The 21-Tech initiative has allowed me as a Discovery Guide to push myself further on how much information I can process and share with each visitor I encounter.- Odis Garrett, Children’s Museum of Houston Discovery Guide
21-Tech is a bridge between our museum guides and the visitors in that it creates connections between educational concepts and the real world.- Shawn Waxali, Children’s Museum of Houston Discovery Guide
21-Tech has helped Discovery Guides engage visitors by extending their experience through the apps and applying it to the exhibits.- Ian Tibby, Children's Museum of Houston Discovery Guide
21-Tech is a way of ‘hiding the vegetables in the fruit’ where the kids do not realize they are learning, but instead having fun and being fed knowledge that intrigues their minds.- Lauren Bell, Children's Museum of Houston Discovery Guide
21-Tech provides a new outlet for our Discovery Guides to interact with the visitors in a way that further enhances their experience and makes the visit overall extra enjoyable.- Sylvia Garcia, Children's Museum of Houston Discovery Guide

Who is this app for?

As we’ve continued to refine and add content to our prototype app, we’ve been thinking a lot about who’s going to be using the app.

We tend to think of our core audience in the Curiosity Corner exhibition as our members and we designed the content to extend the interaction and learning happening at those exhibit components between children and their caregivers. In our early evaluations, we heard from some members that while the tips and resources are helpful, they already feel like they know this exhibit really well and they’d rather have an app for areas of the museum that they know less well.

Who are these apps most useful to at your institutions?

Why are we going digital?

Lately, there has been a lot of research and popular press about the benefits of limiting screen time for children (and ourselves). A few examples:

So, how do we reconcile our choice of media–mobile technologies–with this digital conundrum? Well, the short answer is we’re not sure, yet. Parents and caregivers, especially of very young children, are concerned about using digital media in front of their kids. They are concerned with the device distracting them from meaningful time interacting together. This question has come up a number of times during our evaluation, and we’re still trying to figure out how to make this a useful tool rather than a digital distraction.

Our content categories for Sciencenter’s Explore More prototype app focus on things adults can do to encourage their children to play with an exhibit component (Try This); a short description and explanation behind the early childhood research that supports that action or the content at the exhibit (What the Research Says); and additional links to online resources so that visitors can learn more on their own time (More Resources). Our hope is that the short suggestions in the Try This section will be helpful prompts on the floor of the museum, and that the other content might be more useful as contextual information for caregivers to use and consume either in preparation of the visit or once home.

How are other project partners or museums dealing with this issue? Do you get pushback from visitors about promoting digital content and screen time?

Choosing the Curiosity Corner

At the Sciencenter, we are excited about the idea of using a mobile platform (the XCL app) to deliver content to adults in our Curiosity Corner–our early childhood area of the museum specifically designed for visitors ages 0-4 (and their parents or caregivers). This area of the museum is relatively empty of text and signage. And this is by design. We don’t want to clutter the space with words and written language given that our primary audience is comprised of non-readers.

But we have something to say to those adult caregivers!  We want to give them specific tips to encourage learning and interaction with their children. We want to share the early childhood research and theory behind including exhibits in this space, and point them to online resources so they can learn more. We want to tell them about the exciting research that’s being conducted by early childhood specialists from Cornell University on the floor of the museum, and show them ways they can replicate those research studies with their own groups and families.


curiosity corner

Color Uncovered

App Description: Color Uncovered is an elegantly designed ebook about all things color from the Exploratorium. The app is super easy to navigate and makes for an excellent reference tool. There are all kinds of cool exercises and optical illusions that explore the spectrum of colors, along with great explanations to understand what is going on.  Color Uncovered includes articles and videos to supplement the activities and complete the app.

How We Use It: At the Sciencenter, our facilitators use this app as a hook to invite visitors to further explore color with us at the Colored Shadows exhibit. One page of the book directly connects to the content at the exhibit, Colors Add Up, and facilitators have found that it works well to come to that activity (watch out, you’ll need a clear plastic CD case to make it work!) and then lead naturally into the hands-on exhibit.

Our facilitators also use this app in our Discovery Space. The Sciencenter Discovery Space is a library of self guided “exhibits-in-a-box” that can be checked out by visitor groups. This is just one of many apps that help to facilitate different boxes. While the science isn’t too advanced for most audiences, some of the activities are more appropriate for slightly older kids. We’ve found that this is a nice way to keep older siblings engaged. Also, some very young children may not be able to see or “get” the optical illusions.

Museum RecommendingSciencenter
Platform Used: Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 4.3 or later.
Cost: FREE
Link: Color Uncovered

Apple TV

We’ve been using Apple TV as a way to share iPad content and facilitator activity with larger groups of visitors. The iPad usability and interface allows volunteers and visitors to access additional information, videos, images, and apps, and having the larger screen makes that content available to groups of people (such as school groups at our salt water touch tank). The larger screen acts as a nice attraction, too. We’re currently looking to expand this concept in other galleries, too!

Is anyone else using additional hardware with their PMTs? How does it work?

Apple TV


One of the most popular exhibits at the Sciencenter is our Honey Bee colony. As any museum with a hive knows, visitors love to check in on these busy little insects hard at work. For the 21-Tech project, we’ve harnessed our guest’s natural inclination to observe these animals by providing some extra prompts. A few found images from the internet make for an easy way to help answer visitor questions and show them some special behaviors. In the bee folder (under photos) on every iPad, we have pictures of swarms, full pollen baskets, queens, eggs, royal jelly, larvae, native plants, and more. We also use video to show-off unusual or special “bee-havior”, like slow-motion shots of bees collecting pollen, bee dances, and worker bees keeping the hive warm.


App Description: The free Antenna Farmer interactive magazine provides a few fun pages about feeding behavior, anatomy, flight, and beekeeping.

How We Use It: We use the pages in this app to encourage visitors to take a closer look at our bees and to help answer visitor questions. The photographs are high quality, and beautiful and the interactive features, though simple, are intuitive. We’ve even made a matching game out of the highlight-able guide to anatomy!

Museum RecommendingSciencenter
Platform Used: iPad iOS 5.0 or later
Cost: Free
LinkAntenna Farmer 

Dig into Nano


App Description: Dig into Nano introduces users to a variety of nano related content, games, and media. The app was developed by Science Alberta, and is hosted on their Wonderville interactive website.

How We Use It: We use this app in the Nano mini-exhibition, developed by the NISE Network, both as an extension to the physical interactive elements and as background material for our floor volunteers.

 Museum RecommendingSciencenter
Platform Used: iPad2 (iOS)
Cost: free
Link:  Dig into Nano 

Here, and there.

At the Sciencenter, we sometimes like to do things the old fashioned way… We love our lo-tech, hands-on interactive exhibits, and we’re all about our visitors learning together in ways that differ from how they learn at home.

That said, our staff and volunteers are fully embracing the new skills we’re building as part of the 21-Tech collaborative, and getting our new tech out onto the floor in different and exciting ways. Not only are the iPads, and associated apps and content, being used by 21-Tech education interns at traditional exhibits, but we’re also incorporating these resources into other programs and activities.

Our Discovery Space is a “hot spot” for the iPads. Many of the discovery boxes include activities, like Origami or Making Paper Airplanes, that directly benefit from an existing instructional app. Volunteers work with visitors to use the apps and expand on the activities in the boxes. As one volunteer puts it, “It’s so much better to let the kids explore different designs on the iPad, a picture [or in this case, a video or animation] is worth a thousand words!”

Our education and exhibits staff are also working together to provide a better experience for our visitors at the “Touch Tank.”  Hooked up to a large monitor via Apple TV, touch tank volunteers and staff can now use the iPads to demo videos, slide shows, and images of all the different animals. It’s a great way to show visitors specific animal behavior, like a Sea Star eating and digesting.

Overall, the mobile technologies utilized by the 21-Tech project have been a great, and relatively easy, way for us to experiment with having more tech on our exhibit floor. So far, we’re quite pleased!

App: Bobo Explores Light

App Description: Bobo Explores Light is a charming, kid-friendly app that teaches kids of all ages about light and color. The app, created by Game Collage, is essentially an interactive kid-friendly factbook about the science of light. Bobo Explores Light presents a series of nested mini-chapters covering everything from the basics of color and photosynthesis to the history of the light bulb. Text blocks are snappy and succinct, with plenty of toylike interactions embedded in them to keep restless little minds engaged.

How We Use It: We use the Color chapter in Bobo Explores Light at our Colored Shadows exhibit. The interactive nature of the app helps floor facilitators explain the science behind color mixing. Visitors are able to control the colored lights on the screen and make new colors. We’ve observed seamless transition between content in the app and interaction visitors have with their shadows on the wall. We’ve found that the use of this app extends the interaction between staff and visitors, and provides a satisfying experience.

 Museum RecommendingSciencenter
Platform Used: iPad2 (iOS)
Cost: $6.99
Link:  Bobo Explores Light  


How do your staff engage visitors?

Check out a Sciencenter volunteer Blue Coat as she explains her method for engaging visitors:

21-Tech Five-Step Process

One model for a successful staff/visitor interaction follows a basic five-step process:

  1. Observe/invite: “Come see what I have going on over here…”
  2. Ask probes/questions: “Tell me about (the exhibit)”,“What do you think is going on?” Ask questions to create an interaction and let visitors talk.
  3. Connect: Connect what’s going on or what they see going on in the physical exhibit to content and apps on iPad.
  4. Explain/play: Play with iPad or original exhibit, and explain the main message of the exhibit and how the content on the iPad relates.
  5. Make it real: Help visitors apply what they’re learning to more general information or life context.

Project Brief

21-Tech partners study and share the effective use of Personal Mobile Technologies (PMTs) by gallery facilitators in their work with visitors. The initial three years (2011-2013) of 21-Tech are funded in large part by a 21st Century Museum Professionals award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The project is led by the Children’s Museum of Houston in partnership with Lawrence Hall of Science, New York Hall of Science, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and Sciencenter. For more information, please visit the About page.

Major funding provided by:

Additional support provided by: