Museum of Natural History exhibits soar with LSA TS Support

Skeleton of a T-Rex that includes the head up to the rib cage. There is a black background.

From viruses and ecology to soil and the planet, LSA Technology Services has helped the U-M Museum of Natural History create exhibits that connect with visitors and empower community science.

Since its grand opening in 2019, the U-M Museum of Natural History has increasingly worked with LSA Technology Services to deliver exhibits and programming that connect with the local community. Three engaging projects stand out amongst the museum’s work that has been developed with LSA Technology Services’ partnership.  

The first is the Community Science Hub. It is a web-based exhibit created to engage visitors in community science outside of the museum space. The hub addresses the question of how visitors can access lab equipment and talk to scientists outside of the museum the same way as they can inside it.

There are five sections to the Community Science Hub, and each one has an introductory video on different topics with different projects. The long-term goal of this project is to provide supplies to assist in completing community science projects, such as soil testing kits.

Everything on the site is advertised by a QR code in the museum so they can be accessed by cell phone for mobile use. In addition, the museum’s webpage will host another website to support people doing community science projects from home.

Chris Stein, desktop support specialist, spearheaded different divisions of this project and the museum at large. One division of the project was to identify what a kiosk mode looks like for the museum, including what settings would be needed. Another was the set up of infrastructure, and another the development of a screen-saver mode.

When the exhibit is inactive it scrolls through images and instructions to engage visitors and teach them how to use the display. Sam Jackson, Public Lab Program manager, highlighted the contributions of Chris Stein in this endeavor and said he “worked tirelessly on this long project,” which she says “was very helpful for us.” LSA Technology Services also helped set up and identify what U-M IP address should be used (e.g., routable vs. non-routable). She also highlighted the help Jessica Wolking, web developer, provided for this project, saying she helped on the website side of the hub and helped answer complicated questions on how to best navigate its development.

Another project Technology Services team collaborated with the museum on is the Research Highlights. They are small exhibits in the museum’s Investigate Labs, which are hybrid learning spaces for school groups or regular visitors. It is made of three components: A graphic component, an exhibit case, and an iPad component with research and quizzes on them.

There are tables in the museum that have activities laid out on them. General visitors are given the option to complete the activities alone, or with a docent’s assistance. Student groups visiting the museum are guided to complete the activities with museum staff. There are two Investigate Labs: Microworld, which is focused on microscopes, and the Nature Lab, which focuses on animals, plants, and ecology. The Nature Lab is part of the Community Science Hub that Sam Jackson worked on with an outside vendor and Jessica Wolking. It is now a kiosk with one version on the website and another in-person version using a WordPress structure.

When iPad content was created for the Research Highlights, the museum asked to work with Jessica again. Previously, the museum used only external contractors for new projects, but external contractors both cost more and don’t provide continuing support for the app.

When the U-M Museum of Natural History was still located in the Ruthven Building, there was not as much media used and so there was not as strong of a relationship with LSA Technology Services and other IT departments on campus. A request for proposal (RFP) was made for the new museum when it opened in 2019 and used an external contractor to create media, but the contract didn’t include ongoing support. Melissa Westlake, Assistant Director of Exhibits, says she created a network that was “an integrated working partnership” with LSA Technology Services, including Jessica Wolking and the regional desktop support  team at the Biological Sciences Building.

Working with the regional BSB team (especially Chris Stein) has also been important to support the iPads in the mode, including the development of kiosk mode. “He’s really been amazing. The rest of the team has been great too.” Different kiosk modes had to be created for the research highlights and community science hub. Now, videos of faculty members and principal investigators (PIs) talking about their research projects are uploaded in the Research Highlights. They include a small quiz to see if the information was understood by visitors. One of the topics covered is psychology research regarding viruses. It checks misconceptions that visitors have about viruses before participating in the lab, and the knowledge gained after. “I think at this point it’s really coming together,” Westlake added.

One last project that showcases the work the Technology Services team has done with the museum is the UN/EARTH exhibit. ArcGIS was used to create a story map with videos and photos, and Chris Stein created a structure to lock it down on the PC and touchscreen. He additionally troubleshooted the storymap thoroughly to ensure it worked. Peter Knoop, research consultant, created the touch screen component in collaboration with the U-M Museum of Natural History. This included turning off all of the updates to prevent it from allowing a visitor to exit the program. All the edge swipes had to be disabled because, according to Melissa Westlake, the visitors are very inquisitive and have found myriad ways to leave the program. This does not daunt her; on the contrary, she says the visitors’ curiosity “is what we love about them!” 

These are just some of the projects that the Technology Services team worked on in partnership with the museum in addition to the multiple projects worked on by the Desktop, Instructional Computing, and the AV Engineering teams.

The U-M Museum of Natural History anticipates continuing this strong relationship with LSA Technology Services in the future. As Sam Jackson, program manager for the museum says, “I always felt your team has been willing to help even when our needs aren’t clearly defined.”

This article originally ran in the LSA Technology Services Innovate newsletter.