Using digital storytelling to grapple with scientific progress

Three icons: one representing a museum building displayed on a laptop screen; one displaying a number of people holding maker and DIY tools; and one representing a toolbox with a variety of science-themed objects inside. Dotted arrow lines connect the three images to one another.

This story was originally published at ASU News.

How can we come to terms with the complex social impact of new research in cutting-edge fields like synthetic biology, tissue engineering, robotics, and artificial intelligence?

To manage the transformations driven by these innovations, people must understand science, technology, and their social consequences while also mastering a new set of digital skills that enable them to share their ideas and shape our collective understanding of science and society.

Researchers at Arizona State University have received a four-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to use the interactive, engaging nature of digital narratives to invite deeper conversations about questions of scientific creativity and responsibility. The project, “Increasing Learning and Efficacy about Emerging Technologies through Transmedia Engagement by the Public in Science-in-Society Activities,” unites the Center for Science and the Imagination, the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering in creating a set of integrated activities to help people explore the effects of scientific and technological change on societies and cultures in new hands-on, interactive ways.

“From Star Trek to the ever-expanding Lego universe, we’ve come to expect our most exciting stories to unfold across novels, video games, the silver screen and a host of other media. This project asks if we can use that phenomenon — which we call ‘transmedia storytelling’ — to deepen public engagement on crucial questions at the intersection of science and society,” says Ed Finn, director of the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) and the lead investigator on the project.

The project, is funded through NSF’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program. It will build on themes of human creativity, societal responsibility and scientific ethics as first presented in Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of its publication in 2018.

This project will be a major component of ASU’s Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, which encompasses a diverse array of public events, research projects, scientific demonstrations, competitions, festivals, physical and digital exhibits, and publications exploring Frankenstein’s colossal scientific, technological, artistic, and cultural impacts. The bicentennial celebration will last from 2016—the 200th anniversary of the “dare” on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland that gave rise to the story—to 2018, the anniversary of the novel’s publication. ASU will act as a network hub for the global celebration of the bicentennial, encouraging and coordinating collaboration across institutions and among diverse groups worldwide.

“No work of literature has done more to shape the way people imagine science and its moral and social consequences than Frankenstein,” says Dave Guston, director of ASU’s new School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS) and a co-investigator on the project. “The novel, along with its many adaptations in film, theatre, and art, continues to influence the way we confront new technologies, imagine the motivations and ethical struggles of scientists, and weigh the benefits of innovation with its unforeseen pitfalls.”

Plans for the grant-funded project include:

  • A digital museum that will feature collections from a broad range of museums and science centers about Frankenstein and science-in-society topics, which will enable members of the public to create and share their own virtual exhibits.
  • “Frankenstein’s Footlocker,” a tabletop kit that will be distributed to museums and science centers that will contain experiments, crafting, problem-solving and storytelling activities that explore “Frankensteinian” emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, robotics, and bioengineering and connect them to social and ethical issues.
  • “Frankenstein’s Workbench,” a set of hands-on maker challenges and competitions that encourage members of the public to build their own monsters with tools ranging from cutting-edge 3-D printers to traditional methods like sculpting, woodworking, drawing, and painting.

The grant, part of NSF’s Advancing STEM Learning program, seeks to advance new approaches to the design and development of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning in informal environments outside of traditional classrooms like museums, libraries, community centers, indoor and outdoor public spaces, and digital spaces.

ASU’s research team, led by Finn, includes Ruth Wylie, assistant director of CSI and assistant research professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College; Rae Ostman, associate research professor at SFIS; Steve Gano, adjunct at SFIS and principal at Object Cult; Micah Lande, assistant professor in the Polytechnic School of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering; and Guston as co-investigators. Other senior personnel include Darlene Cavalier, professor of practice at SFIS; Michael Simeone, director of ASU’s Nexus Lab; and Mark Tebeau, associate professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

Current collaborators in the study include The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia and The Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, along with the Museum of Science, Boston. The project will ultimately engage over 50 institutional partners, ranging from museums and science centers to libraries and archives. A diverse board of advisors includes representatives of top science and learning institutions such as the New York Public Library, the J. Craig Venter Institute, the Arizona Science Center, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and Princeton University.

In contributing to the digital museum, The Bakken Museum “will create an online space for citizen-curators to interact and build exhibits offering many different views on Frankenstein — from the literary to the scientific to the artistic — wherever imagination takes them,” says Juliet Burba, chief curator. “We are very excited to partner with ASU in the study because of our rich Mary Shelley and Frankenstein-related collections. We are equally excited that the public will be able to contribute to the project by offering their own unique perspectives on human creativity, societal responsibility, and the challenges that come with scientific advancements and technological change.”

In parallel, The Bakken is developing a physical exhibition titled Mary and Her Monster: Mary Shelley and the World that Created Frankenstein, which will open in fall 2016 and is funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Visitors to the exhibition will explore Mary Shelley’s life and the many personal, literary, and scientific influences she drew on when she wrote Frankenstein.

The Rosenbach is also developing programs and an exhibition under the title Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Monster Within, funded separately by Philadelphia’s Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. With ASU’s collaboration, content from this exhibition will be digitized and contributed to the digital museum the project is creating.

“The Rosenbach will also host the ‘Frankenstein’s Footlocker’ and ‘Frankenstein’s Workbench’ as hands-on activities for our audiences in conjunction with our exhibition,” says Judy Guston, curator and director of collections. “As a literary museum, we plan to present a mix of objects familiar to our audiences, plus participatory activities and technologies, and ask related science-in-society questions that connect the past to our lives in the present. We hope that this combination will engage our audiences, creating a more informed discussion of the scientific issues that were raised when Frankenstein and Dracula were written in the 19th century, and those issues that continue to challenge us today.”