The USS Constitution Museum Team took an existing craft program, designing a model ship out of aluminum foil, popsicle sticks, and masking tape, and transformed it into an intergenerational program that results in fun, active collaboration among family members.
USS Constitution was built in the 1790s to out gun enemy vessels of the same size and class and out run bigger vessels. The first iteration of this program, developed in 2012, provided visitors with an opportunity to design and build their own boat using their choice of an array of materials, including aluminum foil, popsicle sticks, straws, and masking tape. The goal was to design a boat that would hold as many pennies (representing cannon) as possible. Initially, owing to design difficulties, this program did not include an “out run” portion.
In the previous version of Out Run Out Gun, only the ability to hold pennies was tested. The biggest struggle was finding a way for the ship to be able to hold a sail without also sacrificing the ability to sink the ship with guns. After a brainstorm, we thought of different ways that visitors could create a ship that carries a mast and sails and got away from the notion of sinking the ship with pennies. Instead of who can hold the most pennies, it became could everyone aspire to hold as many pennies as USSC could. From there, a program format that provided everyone with a keel and mast that they could then create a foil boat around became a natural solution.
Establishing a goal for the program was crucial to its redesign. Once we sorted out what we wanted people to know or understand, the need to organize the program activities around accomplishing that goal was clear. In an effort to align the program with the Forest to Frigate exhibit goals and tie it closely to USS Constitution, the goal became: “Choices and sacrifices must be made when building a ship with limited resources, just like when Constitution was built.” Obviously, this needed editing but the kernel of the idea was there. The brainstorm to get to that statement looked like this:
Notice at the bottom left of the image that we were still figuring out how the ship might get pulled or pushed along a test track to test the “out run” portion of the challenge. Ultimately we decided to go with actual wind power down a rain gutter track. I’ll explore the challenges and benefits this gave us later.
Above that is a sketch of the general time layout the program might take, the first step would be to introduce the challenge, then build their boats, test their boats, and finally the facilitator would help make the connection to the goal and to Constitution. Circled in the center are the thoughts we liked best about what visitors would glean from this program. This is further developed on the right. These two sections are blown up here:
Once the goal (quoted above), as rough as it stood, was established, the team began to brainstorm different ways to introduce the idea of cost and the sacrifices that had to be made in the way of budget. The idea of a store where visitors would have to purchase their materials with a limited amount of money was explored and ultimately decided upon.
Next, staff set the price list for materials. They also set about designing how the ship pieces, keel, mast, aluminum foil, would fit together. We knew from previous experience in the Out Gun testing that visitors often used supports in their boat designs. From there we extrapolated that they would need hull sides around their keel, supports for both ship and sail, and sail material. Most of the brainstormed materials were ones that we have used before or materials we had on hand. A sense of what’s most and least expensive can be seen starting with the $s.
On the right of the last picture, the design for the mast and keel system began to be explored. A tongue depressor serves as keel, a piece of foam as a mast step, and a wooden dowel as mast. Other required materials were brainstormed, such as tape and scissors as well as the rain gutters and fans we knew we would need.
As the redevelopment continued we began internally testing. By testing with our own staff, we were able to identify unforeseen difficulties or opportunities that we could address before making the redeveloped program go live with the public for testing. For example, the pricing of the items for sale was altered; we added the idea of “kits” for each group/family of users that included things like a marker to decorate, scrap paper (which later evolved to calculators) for easy shopping, and a leader board; and printed instructions so that someone entering the program after the introduction could jump in or groups could have something to reference as they built. A stop watch was included to time the boats for Out Run testing. (See below)
We modified the timeline, assuming we would make this a timed program. As it happened, it continued to be more of a drop-by, but the timeline helped facilitators to move people through the program. I still believe it would work best as a timed program. (See below)
We also began to play with the idea of how many pennies a boat could hold and if those in some way corresponded to the ships of the early navy. Ultimately, we chose to stick with just having families create frigates, not try and recreate a sloop or ship of the line. (See below)
Initial internal testing also revealed that two separate rain gutters would be better for testing so that boats didn’t cross the “lines.” This meant that we had to restrict families to a certain width. What we ultimately found was that they made more ship-shapes similar to Constitution when forced to stay narrow. The team played with the price point for the items during testing and ultimately settled on $30 as equivalent to the $300,000 it took to built Constitution. A few tests with the public tried a $300,000 budget with each fake coin representing $10,000, but this proved too cumbersome and overly complicated for families. Pricing continued to shift during the testing process with the first iteration including $5, $10, and $15 options. This was also simplified, however, and families did not actually think through their choices so much as take the easiest route and buy the three $10 options. Altering the prices to have slightly odd numbers like $8 made them stop and think about the process and make strategic choices based on the materials, more in line with how Constitution’s designers had to think. Below are some shots from internal testing.
Once internal testing was complete, we tested the program with the public. We made some tweaks, although on the whole there were no major program shifts. Here is a list of the tweaks that were made as we continued testing, as well as some general observations about the testing:
- Using wind power was well received overall. Challenges included outside wind forces affecting the boats. Having two fans helped to alleviate this as we could direct fan power right onto each boat in each gutter. We also ultimately allowed families to pick up the fan and control their own fan as was best for their boat.
- The triangular muslin for the sails caused people to create triangular sails. We moved to rectangular muslin shapes to help them recreate more square rigged ship features.
- Prices were moved around until we found that families were making choices based on both the material properties of their choices as well as the budget and not just on one or the other.
- The timed program idea went out the window as the Museum hasn’t yet figured out how to successfully run timed programming. Instead, the program became drop-by which meant that a structured introduction and conclusion were not always consistently conveyed.
- Families often chose to work together on a ship, with encouragement from the facilitator. Parents/adults did not seem reluctant to participate although sometimes this was to a fault and to the exclusion of their children’s participation. Finding the right balance of challenge and interest level will be essential to making this family program really work for both ages in collaboration. Adult groups/families enjoyed the activity as much as others.
- The facilitator played with how hard to push the idea of a leader board. When it was over emphasized, it wasn’t well taken. If it was present but not acknowledged, people seemed to miss it and ask the questions that it could easily answer, such as “How fast was the fastest time?” “Has anyone gone faster than ours?” “What’s the time to beat?” etc. The leader board could continue to be modified with movable whiteboard magnets so that each entry is easily moved to the proper spot. Alternatively, they could just be put up in order and a magnetic 1, 2, or 3 that moves around the board to reflect the three fastest times.
- The addition of a certificate (below) helped all families feel successful. The back side included resources that parents and families could check out to further their experience at home.
The kits evolved to have everything that people needed. The final form of the instruction card is still needed. It’s too wordy and doesn’t get used without facilitator interaction. I think the graphic design and edit process would improve it and make it useful for families (Front and back images below). We also included a store flyer so that families didn’t have to go from their station to the store each time to see what cost what.
We started with a tall table station with tubs of water and a testing area up front with the rain gutter set up. A cart with the materials became the store with a poster displaying the goods for sale and their prices. We went back and forth on offering seats. When seats were provided, families tended to stay for a long time. Normally this would be great, except that they often stayed for way longer than was necessary and longer than the facilitator could stay. Moving towards a timed program would alleviate this and then seats could become an option. As it was, no one complained about not having seats available and they were made available for those who might need it (pregnant, elderly, very young, etc).
- One of the stations and a shot of the store cart and poster display.
- Close-up on a station set up. We later moved the tubs to the ground and just provided two for groups to use. The test tanks gave families a chance to test their boats for buoyancy and weight capacity before moving on to the rain gutter test.
- The rain gutter testing worked well in terms of distance but was unwieldy to set up and take down. The Museum invested in an inflatable rain gutter with two side-by-side tracks that we will experiment with in future testing.
See these pages for more programming case studies (more forthcoming):