Re-discover the Museum’s Discovery Backpacks!

Re-discover the Museum’s Discovery Backpacks!

By: Jean Middleton

In 2019, the Alberta Aviation Museum set out to expand our family programming and to address the most common feedback we received from people visiting the museum with children, that they wanted a more interactive experience. Creating interactive experiences that engaged children in multiple ways became a key aim of the museum’s strategy for children’s and family programming. The strategy  focuses on play-based and child-led learning but aims to engage not only children but also the grown ups that they visit with. An essential part of our new interactive experiences has been the introduction of our first self-guided program, the Discovery Backpacks.


Creating a self-guided experience for the first time we decided to approach the Discovery Backpack project through a design thinking process. The first step of the design thinking approach is to empathize with a challenge faced by your audience. We had already determined that the challenge was to create more interactive experiences for children. Our next step was to come up with creative solutions for the challenge. We decided to give children the tools for creating playful experiences that they could use in multiple ways around the museum. This idea led to the Discovery Backpacks. And now, since the initial launch in Fall 2020, we’ve been testing, learning, and improving. We’ve just launched our third iteration of the program with updates based on important lessons from the past three years.

One lesson that helped to shape the latest update to the Discover Backpacks was that everyone wants to take them home! Even visitors who haven’t borrowed the Discovery Backpacks ask if they can buy a backpack from the display at our front desk. While the backpacks and most of their contents must still stay at the museum, we have added more take home activities than ever before. Kids can now design their own pilot’s hat and wings badge to take home and a Morse code decoder to send and receive encrypted messages – so the experience can continue even after leaving the museum!

We’ve also learned that we need to find creative ways to communicate with the audience. One of the biggest challenges of Discovery Backpacks has been figuring out how to collect feedback about people’s experiences because there’s no facilitator to provide a direct line of communication. With the design thinking approach understanding how well the Discovery Backpacks are helping to solve the challenge we set out to solve is critical. As this is our first self-guided program, we had to think outside the box to learn about people’s experiences. We opted to try and make feedback about what visitors liked and did not like about the backpacks part of the fun with a comic strip to tell us about their visit.

When the Discovery Backpacks were first launched one of the goals was to make our programs more accessible by having something available anytime families visit. Over the first three years of the program, we saw that this accessibility is just as important for children’s groups visiting the museum. So, the most recent launch of the Discovery Backpacks included a group option with materials for more children and some additional activities such as becoming their own tour guide for the group.

Although the Discovery Backpacks have been around a while, we’re still learning more and updating them not only based on program feedback but also to fit with other changes around the museum. So, there will often be something new and exciting to find and explore!