Dino Quest at Discovery Science Center—trusting visitors to learn

The Dino Quest exhibit at Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana is a really amazing experience. Part Disney, part Harry Potter, part Carmen Sandiego, this exhibit does what many educational technology games find hard to accomplish—it successfully integrates learning into the structure of a really fun game. I got an inside view the other day when the main educator who worked on the project gave a group of us a tour of the facility.

This game is really fun! You get a wand with an RFID tag embedded in it, which you use to find and collect specimens on your various missions. All of this takes place outdise, in the museums back courtyard, which has been transformed into an archaeological dig, a field station, and a playground. Missions include identifying anatomical parts of dinosaurs and making analogies to contemporary animals and collecting scientific data about species types. The missions build on one another, teaching you about dinosaurs while modeling how scientists do research.

This is true learning by doing. It’s also a technology game (it’s also got a Web component), that has been taken outside. I walked so much around that area looking for all the clues and specimens that I needed to collect to finish my mission. And they were hard to find! I was heartened that this museum was courageous enough to not worry about the visitors feeling bad about themselves for not finding the clues, and instead made a game that was truly challenging and difficult ensuring that visitors would feel accomplished when they finally achieve their goals. This is a great psychological shift I am seeing that video games are teaching us—don’t make your teaching cater to an imagined visitor who you think will feel bad if they don’t understand you, rather give your visitors the hard stuff and reward them for grasping the richness and complexity of your content. No one wants to feel like they are not trusted to understand.

The DinoQuest project was accomplished with a partnership with the University of California GameLab. The GameLab helped create the game’s structure, working with the DSC’s education team to teach science skills and content about dinosaurs that are connected to the state learning standards. In turn, the DSC hired experts in set design and theme parks (some had worked for Disney and it showed), as well as a commercial company that creates fantasy games in malls using the RFID technology embedded in the wands.

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