Politicians from all parties have faced with an urgent challenge in recent years: inspiring interest in our government. The fact is, voter turnout continues to wane, and even hit a record-low since WW2 during November’s midterm elections. In particular, voters age 18-29 were MIA. And considering the fact that the U.S. government is gridlocked and Congress’ approval rating is plunging, there’s hardly a better time to break through the disillusionment, and bolster both young people’s understanding and perception on the inner-workings and functions of government. So, what’s the best way to get this group involved? By using a language that speaks to them, of course—and there’s hardly a more effective channel for getting through to a Gen Y’er than with technology.
The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, which is set to open to the public March 31, is doing just that: appealing to the tech-savvy generations by introducing a mobile element to the visitor experience. The $79 million facility, located at the University of Massachusetts Boston campus on Columbia Point, has been four years in the making. And the resulting museum was born out of a collaboration between Senator Kennedy himself, his wife Vicki Reggie Kennedy and the experiential designer Ed Schlossberg of ESI Design. The mission: To teach the public about the United States Senate in a non-partisan way, encourage civic participation and instill passion into the decision-makers of the future. The method: An array of interactive exhibits which, in conjunction with a tablet platform that fuses 52 applications, bring the fundamentals of how our government works to life via an array of activities.
Constructed in honor of the late Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy—who served 47 years in the U.S. Senate—the EMK Institute aims to inspire today’s youth to become more involved in public service. To do that, the nonprofit institute has made handheld tablets available to all patrons from the start of their visit. First, visitors create a “senator-in-training” profile by taking a selfie and listing their affiliation (Democrat, Republican or Independent) and the state they’re representing. Individuals are asked to give their opinion on the chosen issue of the week—which could be health care, gun control or immigration. After, they’ll be informed what voters in their chosen state think of the issue, and also see how their views compare to other visitors’.
Then, attendees use those tablets to unlock additional content other than what’s projected on the walls; participate in polls to vote on contemporary issues; and earn pins as they complete certain modules. In one temporary exhibit featuring a full-scale replica of Kennedy’s Senate office—which includes copies of original furniture and actual artifacts belonging to Kennedy—the tablet allows patrons to hone in on specific items to learn more about their significance. At another exhibit, the tablet is used to learn hands-on how a bill becomes a law by voting on a particular topic. People can also use their tablets to search for senators by name, session or state and look up biographical information about them, or dive deeper into senate milestones on a digital timeline. At another exhibit, patrons can make a pledge in a category of their choosing that will make a difference in their community or nation, such as to mentor local youth or recycle their mobile phones. As those pledges are entered into the tablet, they are immediately projected on the wall.
Michael Luck Schneider, senior technology and media designer for ESI Design, told me that the tablet activities were not necessarily meant to augment or define the museum experience. Instead, he says they are designed to facilitate action among visitors and push them through the exhibit in a more informed way. By adding a gamification element and requiring users to weigh in on certain issues, the technology actually encourages more interaction between patrons. And this collaboration-heavy experience is a fitting model: What could be more reflective of the U.S. Senate at large?
Smack in the center of the 68,000 square foot building is the world’s only full-scale replica of the U.S. Senate Chamber in Washington, complete with an upstairs viewing gallery. Here, up to 100 visitors can participate in recreations of significant moments in the U.S. Senate’s history while attempting to reach a compromise on specific issues. The amphitheater can be arranged to recreate the current Senate Chamber or that of 1810-1859. For visiting high school groups, students can participate in a Senate Immersion Model. After being sworn in as “senators,” they’ll be privy to hearing expert testimony about a bill; attend party caucuses; and debate, negotiate and vote on contemporary and historic legislation. Remember those boring chapters of a social studies or history textbook? This approach, no doubt, is far less yawn-inducing—and potentially more effective in terms of making the material sink in.
While the educational implications are obvious, organizers insist that the objective of the institute runs much deeper than that. By bringing together people with opposing views, delving into the purpose and potential of the Senate and demonstrating the power that each individual holds in a democracy, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute seeks to actually spark more civic engagement. In a way, the medium is the message for this museum: A democracy depends on the participation of the people, and this institution’s experience is defined by the spirit of collaboration. The long-term goal is to host events with real senators from opposing parties. Already, international military officials and National Defense University staff have participated in a Senate simulation.
Images via Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate and University of Massachusetts.