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The solar-car workshop at Boston’s Museum of Science, three groups of parents and children are trying out model automobiles they have built. Suddenly everyone rushes back to a workbench to change wheels, adjust the tension on a rubber-band pulley that connects an electric motor to the drive axle, and make other alterations. Meanwhile, another team is attempting to get its refined model to run a test race course in 12 seconds. When it comes close-12.8 seconds-the kids cheer. And in another corner, after 35 minutes of nonstop work to correct a model whose wheels at first spun only when the car was held up in the air, an 11-year-old boy looks around and finds someone he knows. “Come look!” he cries.

“I made it work,” and explains what he discovered.

The solar-car workshop represents the cutting edge in exhibits at science centers. Across the country, exhibit developers are creating open-ended experiments designed to stimulate in visitors the kinds of thinking scientists employ. These reformers are discounting the traditional notion that museums can teach little about the scientific process during a typical brief visit. Developers even maintain that their work can serve as a model for enhancing formal science education.

From Push Buttons to Blended Faces

Natural-history enthusiasts began setting up museums hundreds of years ago to display rare and wonderful objects. Such displays even today fulfill an important role, allowing visitors to observe and hence learn about intriguing aspects of unusual objects: rocks, minerals, animals, fossils, and more. And such exhibits still flourish, as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City demonstrated two years ago with the successful opening of its renovated dinosaur halls.

But interactivity-the opportunity for visitors to operate or otherwise manipulate parts in exhibits-was lacking in the first museums. Then, early in the twentieth century, U.S. museum curators brought back word of the approach of the Deutsches Gesundheit Museum in Munich, which was offering classroom-type demonstrations of physics and chemistry, behind glass, in pushbutton-activated exhibits. Three new U.S. science museums-the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and the Museum of Science in Boston-introduced not only push buttons but live demonstrations by museum staff to stimulate interest in the ordinary behavior of all kinds of objects.

The next wave in science exhibits arrived with San Francisco’s Exploratorium in 1969. This museum’s exhibit developers, who were scientists and artists, took a more hands-on approach still. Instead of simply pressing buttons to activate a demonstration, visitors can more intimately control variables in an exhibit. In one such offering designed to teach people about wave properties, museum-goers can adjust the frequency and volume of sound waves produced by a speaker attached at one end to a horizontal glass tube containing a small amount of liquid. Visitors learn how to play with the controls so that as the air in the tube resonates at particular frequencies, liquid drops fly up to reveal standing waves.

By relying on objects that look as if they have been found in, say, a basement, the Exploratorium’s developers have also tried to create rough-looking exhibits that suggest working prototypes rather than the finished showpieces displayed by many other science museums. Moreover, the museum’s approach is to cluster these items into themes, such as refraction and polarization, with sets of instructions that lead visitors through a series of steps, so that people walk away having gained a logical understanding of some particular phenomenon. For instance, the tube demonstrating standing waves might be located near a machine that mechanically produces a variety of waves, shown by rising and falling ping-pong balls.

The Exploratorium’s approach has been so good that it has influenced science museums everywhere, so that almost everyone working in science centers has come to link the word “interactive” with the phrase “educationally successful.” But although museums have copied the Exploratorium’s approach, they have done so with varying degrees of success. Exact replicas of the San Francisco institution’s exhibits, such as a “half-silvered” mirror that allows two visitors, each on opposite sides, to see their facial features blended in one image, have tended to work very well. (Half the light hitting this kind of mirror reflects back, while the other half transmits through.)

But some exhibit developers have failed to understand that interaction best enhances learning if it engages visitors directly in a phenomenon and have too often incorporated gratuitous and hence useless interactivity in new exhibits. Consider how some 20 years ago, developers at the Museum of Science in Boston proposed teaching bird ecology with the aid of a pinball machine-an object popular with children. The idea was to repaint the game surface so that different areas represented survival factors in the life of a bird. But while a pinball game may convey some lessons on mechanics and trajectories, it does not intrinsically teach anything about birds or how scientists learn about birds. The new labels on the machine would have conveyed all the exhibit had to offer on birds-differing little from museum exhibits in glass cases. And clearly no one was going to read the labels while trying to keep the balls from going down the hole. Fortunately, the developers dropped the idea.

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