Media Design at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Media and the Message

Designing for nature

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Finding connections between nature and technology is not always obvious, but at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland, a group of teens were asked to use smartphones and other digital media tools to explore its vast campus and the environmental research that goes on there.  Their exploration sparked a range of experiences, from tying a small camera to a balloon to observe variations in a forest canopy to canoeing to a fishing weir and documenting the species found in the creek with their smartphone cameras. Instead of being distractions, the mobile devices became extensions of learning for the teens and sparked innovative new ideas for media projects.

The SERC Media Design Workshop took place over four days near Annapolis, MD. Participants in the workshop came from nearby Anna Arundel County high schools as part of a STEM Summer Bridge program. Spanning 1,650 acres near the Chesapeake Bay and supporting over 180 researchers, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) was an ideal location for hosting a workshop that challenged participants to design media projects combining scientific exploration and mobile technology.

The goals of the workshop were to expose the teen participants to the diverse scientific research that happens at SERC and then to help them design a media project for a teen audience that would share what they had learned. While SERC has a lot to offer visitors, many people who live in the local area don't know it exists or what goes on there. Mark Haddon, Director of Education at SERC, describes how this workshop was an opportunity to gain a teen’s perspective on some of the long-term research conducted on site: “We know that scientists are doing interesting field research in marshes, forests, and rivers, and we know what messages we want to communicate to young audiences, but this workshop helped us to learn how 10th and 11th grade students would use mobile technologies and media to communicate those messages to their peers.”


In the first half of the workshop, the teens experienced first-hand the research that scientists do at SERC including: assisting with data collection in a marsh to learn about how rising sea levels and greenhouse gases are affecting plant growth; canoeing to a fish weir to learn about the biodiversity of species in the water; and measuring tree carbon allocation in a nearby forest.

At the same time, participants practiced using digital media tools that they could use for their final project for the workshop. Jim Mathews from University of Wisconsin, Madison, ran sessions on using ARIS, a digital platform that can create location-based games and tours.  Toby McElheny, a videographer from the Science Media Group at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, worked with participants on photography in the field and video interviewing techniques. While encouraged to use these tools, the participants were not limited to them. For their final projects, they were asked to explore a medium and a topic that they were interested in learning more about and sharing what they found with other teens.


After the teens had learned more about what research happens at SERC, it was time to brainstorm ideas for projects. They quickly filled a board with topic ideas. The most popular ideas included finding out more about the career paths of the SERC scientists, sharing the research that took place in areas of SERC that were not open to the public, and documenting the workshop experience to share with other teens interested in SERC.

Collaboration was key throughout the design process. When it came time to decide on final projects the teens self-organized into groups based on their interests and expertise. Some participants wanted to work as photographers, while others were more interested in programming using ARIS, mobile app development tools, and website design. Each team formed a group with interests and expertise that complimented each other. This resulted in four final project ideas: 

  • An ARIS tour of SERC that highlighted research going on in areas that were not open to the public
  • A proposal for a network of webcams in various research areas that included prototypes of a web app and a website
  • An ARIS game about invasive and native species on the Java Trail at SERC
  • A short documentary of what happened during the workshop


The groups worked on their media projects for a day and a half and then had the opportunity to showcase their work for SERC staff and scientists. The participants led the showcase themselves, explaining why they were at SERC, what they had been working on all week, and how their projects could help share the work SERC researchers do with the general public. As the researchers and staff walked around and talked with the participants about their projects, they were excited by the possibilities that mobile media could offer SERC researchers and visitors.

Mark Haddon reflected on the innovation the students demonstrated through their designs: “It was interesting to see how they broke down the ‘message’ into smaller, simpler sections. They presented good examples of how to convey facts and information in short intervals rather than the lengthier formats we sometimes use.”

This workshop was designed to be both open-ended and interest-driven. The combination of exploration of SERC and experimentation with various media tools led to four creative and thoughtful final projects. Each team member was able to contribute their own expertise and follow their own interests to create a collaborative project. Each group finished with a prototype of their initial ideas, and several of the participants expressed that they would be interested in continuing the design process to accomplish the full vision of their projects. In the end the success of this workshop was two-fold: The teens leveraged their interests and expertise to complete innovation design projects and SERC staff experienced new ways to engage teens that combine digital media with scientific research at SERC.