FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter -Science Centers for the 21st Century

Spring 2001



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Science Centers for the 21st Century

David A. Ucko

Science museums and science centers have undergone great change over the past century. With few exceptions, there has been a pronounced shift during this period from collections and research towards education. Key milestones included the opening of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in 1933 and the Exploratorium in San Francisco in 1969. Each exemplified a different approach: the former focused on large exhibits communicating information about fields of science and technology; the latter emphasized smaller-scale exhibits allowing direct manipulation of scientific phenomena. Today, science centers are beginning to explore new approaches as their external environment changes and as we gain knowledge about the nature of informal learning.

The number of science centers has grown more than tenfold since the founding in 1973 of ASTC, the Association of Science-Technology Centers Other types of institutions, including children's museums, zoos, natural history museums, planetaria and botanical gardens, have become members of ASTC as well, indicating the influence of the hands-on educational approach stressed by science centers. The popularity is also seen in the adoption of science center exhibits by commercial enterprises, such as theme parks, retail stores, fast food restaurants, and even cruise ship lines. This imitation is rarely seen as flattery by those in the field, although one can argue that the public benefits from the increased exposure to science, albeit less "pure." The marketplace has become more competitive for science centers as a result of the growth of the field, the increased adoption of the techniques these institutions pioneered, and the expanding numbers of ways in which families can choose to spend together their limited leisure time.

Over the same period, knowledge about learning in general has increased nearly as dramatically. See the National Academy Press for a recent overview. When I entered the field from academia more than two decades ago, a question still being asked was how to demonstrate that visitors to science centers were actually learning. It was obvious to those in the field that education was taking place, but in a form very different from the classroom, making school-based measurement tools inappropriate. Today, one need only peruse Falk and Dierking's "Learning in Museums: Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning" (AltaMira Press, 2000) to find the growing body of research that clearly shows how informal learning in particular occurs. Their contextual model of "free-choice" learning identifies the importance of the personal, sociocultural and physical contexts of the museum visit. The nature of the impact differs greatly from visitor to visitor and may not become obvious for weeks or months. As the authors summarize, "in the end, what individuals learn depends on their prior knowledge, experience, and interest; what they actually see, do and talk and think about during the experience; and equally important, what happens subsequently in their lives that relates to these initial experiences."

During the coming years, science centers will need to continue to innovate and evolve. As Beverly Sheppard notes in "The 21st Century Learner" (Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2000): "The profound changes of the 21st century are transforming America into what must become a learning society." Science centers are well positioned to play an important role in our knowledge-based economy. Just as science itself continues to advance, science centers also must seek ever more effective ways to first attract visitors and then provide self-motivating experiences that enable them to create personal meaning. Their niche is "recreational learning," since non-school group visitors must come by free choice as a leisure activity. According to Mark K. Smith (George Williams College), "the point of education should not be to inculcate a body of knowledge, but to develop capabilitiesThe most important capability, and the one traditional education is worst at creating, is the ability and yearning to carry on learning." His statement encapsulates the special role that can be played by informal learning at science centers. The challenge is to engage the visitor as completely as possible in ways that make learning intrinsically enjoyable.

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Science City

As an example, the approach we took when creating Science City at Union Station in Kansas City was to create the totally themed environment of a city for visitors to explore, rather than exhibits. Over 50 different city settings, such as the Crime Lab, high-rise under construction, Music Park, and R&D Lab, let visitors engage in hands-on adventures based on science and technology. Costumed characters ("interactors") who "live and work" in Science City enhance and enrich the immersion experience, which places science into everyday context. The environments and experiences within them were based on market testing to ensure audience appeal, a prerequisite to engagement and discovery. This approach lent itself well to a science center designed to serve as the educational attraction of a new kind of urban entertainment center within a restored historical landmark. In a related direction, the "Adventure" exhibit at the new COSI in Columbus take visitors on a mythic quest drawing from the storytelling techniques of themed entertainment.

There is no single formula, however, for communicating science and encouraging inquiry. The approach must follow from the institution's specific mission, audience and location. For example, the Weizmann Institute of Science created a "Garden of Science" making use of Israel's favorable climate; similarly, science centers in India heavily use outdoor exhibits, and the New York Hall of Science has created its own Science Playground. For some institutions, the Internet is playing an ever expanding role. The Exploratorium and Franklin Institute among others are devoting major efforts to using the web to encourage science learning beyond the limits of their physical facilities. Many institutions have created innovative educational programs, even creating direct links with on-site or nearby public schools and their curricula. More and more science centers are collaborating with libraries, community-based organizations, and other local institutions to develop synergies that enhance the impact of each partner.

Here at the National Academy of Sciences, we are beginning to create a science center that will draw upon the uniqueness of this institution, its prominent elected scientist members and the public policy studies carried out through its National Research Council. We are looking at ways to create exhibits and programs in Washington that draw from this content-rich organization, rather than those that might be more appropriate to a science center based elsewhere. In addition, we are seeking ways to share Academy-developed content with other science centers and organizations nationally and internationally. Such efforts can not only help these institutions address the needs of their local audiences but also leverage the resources of the National Academy. I would welcome the thoughts of APS members as we develop our Marian Koshland Science Museum.

Physicists can play an important supporting role. Many science centers, particularly smaller ones, lack depth in scientific resources. Faculty can serve as advisors, volunteers, exhibit developers as well as encourage their students to become involved. In these roles, conveying the excitement of physics, going beyond the textbook by adding human interest and humor, would add great value. Researchers can include funds for outreach in their grant proposals and work with local science centers on ways to communicate their work to the public.

One of the most effective synergies might be working jointly with science centers on physics demonstrations developed for the classroom. Through modifications made with science center staff familiar with families and school children, these demos could reach far wider audiences. Try inviting someone from your local science center to the summer AAPT workshop session on physics demonstrations in exchange for an invitation to the ASTC Annual Conference held in October.

By creating linkages among "communities of educators," we each will be better able to serve the needs of our "communities of learners." Such cross-fertilization can bridge traditional boundaries, helping to transform the community at large into a campus for learning in the 21st century.

David A. Ucko, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Koshland Science Museum
and Science Outreach, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC