puzzle iterations

On Thursday 19th we had a long worksession to talk about the results of user testing last week and iterate on the puzzles. We also finalized the order of the puzzles and how the puzzles connect to each other (what is the correct solution, what happens when they get it correct (open a lock, something in the room opens etc), and what they receive (clues, materials for the next puzzle). We also looked at some carnival booths for inspiration on decorating and setting the scene. Finally, we picked up materials that CMNH is lending to us

In our Saturday worksession, we discussed the physical layout of the space, and began building walls for our final prototype!

Building the first wall
All four walls complete!

April 23 — May 4

April 24: In-class puzzle testing. The biggest takeaway from this was that we are at the point where testing individual puzzles on a tabletop isn’t too helpful for us anymore, we need to start testing in a space to get a sense of whether the flow between puzzles works (too easy, too hard, or just right?) and how well puzzle feedback works without someone in the room with them.

April 26–27: In preparation for testing in the space, we wrote scripts for the intro (what learners hear before going into the room) and outro (what learners hear after completing the room). In the intro, we tell players that there has been a natural disaster in Pittsburgh and they must restore Pittsburgh’s food, water, and energy systems by looking through Dr Confinetur’s lab and deciphering his research. In the outro, we present a message from Dr Confinetur congratulating players for their work, and encouraging them to consider the following questions:

  • Which puzzle surprised you the most, why?
  • What puzzle do you think was most important for restoring Pittsburgh, why?
  • What can you do next to keep the human-nature balance in check and prepare for a natural disaster like this one?

We conducted two user tests in a space, one with young teenagers, and one with two peers. This helped us determine tweaks to puzzles and space setup. We realized that some puzzles were too difficult or not clear enough (microscope, pH) while others were too easy (water pipes). In terms of changes to space setup, we decided to put locked boxes closer to the puzzle that gave the code to unlock to make the connections between puzzles a little clearer, since it was too confusing with the boxes being hidden. We also decided to make some puzzles higher fidelity and come up with ways to have Wizard-of-Oz rather than facilitated feedback for puzzles that have something in the room (for example, we were using colored post-it notes to give feedback on the water blocks, which was not particularly effective).

April 29 — May 4:

This week we focused on making higher fidelity puzzle feedback and integrating it into our cardboard walls, and making a digital version of our final puzzle in Axure.

For our puzzle where players place seed packets on the map, when they place all the seed packets in the correct places, the panel of wall behind the map swings out and they receive water blocks and a clue:

A player excited to get water blocks after completing the seed map!

We created a wood board and blocks for the water usage puzzle. One of us can stand outside the room and see which blocks the players are placing where. If blocks are placed incorrectly, we push them out to indicate that they were wrong.

Players placing blocks
As the players place blocks, we can see that the player placed all these blocks incorrectly because the writing on the block does not match the writing on the post-it note, and push them back out to indicate that they were incorrectly placed.

We finalized the puzzles and their placement in the space, and tested it with two groups of students.

The final escape room:

All set up!

Overall, the response was positive — people enjoyed the experience, and experienced some surprises about the content (e.g. water uses) which was our hope!

A team after successfully completing the room

Since then, we’ve been wrapping up our documentation and preparing to present to CMNH. Overall, this project has been a lot of fun, we learned a lot about how difficult it is to design engaging and effective learning experiences, and we’re really happy with how our final prototype turned out.

Josh LeFevre

Written by

I am human who grew up loving science who realized that the bloom of design brings life and context to humanity while making science approachable.