August 05 2016

How valuable are science museums for education?

Posted by Lisa

There are two distinct strands of science communication in museums and modern science discovery centres. Though both types of museum environment promote free-choice learning in an informal setting, the nature of the visitor experience differs substantially, in particular in the manner of transmission of information. Certain museum communication models are built around didactic galleries with exhibits and artefacts representing big scientific objects and relics of the natural world - for example, the ecology hall in the Natural History Museum in London. Other more modern forms of science communication use interactive exhibits as championed by the Launch Pad in the Science Museum, Techniquest and the San Francisco Exploratorium. These interactive science-at-play exhibits aim to inform visitors about processes of scientific ideas and concepts rather than objects and artefacts.

Both types of science communication have their merits. The value of these models of communication can and should be explored before surmising the best strategy for effective science education in the museum environment.


The traditional exhibition of artefacts

Wrongfully deemed to be ‘boring,’ the traditional museum environment promotes a linear transmission of information to ensure that a lesson is given outside the classroom. Cards of information alongside models and artefacts of the natural world ensure that museum visitors are being fed facts. Furthermore, huge galleries and gargantuan relics can certainly instil a sense of wonder about the sciences and can trigger curiosity in a child. Indeed, who doesn’t remember feeling awestruck upon walking in through the main entrance of the Natural History Museum to be greeted by the enormous dinosaur cast charmingly nicknamed ‘Dippy’?

Children value the opportunity to have ‘real-encounters’ with objects that relate back to their life. On a more anecdotal note, whilst conducting observational fieldwork in the National Museum of Wales ‘Natural World’ exhibition, I witnessed many children exclaiming joy upon seeing the taxidermy version of their favourite animal from books and films. This often triggered discussion about the object and exhibition at hand, which by my definition was evidence of learning. The free-choice learning environment fosters a positive social setting in which adults and children alike can discuss displayed models and relics with information supplemented by the exhibit. Children can subsequently learn from adults in their company and learning is perpetrated outside of the museum environment.


The Interactive Science Centre

On the other hand, it is widely accepted that exhibits that can be physically handled and experimented with should be more effective in promoting learning than traditional, static exhibits. Models and natural world artefacts are often precious and cannot be handled in interactions with the museum visitor and therefore the traditional museum can be seen as limiting. The more modern science discovery centre endorses science communication and education through interactivity and learning through play. The idea of ‘edutainment’ – simultaneous education and entertainment – is a strong factor that the curators take into account when developing exhibits in science museums. However, in many cases the entertainment dimension strongly overshadows the primary educational message. In the modern science centre, exhibits can seem decontextualized with the underlying scientific method and meaning lost to playtime. Many Londoners may remember Launchpad in the Science Museum being incredibly fun – though can many link specific exhibits to scientific principles? For example, a beach ball being lifted above a triangle blasting air is undoubtably entertaining, though who can recall from that experience what Bernoulli’s principle is, and who can relate a beach ball to fluid dynamics?

Yet, the modern interactive science centre does succeed in one area. It encourages children from a young age to associate the sciences with a feeling of positivity; such a feeling can be stifled in the classroom environment. Similarly, practical skills and knowledge obtained from simply messing around with an exhibit can be applied to the curriculum and classroom environment to generate a more wholesome knowledge of the sciences. A little toddler’s playtime in a splash pad water area can really be a big lesson in fluid displacement and metaphysics, not that baby will know it yet. These practical skills are some of the skills that develop into career merits in the lab environment and in higher education. Where can the balance be found between edutainment and order?


Effective Science Communication

For effective science education to be operationalised in the museum environment, an integrated strategy must be formed with constant reflection to determine whether learning is occurring. Interactivity should be championed with strong inclusion of the participant in the process of learning, though the primary scientific message must not be lost in the process. In an age where the sciences and new technology can be daunting and difficult to grasp, a positive attitude to the sciences must be fostered from a young age. Moreover, as people flock to the museum with different social identities and backgrounds in science education, exhibits must be generalised to appeal to a wide audience, yet carry a strong educational message that can resonate to all. The identity and participation of the consumer must strongly be considered during the development and construction of museum exhibitions, with an iterative approach to development and scope to always make improvements. Both strands of science communication in museums can be enlightening and valuable. Finding the balance in interactivity and proper transmission of information is a precarious art. With specialists in education, science and creative communication, Open Creative Communication can strategise effective science education in the free-choice learning environment from an informed approach. With regular responsive analytics, self-reflection and established design processes, OCC can work out the best education strategy.

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