Thursday, 22 December 2016

Creating a high-tech Learning Lab in a museum

Students from Newlands Intermediate School creating in Virtual Reality and hosting a live virtual excursion for students at Wooranna Park Primary School in Melbourne, Australia. Image: Matt Richards 2016

Nine months ago I was employed by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongawera to create a Learning Lab. Te Papa wanted to remake its classroom space into an innovative high tech learning environment and provide experiential cross-discipline education programmes for schools and the public. I had experience creating makerspaces and innovative learning spaces previously in schools and companies but this was my first time working for a museum. Hands down, this has been the best job of my life. Te Papa’s awesome staff, innovative vision and mission to “change hearts, mind and lives” make it a unique and inspiring place to work. It’s been an amazing and slightly magical journey creating Hīnātore | Learning Lab. We have just finished construction. Last week we had our first group of learners (beta testers) from Newlands Intermediate School come in for a demo session. Students from Wooranna Park Primary School in Melbourne also beamed in to collaborate via Google Hangout (telepresence). The session was a huge success. Everyone had a blast and it was heartwarming to see the space come alive with excited learners.
Hīnātore | Learning Lab - flexible learning space. Image: Matt Richards 2016

We designed Hīnātore for learners. We wanted to create a learning commons where everyone who enters the space has a sense of ownership and fun. All the furniture and technology is multipurpose and flexible. “Swiss Army” tables swing out from wall units, movable wall panels transform to create media studios and cushioned comfy nooks are built into the cupboards. Everything in Hīnātore is made to be moved and used by its occupants. The space transforms to support the needs of learners. The Swiss Army tables were a hit with the kids in Melbourne. They kept asking Ronelle (Newlands Intermediate student giving them a virtual tour) to demonstrate their functionality.

Student from Newlands Intermediate School giving a Virtual Tour of Te Papa to students at Wooranna Park Primary in Melbourne Australia. Image: Matt Richards 2016

We have developed the first release of learning programmes for 2017. Hīnātore learning sessions are cross-disciplinary, support learners’ development across the 21st Century core competencies (creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking) and deepen engagement with Te Papa’s collections and exhibitions. In our Pacific Explorers programme, learners experience our Tangata o le Moana exhibition, design a Cook Islands-style vaka digitally in 3D and print their personal creations using 3D printers. They learn pacific navigation techniques with star-charts in virtual reality (VR) and create their own inter-island navigational stick charts. We are also running workshops for the general public. After school on Tuesdays, kids can learn to code and develop games at Play Inc. sessions. Families can play and create together in the Build a BugBot session and adults can tap into their creativity in Creative Jam workshops. Public workshops will be available to book January 2017.

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Kids testing their custom made Bug Bots. Photo: Kate Whitley 2016

The Learning Lab is kitted out with some seriously cool technology. We wanted to explore and develop new ways of learning with transformative tech. Hīnātore contains 3D printers, 3D scanners, touch tables, a range of VR systems (including a custom made VR studio) and telepresence systems that enable real-time collaboration with people around the globe. We specifically chose technologies that empower creativity and enable collaborative learning in ways not previously possible. Our learning programmes employ VR applications that enable real-time collaboration between geographically distant participants. In Hyper Room, people can communicate, create and brainstorm in a shared virtual space. Tilt Brush is a VR painting and sculpting application that allows the user to create room size artistic creations. Cardboard camera is a smartphone app that enables easy creation of VR videos which can be viewed in a cardboard VR viewer and shared instantly with friends and networks.

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Newlands Intermediate student creates art in Virtual Reality. Image: Mike O’Neill 2016

Te Papa has amazing objects and taonga in its collections and exhibitions to learn from. At Hīnātore we have a special touchable collection that people can handle. We want to extend and enhance object based learning with digital technologies. Our touch tables can respond to objects placed on them (using fiducial markers) and provide learners with a choice of learning paths linked to the specific objects. Learners can scan collection objects with our 3D scanners and print their own copy, or create their own bespoke 3D designs and print them. We chose technologies for the Learning Lab that encourage making. Kids attending our after-school Play Inc. programme will have the opportunity to create their own digital games using coding and creative electronics.

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Newlands Intermediate students creating games with coding, craft and electronics. Photo: Mike O’Neill 2016.
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Newlands Intermediate students collaboratively exploring geography with touch tables. Image: Mike O’Neill 2016

Part of our mission at Hīnātore is expanding our learning community locally and internationally. We want to support learners collaborating on shared topics and comparing cultural perspectives. The Google Hangout during the demo session with Wooranna Park Primary in Melbourne and Newlands Intermediate in the Learning Lab worked well. After talking as a whole group, Ronelle (Newlands student) took the Melbourne kids on a tour of our exhibitions using a smartphone and gimbal. My favourite part of this virtual tour was seeing the learning happening at both ends of the connection. When the kids in Melbourne asked where the vaka they were viewing was from, Ronelle read the label and relayed the information in her own words. We have also developed Virtual Excursions for schools who can’t make it to Te Papa. Using mobile technologies, our educators give school groups a personalised tour of exhibitions.

Newlands Intermediate student learning about pacific vaka with Melbourne students via Google Hangout. Image: Matt Richards 2016

Students from Newlands Intermediate in New Zealand and Wooranna Park Primary in Australia learning together via Google Hangouts in Hīnātore | Learning Lab. Image: Mike O’Neill 2016

We have developed the learning programmes at Hīnātore to be fun, learner centric and informed by the latest research. We are transforming the old ‘chalk and talk’ way of learning into something shared and co-creative. Building on the concept of Ako, everyone brings knowledge to share and new knowledge can arise from shared experiences. Hīnātore is Māori for phosphorescence or luminescence. It symbolises the shimmering lights of inspiration that mark the beginning of a learning journey.

A huge thanks to my team and everyone who helped make Hīnātore a reality!

Hīnātore | Learning Lab at Te Papa opens in February 2017. I hope you can join us for a learning adventure!

Matt Richards
Senior Advisor Learning Innovation
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongawera

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Learning Games

EduGaming (Educational Gaming) is the process of using games for learning. EduGaming encompasses games made specifically as learning tools and also the appropriation of games for learning objectives. Using games for learning is not a new phenomenon. Popular educational gaming software like Mathletics has been used by schools for years. Recently however, the diversity and effectiveness of games for learning exponentially increased. Schools and students around the world are using games as an innovative approach to learning.

A NYU and CUNY study of the benefits of educational gaming (Plass et al. 2013) found that utilising games for learning boosts motivation and encourages a mastery mindset in students. Plass found support for claims that games can motivate students to learn less popular subjects like mathematics and can encourage a deeper interest in the subject matter. He also found that games can place students in a mindset conducive to learning rather than worrying about “how smart they look”.

Educational games encourage students to acquire knowledge and develop their abilities in achieving goals. Many games provide a non-threatening environment where failure is constructive rather than definitive. In many games, if you don’t succeed in a challenge or activity you can reattempt the level and further develop the needed skills. The learning is self-paced and incentivised. Games-based learning can encourage mastery goal orientation rather than performance goal orientation. Failure is utilised in the learning process and encourages re-engagement with the material. Students self-direct their learning (Plass, et al. 2013).

Minecraft is a good example of a game gathering momentum as a platform for learning. MinecraftEdu is an educational version of the popular game designed for schools. Teachers are using MinecraftEdu to teach traditional subjects and curriculum in a game-based environment. In MinecraftEdu, teachers are usually the central administrators of the learning. Using the standard version of Minecraft however, presents some exciting opportunities and challenges for learners and educators. Microsoft has recently acquired Minecraft and MinecraftEdu and is developing an educational edition for schools.

In 2014, in collaboration with other Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts, I founded, a Minecraft project where students and teachers from around the world could learn together in a collaborative games-based environment. In Mineclass the students taught the teachers how to play Minecraft and the teachers facilitated project-based learning and computational thinking. Learning occurred in the form of challenges that needed to be completed collaboratively. Some of the challenges in Mineclass included building working machines (calculators and computers) and designing structures (lighthouse and airport). To create working machines in Minecraft students needed to employ redstone and command blocks. Computational thinking and coding became part of the creation process.

A common challenge for teachers using games for learning is that (currently) most teachers are not gamers. The traditional teaching model of educator as expert can be challenged in games-based learning. Using a reciprocal learning relationship is beneficial in exploring this challenge. The concept of ako aptly describes this learning relationship. Teachers are not expected to know everything. In particular, ako suggests that each member of the classroom or learning setting brings knowledge with them from which all are able to learn (Keown, Parker, and Tiakiwai, 2005). If teachers are willing to learn from their students and learn together in games, then new knowledge and understandings can grow out of the shared learning experience.

Games creation and development is also gaining traction in schools and educational organisations. Games development draws on numerous key learning areas. Students can develop skills and understandings in coding, literacy, design and computer science while developing a game. During Matariki last year, school groups and teachers visited us at The Mind Lab to specifically explore STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). In one of the learning activities, students created their own interactive waka (canoe) rowing game using Scratch (programming interface), Makey Makey (electronic invention kit), tinfoil and cardboard. Effectively, they coded a game where their digital waka moved forward in response to physical rowing movements (with a cardboard and tinfoil paddle). The development process was challenging, creative and fun. Students and teachers worked collaboratively to create their games and learn together.

Contemporary research in EduGaming indicates that games should be explored by educators as a method of motivating students and developing a mastery mindset in learners. Even if you are not a gamer, if you are open to learning with your students you will be modelling a lifelong learner mindset and you may just have some fun as well!


AB, M. (2015). Minecraft. Retrieved 12 August 2015, from

Keown, P., Parker, L., & Tiakiwai, S. (2005). Values in the New Zealand curriculum: A literature review on values in the curriculum. Report for the Ministry of Education, New Zealand by the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research, School of Education, The University of Waikato.,. (2015). Makey Makey | Buy Direct (Official Site). Retrieved 12 August 2015, from,. (2015). - Love Learning - USA's Number 1 Math Website. Retrieved 12 August 2015, from,. (2015). Mineclass | Retrieved 12 August 2015, from,. (2015). MinecraftEdu. Retrieved 12 August 2015, from

Minecraft Education Edition,. (2016). Minecraft: Education Edition - Home. Retrieved 10 February 2016, from

Plass, J. L., O'Keefe, P. A., Homer, B. D., Case, J., Hayward, E. O., Stein, M., & Perlin, K. (2013, September 9). The Impact of Individual, Competitive, and Collaborative Mathematics Game Play on Learning, Performance, and Motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0032688,. (2015). Scratch - Imagine, Program, Share. Retrieved 12 August 2015, from,. (2016). Matariki – Māori New Year – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 10 February 2016, from,. (2015). The concept of ako / Aspects of planning / Teaching and learning te reo Māori / Curriculum guidelines / Home - Te reo Māori. Retrieved 12 August 2015, from

Friday, 11 December 2015

Teaching kids to design, make and program robots

At The Mind Lab by Unitec, in Wellington New Zealand, we recently ran an after school robotics programme for 6 weeks. During the programme, students learnt how to build and program robots using Arduino microcontrollers, 3D printers and various electronic and mechanical components.
There were 8 students in the group aged between 7 & 9 yrs. For 1.5 hours a week, the students attended the lab and by the end of the programme they had successfully designed, created and coded their own custom robots. They are controlled via an infrared remote and have ultrasonic sensors (eyes) for autopilot mode. With this robotics programme, we wanted to take learning with robotics to the next level and teach kids how to actually make their own programmable robots from scratch. We wanted the students to learn design and computational thinking skills in a fun, creative and personalised project.

Great learning sessions can come from assembling and coding modular premade robotic kits like Makeblock or MRT. But with this 6-week programme, we wanted the students to design, customise and 3D print their own robot chassis. We wanted them to assemble the components themselves, program them and gain a deeper understanding of how microcontrollers, sensors and mechanical/electrical components work. The students designed and modified their robot chassis in tinkercad.

To program the robots, the students learnt how to code. They learnt how Arduinos work and used blocklyduino for the programming. They programmed their robots to move, flash, make sounds, respond to the I.R. controller and autopilot using ultrasonic navigation. They all completed their robots and had a lot of fun in the process. Kudos to our amazing team of ed tech educators, particularly Zoilo Abad, for leading this exciting programme. We look forward to running the robotics programme in 2016 and seeing what the kids create. Mini quadcopter drones perhaps? :)