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


  1. Looking forward to you joining us in Jan Ewan!

  2. This is both awesome and magical. Well done Matt.

  3. This is awesome Matt, so glad to see your hard work pay off!

    1. Thanks mate! Let me know if you come over and I'll give the kids a tour and demo :)

  4. Lets make it a 24/7 Hangout! :)

  5. BRILLIANT congratulations - Love the space and all the amazing activities happening here - well done - have an awesome holiday too

  6. Thanks Tony! I look forward to learning with you and and your students in 2017!