History of the Living Lab Model

The Living Lab model was first conceived in 2004 by a group of museum professionals at the Boston Museum of Science and child development researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  The idea was to create a research/education model that benefitted the museum, the researchers, and the museum visitors.  A small space in the Discovery Center area of the Museum of Science was set aside for the first researchers taking part in the endeavor (see image below), and the first Living Lab was born.

Living Lab space at the Boston Museum of Science

In the years that followed the launch of the Living Lab in Boston, the Living Lab model has spread to many other museum spaces around the US and beyond.  There are active Living Lab-type sites in the following places (this is a partial list):

  • Oregon Museum of Science & Industry
  • Science World (Vancouver, BC)
  • Boston Children’s Museum
  • Maryland Science Center
  • Madison Children’s Museum
  • Children’s Museum of Denver
  • Providence Children’s Museum
  • Sciencenter (Ithica, NY)
  • Please Touch Museum (Philadelphia)
  • New York Hall of Science
  • Fort Worth Museum of Science & History
  • Connecticut Science Center

The Living Lab at the University of Michigan

In November of 2012 a unique partnership between the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum (AAHOM) and psychologists from the University of Michigan was launched.  Called the Living Lab, and linked to the Living Lab model from Boston, the core of the partnership was a lab space on the main floor of the museum where UM researchers conducted real psychology studies with visiting children and their parents.  Since its inception, the Living Lab in Ann Arbor has seen roughly 4000 children and parents participate in research, and many more visitors to the museum have received information about child development research from UM researchers.  The Living Lab space in the AAHOM is still going strong (and there is even a second Living Lab area that now sometimes operates in the AAHOM’s Preschool Gallery).  The UM Living Lab program has now expanded to the UM Museum of Natural History (second floor) and the Ann Arbor District Library (downtown branch; youth room).  We’re excited to have lots of great contact with the community as we study how children think, learn, and behave!  We look forward to seeing you at one of our community-based lab sites.

Living Lab space in the Ann Arbor District Library

More about the Living Lab Model

In the Living Lab model, the lab spaces used by a diverse array of researchers serve as both data collection sites and as dynamic exhibits where educating the public about the questions, methods, and findings of psychology and other disciplines is a central goal.  The research takes place in the open, where the researchers can both collect data and talk with visitors about the studies that are being conducted.

The goals of the Living Lab model are described nicely on the website for the National Living Lab Initiative, and are listed below (wording taken from livinglab.org):

Families visiting the museum are invited to participate in ongoing research projects (on topics including math and language cognition, causal learning, emotion recognition, and social reasoning), and to engage in one-on-one conversations with the scientists. Collaborating scientists work closely with museum-based science educators to communicate the questions and methods of their work to parents and other caregivers via informal conversations and hands-on activities that illustrate recent child development research.

Goals for Public Audiences

  • Visitors contribute to the process of scientific discovery through participation in active studies
  • Visitors engage in one-on-few educational interactions with scientists conducting the research
  • Visitor education focuses on the process of science, increasing interest in and understanding of research “questions and methods” as well as “results”
  • Studies occur in plain-view of the public, on the exhibit floor
  • Non-participant visitors talk with researchers and learn about on-going studies in ways similar to study participants
  • On-site research is an expected and predictable part of the visitor experience

 Goals for Professional Audiences

  • Researchers receive training from museum staff in effective museum-style education techniques, improving researchers’ communication skills with public audiences
  • Museum educators gain direct access to current science that is relevant to their work with the public, improving educators’ understanding of science and its potential application to their practice
  • Museum educators and researchers communicate regularly, collaboratively monitoring the program to ensure scientific and educational goals are met, and that programmatic needs (e.g. logistical, financial) are fulfilled.

The National Living Lab Initiative

In 2011 the Living Lab team at the Boston Museum of Science was awarded an NSF grant for $2,382,771 (award # 1113648) for the purposes of extending and evaluating the Living Lab model.  The award was given, in part, because the summative evaluation of the original Living Lab site in Boston revealed that museum visitors, museum educators, and Living Lab researchers were all positively impacted by the Living Lab model.  The NSF grant has funded the establishment of the National Living Lab Initiative (NLL).  The first steps of the NLL were to formally establish four hub sites for the Living Lab around the US: the Museum of Science in Boston (with Harvard as a formal partner), the Maryland Science Center (with Johns Hopkins as a formal partner), Madison Children’s Museum (with University of Wisconsin), and Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (with Lewis & Clark College).  Each hub site serves to support the Living Labs that operate in its region.

A key goal of the NLL is to support the establishment of new Living Labs in the US with both financial support from the NSF grant and with practical resources available on the livinglab.org website.  Yearly regional and national Living Lab conferences are also held, and the UM Living Lab has participated in these.  Once a Living Lab partnership between a museum and a university is up and running, other goals of the NLL are to support improvements in the impact of the collaboration through stipend awards (the UM Living Lab has already received two such awards).