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Autumn 2006 | Volume 29, Number 4 | Features

Creating Brain-Friendly Spaces

SPU ’s John Medina is on a mission to apply brain science to the “real world”

ACCORDING TO A RECENT U.S. Census Bureau report, Seattle is now the brainiest city in America. How fitting, then, that in his Seattle Pacific University office a leading developmental molecular biologist spends his time thinking about how brains process information. With a doctorate in eukaryotic molecular biology, John Medina is director of Seattle Pacific’s Brain Center for Applied Learning Research.

John Medina poses on “Summit Ridge,” one of Zoomazium’s interactive, nature-themed play spaces that foster learning through wholebody exploration.

Anyone who has heard Medina speak — he’s a frequent national commentator for radio and television, and has addressed such diverse groups as state legislatures, school boards, and psychiatrist conventions — knows that his cranium encloses grey matter that processes at frequencies the rest of us can only imagine.

What is also remarkable about Medina is his compassion: The man has a heart as big as his brain. So it is not surprising that he has forged improbable partnerships and launched unconventional projects solely for the purpose of making the world more “brain-friendly” for some of our most vulnerable humans — including kids and combat pilots.

One such project is Zoomazium, a first-of- its-kind, indoor, nature-themed play space at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. Divided into several interactive “discovery zones,” Zoomazium helps young children take learning into their own hands by encouraging problem-solving and whole-body exploration.

Once inside the facility, children can climb a mountain, crawl into a “frog log,” hatch out of a giant egg, scale a fig tree, or explore a dark cave. They can see wild animals in exhibits that mimic native habitats, play interactive learning games, and earn points for knowing nature facts or making observations. Zoomazium’s design grew out of a series of conversations between Medina and Woodland Park Zoo Program Manager Frank Hein about what a brain-friendly kid space might look like.

“John and I really connected on this project,” says Hein. “The deeper we dug into how children actually learn, the more the exhibit came together. The fact that Zoomazium is so different from traditional children’s play spaces and yet is so successful speaks volumes for the real-world application of John’s work.”

With characteristic modesty, Medina shifts the credit to Hein. “Frank is the real hero,” he says. “He has a true heart for kids, and a deep and abiding interest in the biology of learning. He came up with brilliant designs to flesh out what we had talked about.”

Two thousand miles away, a very different sort of project has begun to take shape. At the Boeing Leadership Center in St. Louis, Missouri, Medina has held training sessions out of which have emerged informal conversations with current and retired Boeing leaders. Retired executive and flight-deck design consultant Peter Morton, retired human factors expert Del Fadden, and Boeing cockpit design engineers have all discussed the application of Medina’s work to combat cockpits, addressing such questions as what happens to brains in severe combat situations, and what can be done to help soldiers survive and still accomplish their missions. These conversations, says Medina, “invariably shift to how what I do for a living could impact what they are doing.”

Medina describes this scenario: “Let’s say the pilot is experiencing a severe combat situation,” says Medina. “A surface-to-air missile is coming right at him, and he’s about to be blown out of the sky. What does he want his instrument panel to read? Does he want it to tell him the trajectory and second-derivative function-hitting acceleration of the surface-to-air missile coming at him, followed by a suggestion as to combat maneuvers? The answer is, no, he doesn’t! He wants in great big letters on the head-up flight display, ‘THIS WAY OUT,’ with a big arrow that says, ‘LOVE, MOM.’ These kids — I mean they’re mostly just kids — are scared out of their minds.”

Morton is optimistic that changes in how designers approach their human interface challenges will result from these conversations. “At some point,” he says, “a scientifically valid experimentation protocol will emerge from these discussions that will systematically examine how brain biology can color the design of human-machine systems, to the undoubted benefit of this discipline.”

But Medina, true to his nature, has more in mind than just “undoubted benefit.” “Brains follow rules of engagement, he says. “If you know what those rules are, you can change the world.”

By Kathy Henning (
Photo By Richard Brown

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Copyright © 2006 Seattle Pacific University. General Information: 206-281-2000