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(14 comments so far)
Hi Elizabeth - I would love to talk more. We continue to be interested in developing this idea and would welcome you (and others) who...


Hi, I'm Jeanne Century, creator of Our-Playground.org and director of science education at the University of Chicago's Center for Elementary Math and Science Education. We're pleased to have our work featured in NSF's Media & Informal Science Learning website, and hope this discussion will lead to useful feedback for us on it, as well as to new potential collaborations/partnerships for us as we develop the concept further, and move from development to production and distribution.

We look forward to your comments!

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Nov 26, 2009 12:51 pm
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We received the following note from Janis Dickinson, Director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, about the Our-Playground.org case. Janis has generously allowed us to share it with the group:

"I think I've got the general idea of what this is about and indeed it seems neat.
We've talked about more fluid models of citizen science as the holy grail for question driven research, and the lab has a science pipes project that is more conducive to this sort of inquiry. But it is difficult to mesh this model with the long term monitoring research objectives, which must focus on geographic coverage, data 'holes,' and data accuracy. Analysis of such data within the context of important environmental problems, like impacts of land use change and climate change, requires advanced statistics, GIS, and even innovative data mining techniques. Open source research communities already exist around some of these statistical techniques, but the skill level to enter them is quite high.

"I am not really "picturing" Jeanne's project, but I think it could have some nice synergies with our newly funded ISE project, The YardMap Network, which is focused much more specifically on habitat management and carbon neutrality. This project will invite the community to invent new practices and vote on which should become icons to appear on people's maps. "Yards" include everything from tabletop gardens to yards and parks. The project also crowd sources invention, challenging participants to submit to Make Magazine and instructables.com their designs for energy saving, water saving, or other sustainable practices. The idea is to create online community and promote social learning. The audience is very different - instead of targeting kids, we are targeting aging populations who then might involve children and grandchildren (the site should soon reflect this more accurately).

I see the possibility of some synergies here, but also some possible
differences. We centralize the data and adopt an informatics approach to
data storage, preservation, and federation, regarding our data as a public
good for environmental monitoring. Even the polygons from the YardMap will be stored in Oracle spatial and linked to people's bird monitoring activities. The audience consists primarily of hobbyists and altruists, but the habitat focus will draw a broader audience than we have previously tackled. But in contrast with virtual worlds, people have to actually do things out in their yard to display them and the goal is to examine, long-term, the impacts of many small acts and to "fight" the tragedy of the commons. It would be fun to brainstorm and possibly partner on some projects once the applications are built. I will be at the ISE summit - and would be happy to have a skype or phone conversation sooner and to involve the new project leader, Dr. Rhiannon Crain, who starts 6 January.

Here is the link to the blurb on YardMap (co-PI's
are not up there yet, but they include myself (lead - evolution of
cooperation, citizen science), Nancy Wells (environmental psychology -
people outdoors), Marianne Krasny (resilience, community building), Nancy
Trautmann (education), and Connie Yuan (social networking). A postdoc, Heather Triezenberg, will come on in the second year to study the social networking outcomes.

Cheers to all,


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Nov 29, 2009 07:43 am
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The main take-away I am getting from Janis' comments, at least in terms of how to improve the concept, is that the notion of putting citizen science tools directly in the hands of the citizens has been a grail for a while in the citizen science community. This, in turn, suggests that for those of us actively engaged in developing Our-Playground.org, our big challenge, in terms of getting funders and partners, is going to be to show more specifically (and/or with specific examples) how we're going to execute the vision to achieve this grail in ways that others have not.

I think part of the advantage we have is that we're starting with a different agenda than most citizen science programs. Most citizen science is primarily about doing real science, with all the constraints this implies; involving citizens happens to be an ideal means to that end, and as a huge bonus, involves millions of Americans in real scientific research with all the benefits this implies--in short, it's ingeniously win-win.

In the case of Our-Playground.org, the citizens' experience and learning is primary, the production of real, peer-reviewable scientific research is secondary, which potentially opens up avenues to success for us in terms of enabling and gaining participation that may not have been available to other programs.

I'd be very interested to hear what others think about this.

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Dec 01, 2009 09:39 pm
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I think one thing I am struggling with is the name. I really like the playground imagery as part of the interface (I am assuming that's the intention here), but I wonder if the name itself shouldn't convey more of what's actually going to happen on the site. It doesn't sound to me like it's going to be the kind of random, free-form play that happens on a playground--it sounds like it will be a lot more serious or purposeful than that. I agree that you probably don't want to put the word "science" into the name, but maybe a name that's more about inquiry (with a fun spin) would be better.

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Dec 02, 2009 02:45 pm
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--ParkerMi (not verified)

This does sound fascinating and my mind immediately leaps to taking some of the better designed studies, or even intriguing ones that need some tweaking, and turning them into a tween/teen television or web program. The models in the back of my mind are two BBC program.

One, quite old, was called "It'll Never Work," that had features about unusual inventions (old and new, useful and useless), and then invited kids to send in their inventions. The producers would build and test the best of them.

The other, more recent (and still seeking international partners) is "Bamzooki." Using a downloadable tool kit, young people built virtual "Zooks" -- robots (for lack of a better word) that obey the laws of physics. There were online competitions to see who made the fastest, strongest, most agile, best jumping Zooks; the winners online were brought in to BBC to compete their Zooks on a virtual set.

Best of all -- and, I think apropos for Our-Playground (I agree about the name...) -- you could upload someone else's Zook, adapt/improve it, and download it back to the site. The Zook would always show its lineage, so it's collaborative and evolutionary rather than plagiaristic.

So, for Our-Playground, the ability to critique/improve others' methods and measures seems important.

This seems to have enormous science literacy potential -- as people design their own explorations, they should learn to read others' works with more informed and critical eyes, as well.

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Dec 04, 2009 01:23 pm
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Thank you for all of your comments so far! One of the themes in the comments come, I think from the fact that we are trying to balance an interest in science with our desire to reach people who actually aren't all that interested in science or even perceive science as something far removed from them and their interests.

The name can certainly go...but the intention was to find a name that communicated "fun" and "play" rather than science so that our audience wouldn't immediately identify the site with "science." The development of the idea grew from an interest in STEM advocacy among people of all ages as a primary goal, with developing interest in actually being part of science as a secondary goal. Thus, as Tom noted in his comments - the engagement is primary, along with participants' growing understanding that the things they are doing - the processes of collecting, organizing, analyzing, collaboratively working, exploring, etc. - are all part of science - something that perhaps they understood previously to be something far removed from them and their daily lives and interests.

It is a tough balance and in some ways, a tough sell. Supporters of science want to see real science happening - real science projects. But we all know that if we are to move toward the kinds of changes we need in STEM education, we need to develop that advocacy and understanding among all people.

I also see in the comments that we might be trying to facilitate too wide a variety of things in the environment. We would want people to come there and have a chance to just do play with data - images or numbers that have been collected for the tasks. But, we also would want people to come and initiate their own collective investigations on more focused topics. I view it as a place where people can progress....they come to play and then maybe participate in someone else's task and then decide to create their own.

This is a particularly good time to develop this idea, I think, when the messages coming from the federal government are clear about supporting STEM. I'm just wondering if it's hard to find a home for this due to our interest in reaching people to engage in the most basic processes and experiences of science - not in doing more "serious" science?

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Dec 06, 2009 04:59 am
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I think the most important thing to make this concept work is to seed it with *lots* of examples from a lot of different fields before launching (not just the typical one or two items that a lot of people [wrongly] think is all you need to start a community). That's the best way to help other users understand what's expected of them and to inspire them to contribute. I'm wondering if thinking through a lot of examples wouldn't help funders see the light about it, too.

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Dec 09, 2009 08:23 pm
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I am intrigued by this case for many reasons. There is great appeal to the idea of user-developed content, as well as for application of science-based tools to aid in ideal development and testing. I also appreciate the concept of encouraging critical thinking skills even when not specifically applied to science content. Where I have difficulty in seeing the project at work is in its complexity. It is trying to do so many things. I think the design of the site will be the critical element in its success.

Here are some thoughts. Like this site, create a variety of entry points. One could be an "idea incubator" where Ideas are submitted at various points of development and "incubated" through the additions of others. "Find a partner" could be an entry point where one seeks to co-develop an idea with a specific partner or partners, using the site to provide transparency on their thinking and progress. Another entry point could be "compare notes" -- looking for people doing comparable work. There could be a "getting started" entry point with a more guided approach to developing an idea. Another could be a compendium of examples. These are just random ideas, but could provide enough structure to meet the goal of creating a "fun" place that encourages innovative thought.

Play is often the beginning of both serious work and innovative thinking and it sounds as if Jeanne is trying to capture the essence of play as the introduction to science learning.

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Dec 29, 2009 11:47 am
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What I like about this idea is the web 2.0 potential for emergence. It seems as though by not focusing on "big science", but encouraging "play" there are two benefits. The first is that non-scientists are supported in exploring the many uses of data and begin to learn how to use and contribute to collective databases. Over time one might expect this experience to lead to more sophistication in interpreting data than non-scientists might otherwise gain and may provide an on-ramp to interest in STEM. The second is that the very uncontrolled nature of the data that makes it unsuitable for traditional citizen science will also have generative effects. People will put data to unexpected and serendipitous uses, communities may evolve, and some corners of the playground may grow up to be labs in ways that top-down, planned efforts would not have predicted.

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Jan 04, 2010 09:57 am
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Thanks for these terrific and thoughtful comments. I'm noticing some common threads in the comments I've gotten on this idea, not just here but from others as well. Most notably, the comment about trying to do too much in the site or as Beverly said, the complexity of the site. There is no question that providing examples will be helpful - and when launching the site seeding it with existing databases that we may create in the piloting process. When we wrote our proposal to NSF to do an exploratory project, the development of examples was part of what we said we would do to make some of these ideas more concrete.

Beverly's point about different entry points is an interesting one as well. No doubt that the design of this site will be challenging. Several people have commented that by suggesting we wish to appeal to people of all ages, we are being over ambitious. This is welcome feedback, but at the same time, I think with good, thoughtful design, the site can be appealing to people of all ages (at least I'm not yet giving up on this idea) and there are merits to this of course - not the least of which being that adults and kids can work on the site together and both genuinely be engaged (as opposed to the adults coming along for the ride on a child-oriented site). I think about toys that are designed to appeal to people as they say (from 6-106 yrs...there happens to be one on my desk at this moment) and how indeed these toys can appeal to people of all ages. I wonder how we can translate that intrigue and aesthetic to the site. Of course only developing and testing will give the answer to this question, but it seems to me it is still worth exploring.

One way to think about making a site useful for age ranges is to think about the design and data collection being more universal while the analysis tools and analytic questions being organized in more age appropriate levels.

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Jan 09, 2010 08:18 am
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Marie's comment brings up an interesting tension I've run across when sharing this idea with others and that is the relative emphasis on the notion of play (or non-science specific topics and focus) versus particular science projects. This also relates to the over-ambitious or complexity issue raised earlier. I can see the point of those who suggest that they don't see where the science is in some of these ideas but then again, our audience is people (young and old) who don't already consider themselves "science people." If we are able to engage them through avenues that are already of interest to them - that, regardless of what they are will certainly have elements of science embedded in them - we can help them move from people who view science as having nothing to do with them to being people who understand that in fact science is indeed part of their daily lives and interests.

Perhaps the answer comes in part in the comment about examples - and, I think simply developing this idea more richly. As we think more specifically about the examples in a variety of fields we can more specifically target the science content areas and the science process (critical thinking and analytic skills) areas that are present in the different ideas.

Another suggestion has come from someone who suggests helping show where the activities and projects initiated and developed in our-playground tie to particular teaching goals - perhaps as a way to start to build bridges between learning in classroom settings and learning outside of classroom settings.

Please do continue to comment - we are continuing to actively develop this idea and continue to look for thought and active partners!

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Jan 09, 2010 08:28 am
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Count me as one of those who believes you should hold on to your "for all ages" ambition as much as possible. We know from our research that many parents and many kids (even substantial numbers of teens) really want more things online that they (parents and kids) can do together, something very few providers are delivering on, and I'd be willing to bet that the recent economic hard times have only increased this desire, while the proliferation of multi-computer and multi-platform homes this decade has opened things up logistically for family applications as well. Also, science is more universal, more ageless than many other subjects--there isn't as much of a reading level issue, for example.

Where design is concerned, I've always found that kids are a lot more sophisticated in their tastes than is generally recognized (and that they find many of the designs that actively pander to them at the expense of adult appeal to be "babyish"). They do expect a fair amount of color, but that's not usually a problem for adults, provided the colors don't clash. In any case, by providing some elements that anyone can use, and some more advanced elements as well, you'll make the service especially attractive to kid "influencers" (the ones who tell their peers where to go online, who are usually much more sophisticated than other kids and seek out the cutting edge), plus give kids are reason to pull in parents and older siblings for a true family experience.

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Jan 09, 2010 11:02 am
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Hi--I am in the third year of an NSF grant to develop an online learning environment for middle school kids to conduct survey projects on topics of their choice--Kids' Survey Network. Among the many components of KSN is a suite of data collection and analysis tools as well as a scaffolded inquiry process. I am interested in broadening our work into the citizen science arena, albeit more of the type where users decide the research topic. I would love to talk with potential collaborators as well as share our experiences developing tools and games focused on data literacy and inquiry concepts.

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May 17, 2010 07:26 pm
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Hi Elizabeth -

I would love to talk more. We continue to be interested in developing this idea and would welcome you (and others) who wish to collaborate. I looked at the description of your project at the TERC website, but there wasn't much more information. You aren't the only one who has expressed interest in this idea, so perhaps we might be reaching a point where we could/should convene a discussion. Do you know of others interested?

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May 21, 2010 03:12 pm
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