Interactive Museum Puts Students in the Shoes of Senators


The Edward M. Kennedy Institute is a new interactive museum immersing students and visitors in the U.S. Senate’s mission, history and work. The centerpiece is a simulation activity where visitors interact as Senators by debating, negotiating and voting on real legislation in a full-scale reproduction of the U.S. Senate chamber.

Nominating Company: Intersection, New York, New York
Venue: Edward M. Kennedy Institute, Boston, Massachusetts
Project: Edward M. Kennedy Institute interactive museum
Category: Immersive Environments

The purpose of the Institute is to educate visitors about the important role of the U.S. Senate and encourage participation in our democracy. Intersection and partners created a series of interactive exhibits (projected wall displays + personal tablet) and a Senate simulation game where students and visitors take on the role of Senators and work to pass legislation.

We built an open platform and an extensible CMS so that interactive exhibits and simulation content can be updated regularly to reflect the current activities of the Senate and pressing topics like immigration and healthcare. The Institute can also conduct historical simulations where visitors take on the role of an actual Senator during a specific moment in history (current example is the Compromise of 1850). We also created a toolkit that allows schools around the country to conduct versions of the simulations in their own classrooms with little infrastructure overhead.

Despite more than 50 custom applications developed for the experience, the technology needed to facilitate interpersonal conversation and collaboration. We had the enormous technical challenge of coordinating hundreds of tablets being used for different activities by visitors in different locations of the Institute with the large-scale content on the museum walls. We needed to ensure that the experience would meet curriculum goals while also engaging kids in the process.

Through extensive playtesting with kids, we learned that the social model of the Senate was far more engaging to students than policy or political process. So this became the focus of our design and development—to design software for social interaction. Our efforts resulted in a tightly choreographed visitor experience enabled by technology that ensured consistency of message in content on the walls, on the institute-issued tablet experience and the dramatic involvement of institute docents.

President Obama, Vice President Biden and dozens of current and former U.S. Senators attended the Institute’s dedication ceremony earlier this year, drawing national media attention. Thousands of students have participated in the Senate simulation. Linking both historical traditions along with relevant issues hitting the Senate floor today, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute emphasizes a communal learning experience by facilitating a community out of random individuals. It also reflects the ethos of the Institute: that collaboration is necessary to achieve the greater good, inside and outside of the Senate walls.

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