LOUISVILLE, KY — The Grand Ballroom of the Kentucky International Convention Center turned into a playground Sunday night as Barbara Chamberlin burst onto the stage to deliver this year’s Ivan Parkin Lecture.

Few nerds could have more quickly and hilariously handled the thousands of food safety professionals and students in attendance. It was a standing-room-only crowd. Perhaps having been a stand-up comic helped Chamberlin turn in a flawless, funny presentation with deep meaning — “The Power of Play.” She understands the thrill of playing, from her 4-H days and her Ph D. days, and from her boys’ days as, well, boys. And, fair play to her, as those across the pond would say, for finding a job where she gets to play with science.

As an Extension Instructional Design and Education Media Specialist at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, Chamberlin directs the Learning Games Lab in the Innovative Media Research and Extension Department. She leads research on game development serving as an instructional designer on new educational projects.

Those projects have included helping fresh produce growers and shippers understand their position in the food supply chain and how food safety fits into their operations. She and the animation crew created “purple triangle food” so the video and printed materials could be applied to all fruits and vegetables and so the people who produce and distribute some of the most potentially pathogenic food eaten in the world could understand their significance.

Other projects have included games to help high school students learn about the value of a good credit score. Still, others tackle grandma’s advice about washing chicken. Chamberlin said that was a particularly tough educational video and supporting materials to develop because everyone believes grandma and mom, not scientists.

A “Fresh and Dirty”  series includes installments about how fresh produce can become contaminated and how to properly wash it. She took a bit of a jab at the organic and “whole” food foodies, as she paced back and forth on the stage, gesturing wildly. Wash it is the main message of the series.

Washing comes up again and again in video and animation projects that come out of Chamberlin’s lab. A little project about handwashing has returned more than 55 million views on YouTube.

Science happens, everywhere all the time, and Chamberlin says it’s fun to break it down into teaching moments, though she dislikes many such phrases that have been buzzing around for years.

“ ‘We’ve got to figure out how to make learning fun.’ I have that phrase. Learning is already fun,” Chamberlin said.

Chamberlin had several bullet points about the play, beginning with one from the late, great Mr. Rogers: “Play is the work of childhood.”

She followed up with some of her own. 

Play enables safe failure. If you can’t try and fail without fear you won’t try. The application of the expression resulted in “Ninja Kitchen,” a game that teaches children food safety by allowing them to reach the next level of the game after failing and then mastering the lower levels. Basic game logic.

Play builds confidence and competence. Basic game logic. She applied this concept to teach people about when, where and how to conduct water sampling. They learned more efficient and reliable methods, discovering they could master the complex and crucial task in real life.

She is emersed in the altered dimension of animation, referring to some of her lab’s work as tele-novellas, but Chamberlin is well aware of her place in the universe, string theory aside. Science happens and she explains it, narrows it down to a workable concept and figures out how to teach it through animation and humor. She sees herself and her team as the people behind the superheroes.

Where would Spider-Man be without Jacob Batalon running the multi-computer, multi-faceted, hidden HQ where web man gets the skinny? He’d be hanging from a strand of web wondering what to do next.

“We don’t want to be the superhero,” Chamberlin said “We want to be that guy in the chair” and then pointed to Batalon doing the happy dance in his chair in the dark, dank, lair. The image on the film clip on the screen in the ballroom showed the joy of nerdism and the power it carries.

Go play a little and see if you can be that guy in the chair behind your superhero.

The annual conference continues through Wednesday night.

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