The Making of the Computer History Museum's New Education Center

By Scott Burg

The Computer History Museum (CHM) is in the midst of an exciting phase of expansion and transformation. Within the next year CHM will launch a large-scale exhibition on software as well as a new Center for Software History, both of which are part of their larger software initiative and follow the June 2016 launch of Exponential, a center for entrepreneurship and innovation. 

A crucial component of CHM’s transformation is the recognition that education needs to be more of a conceptual driver for the Museum’s exhibitions, programs and outreach to the community.  Within the field of education as a whole, traditional assumptions about what learning is and where it takes place are currently being challenged. Awareness is growing that learning is not limited to schools, nor is it “better” when it takes place in a formal environment than in an informal setting such as a museum. Regardless of where it happens, learning is a deep, complex, and very human process that truly transforms lives.

Museum educators are also beginning to take a closer look at the importance between space and learning. Today, facilities that encourage hands-on inquiry and learner participation are increasingly important in space design, especially when promoting skills such as active learning, interaction, and social engagement.  While platforms and applications may come and go, the psychology of how people learn does not. Those activities that encourage learning can be translated into principles that inform design decisions, ensuring that educational spaces serve and support a clear educational purpose. 

Consistent with this growing awareness, and acknowledging the need to prioritize and reshape their education mission, CHM is embarking on design and construction of a new Education Center.  The Center, which is scheduled to open in mid- 2017, will provide a much-needed dedicated space for the Museum’s growing education programs. The Education Center will be a 3,000 square-foot flexible-use teaching space that will take advantage of cutting-edge technologies for use in onsite and distance education, with the physical construction facilitating the kinds of active, collaborative, inquiry-based learning that exemplify the Museum’s educational strengths. Installations and programs will allow students, educators, families, and community members to understand and experience the technological innovations that have shaped our modern world. Events will focus on the processes and products of creative problem solving, and will include interactive workshops on a variety of topics including coding and engineering design, the impact of software, and the history and future of computing.

Having a dedicated education space will present a multitude of opportunities for engaging new audiences, designing innovative programs, facilitating closer examination and contextualization of museum artifacts, experimenting and prototyping museum exhibitions, and facilitating closer collaborations with outside educators and researchers. It provides opportunities for collaborative projects inside the Museum as well, for instance between CHM’s Education and Exhibitions teams, while also supporting broader research on issues in informal learning and teaching.  According to John Hollar, CHM’s CEO, the Education Center will ‘’… help facilitate thought leadership.  It will be a place where learning is as much the content of the museum, as are the artifacts.”

The planning and management of such a multi-faceted initiative can be challenging for any institution; for museums, it is highly unusual.  Faced with this new challenge, CHM was inspired to collaborate with hired the services of IDEO (, one of the world’s leading design and innovation firms. IDEO has spearheaded the use of participatory or generative design processes and principles to create distinctive and integrated solutions for space and usability in a wide range of settings. An interdisciplinary IDEO design team led a series of human-centered design collaborative workshops discussions and activities with CHM staff and stakeholders, to research the needs of local communities and generate creative concepts for the space.  

CHM CEO John Hollar (far right) with CHM staff and community members during Education Center planning meeting

In addition to informing the architectural layout and user experience of the center, this collaboration has provided CHM with a unique opportunity to adopt IDEO’s design methods for usage in a range of useful in future projects as well, ranging from exhibitions to new education programs.

This is first in a series of blog postings that will document and explore activities and experiences which represent the scale and diversity of the Education Center’s design, planning and implementation process. A primary goal of this blog series is to open up a dialogue and engage more proactively with the many diverse members of the museum community.

Our next series of blogs will more closely explore specific facets of the Center’s design activities.  This will include a look at some the underlying assumptions of what CHM staff felt the Education Center should represent.  We will also look at some of the challenges confronted in formulating a structure to manage this large-scale project, as well as more in-depth examination of how CHM and their partner IDEO incorporated a fluid collaborative thinking/user center methodology to shape both an aesthetic and functional vision for the Education Center.  

Scott Burg is a Senior Researcher at Rockman et al ( He has a formal background in adult education, instructional systems design, and qualitative research. Scott has worked with CHM as evaluator and researcher for some of its education and exhibit programs. Scott has also conducted studies on the impact of design thinking in school, museum and community settings.

A version of this article was originally published by the Computer History Museum in January 2017. See the origingal post here



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