A skateboard ride to STEM learning

A unique research partnership offers children’s museums a roadmap for exhibit design that puts learning on the fast track.


Several years ago when UW College of Education Associate Professor Kristen Missall was on faculty at the University of Iowa, she and her three kids enjoyed many fun outings to the Iowa Children’s Museum — a bustling destination inside Coralville’s Coral Ridge Mall that hosts about 200,000 visitors a year.

Missall was friendly with Deb Dunkhase, then the museum’s executive director. One day, the two struck up a chat about how one of the physics-oriented exhibits, called the “Notion of Motion,” was in need of a renovation.

That initial conversation lit a spark that led to Missall, Dunkhase and University of Iowa professor Benjamin DeVane winning a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Three years later, and “Notion of Motion” has become the dynamic “Science of Skateboarding” — a stunning transformation into one of the most engaging, educational and popular exhibits at the museum — while spawning three lines of research with long-term implications for the way children’s museum exhibits are designed.

Video spotlight

Explore the “Notion of Motion” exhibit at Iowa Children’s Museum in a virtual reality video narrated by Professor Kristen Missall. 


Going into the project, Dunkhase, Missall and DeVane had distinct and complementary research goals. 

Missall, who specializes in child development, wanted to study the ways adults interact with children in informal learning environments and how those playful interactions impact what kids learn.

DeVane, an expert in digital learning, wanted to design a collaborative digital experience for families that could support and enhance real-world play.

Dunkhase wanted to test a framework to plan and assess STEM learning programs. She wondered if the tool, called Dimensions of Success (DoS), might be applied to exhibit design in children’s museums.

All three researchers shared a common goal: they wanted to build their exhibit from the ground up, using local artisans to create each element, with learning goals driving the entire process. 

“Oftentimes in the children’s museum world, people design exhibits based on their personal interests,” Dunkhase said. “The learning goals, the educational goals aren’t well established and clear. It’s just ‘Oh, kids would have fun discovering … whatever.’”

Bringing it all together

From the outset, it was understood that the broad goal of the exhibit — teaching kids physics concepts — would remain the same as the previous “Notion of Motion” exhibit. 

After looking at concepts they wanted to get across — basics like momentum, mass and acceleration — the researchers decided on skateboarding as a topic that kids could relate to and have fun with.

Using the DoS framework as a general guide, “We specifically built the exhibit so kids would move through about 10 distinct interactive experiences” that each support specific learning goals, Missall said. 

“Kids learn in isolated ways about friction, momentum, mass and balance. They slide down friction hills, they try narrow and wide skateboards and balance themselves, they create wood-block skateparks out of modular pieces — then they come to interactive digital multi-user tabletops where they can build virtual skateparks.”

Missall said those 4-foot square touch-sensitive interactive tabletops are a unique feature of the exhibit. They were designed by DeVane and his team so multiple players can use them at the same time, with ergonomic features that help small children and adults play together. These features help avoid the isolation that is a common critique of digital play as a learning tool, Missall said. 

The virtual play was also carefully designed — through a process of 11 family-tested iterations — to mimic and complement the learning promoted by the real-world activities.

“They select ramps and hills, halfpipes and rails, and select an avatar. It gives kids a chance to apply a lot of the concepts they’ve learned in physical play to digital play. That’s a very novel element,” Missall said.

Linking informal and formal learning

Missall said that all three researchers found important answers to their questions. Her primary research noted consistent patterns in the ways adults and children interacted — with parents often offering more help than the researchers intended. Those observations led to design changes to help kids take the lead in their own play and learning. 

Missall and the research team also made important observations that helped make the exhibit’s technological pieces more collaborative and supportive of real-world play and learning. 

Another major finding of the researchers was that their modification of the DoS framework was perfectly suited to designing and assessing a children’s museum exhibit — an important contribution to the children’s museum literature the researchers hope will inform future exhibit design.

Missall said that prior to this project, her focus had always been on formal learning environments. But working on the exhibit helped her deepen her appreciation of the value of informal learning, especially for children ages 5 to 8, the specific target group for the NSF grant.

“In a lot of areas of learning — especially STEM — children acquire and practice skills in informal learning settings that help them in formal learning environments later on,” Missall said. “They develop inquiry, motivation and perseverance. The research is compelling. It suggests that kids who experience play-based learning are likely to engage more fully when they’re presented with similar concepts in formal learning environments in elementary school.”

A new model for exhibit design

As Iowa Children’s Museum executive director for nearly two decades, Dunkhase said working with Missall and DeVane represented an entirely new way of approaching exhibit design — an approach she hopes will be adopted by other children’s museums.

“When we started this project, we’d never been involved in a rigorous research project before,” Dunkhase said. “We’d always done our own observational and anecdotal research about the exhibits and programs, but we had never been in a collaborative project with a university team. We were able to align all of our research interests so well that the results became more powerful.”

According to Jeff Capps, the current director of Iowa Children’s Museum, the impact of the team’s work is clear.

“What I’m seeing in terms of how people are using that space now versus how it used to be is night and day,” Capps said. 

“There’s real excitement when kids and families walk in. Kids may not always be conscious of the learning — but it’s absolutely happening. There’s something for every age, and they’re all enjoying it in different ways. There’s a lot of good learning going on there — and obviously a lot of fun.”

EduTalk: Playing is Learning

Professor Kristen Missall describes how informal learning opportunities in children’s early years play a crucial role in setting the stage for positive learning experiences in school.

Imagine that

A new partnership with Imagine Children’s Museum in Everett holds promise for UW student engagement

Even though UW professor Kristen Missall and Imagine Children’s Museum director Nancy Johnson work only 30 miles apart, it took a children’s conference in North Carolina to bring the two together. After Missall presented findings from her Iowa Children’s Museum work, Johnson was intrigued enough to introduce herself and start a conversation.

Today, that chance meeting is bearing fruit for the Everett-based museum and UW College of Education students. 

Missall has taken a position on the museum’s board of directors and a group of her graduate students is producing a popular blog called "Playing is Learning" for the museum. Missall and Johnson are also in discussions about helping the museum with summer learning programs for underserved youth, as well as engaging UW students in ongoing research at the rapidly growing museum — starting with a study on physical and digital board game play.

“Kristen and her students are such a great resource to us and to our families,” Johnson said. “We’re really grateful for the opportunity to work with them and excited to see what’s next. We feel this could be a long and mutually beneficial partnership.”

"Really, what we do in the College of Education is focused on learning in schools through curriculum and instruction," Missall said. “By and large our function is to teach our graduates about formal learning. This is a great opportunity to give our students important experience in informal learning — interacting with kids and families outside of school settings. I think that’s a big benefit.”

Subscribe to the “Playing is Learning” blog for updates