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A Twist on Visiting Scientists

The Exploratorium has continued to produce one exhibit after another that uses creative interactions to demonstrate specific scientific phenomena spectacularly well. But a few exhibits the museum has developed over time go beyond this approach to risk open-ended outcomes. Consider, for instance, a table with a central light source embedded in a metal cylinder that is outfitted with slits. Attached to the table by cords are various types of small mirrors and lenses that visitors can experiment with as the light radiates across the table. While such exhibits may not seem as effective in teaching specific content-based lessons, developers elsewhere have recognized that these activities can stimulate visitors to carry out the scientific process on their own, and hence can be quite valuable educationally. Inspired, developers have begun to push the design of such open-ended exhibits further.

The result has been exhibits that resemble working laboratories, where visitors can pursue their own short research projects and find their own answers to the questions they themselves pose. The thinking is that science is not just about, say, the physical, chemical, or biological attributes of the world around us, but a process for learning about the world. No matter what scientific information visitors may take home, the most valuable lesson an exhibit can convey is that process.

The first museum to make a full-fledged stab at the “do-your-own-research” approach was Science North, which opened in 1984 in Sudbury, Ontario. That museum-or, more properly in this case, that science center-includes interactive areas akin to a scientist’s work space. There, visitors can explore various topics with a corps of scientist-teachers. The activity of conducting research is what counts. In Science North’s “Swap Shop,” for instance, people can both bring in and examine others’ small displays of natural objects-such as rocks, animal bones, and shells-using apparatus such as microscopes, tools, maps, and charts.

This approach has sparked widespread excitement among museum developers, and others have started coming up with similar approaches. One of the first to follow up was J. Shipley Newlin, a developer at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, whose Experiment Gallery focuses on “experiment benches” where one to three visitors can have exclusive use of apparatus to choose which of many variables to control, devise their own experiments, and hence experience many outcomes.

One of the most successful exhibits is the Electricity Lab, which allows visitors to explore basic electrical components such as resistors, light bulbs, motors, capacitors, diodes, and switches. These click together and can be attached to copper wire to form different kinds of low-voltage circuits. (The circuits are protected so damage does not occur. And to provide more insurance against problems, a staff member stays in the Experiment Gallery.) In a more traditional interactive exhibit, a few components might be bolted to a table, with visitors able to change a couple of variables. But in the Electricity Lab, visitors actually build the circuits and decide what to include.

Evaluations have shown that visitors stay longer at experiment benches than at the museum’s more traditional interactive exhibits-as much as 19 versus 6 minutes. But the open-ended nature of the experiment-bench model also creates some problems. With many options available, some visitors have difficulty figuring out what to do. They have said they need better instructions. The Science Museum of Minnesota has dealt with this concern by adding “Experiment Cards” to the labs that suggest tasks with easy, moderate, and challenging levels of difficulty.

Another center that has taken open-ended exhibits to a new level is Portland’s Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, which in 1993 opened “Engineer It!”-an exhibit that gives visitors firsthand experience in designing, building, and testing an object such as a model boat or airplane. Budding engineers can select from numerous parts in bins and refer to examples of how they fit together. They can then tether their paper airplanes in the wind tunnel to see if they will fly, modify the design of model trucks and test how much drag they encounter while moving down a “highway,” or construct buildings on a table that shakes to see if the design is earthquake-proof.

At this museum, evaluators have found that most visitors pay relatively little attention to the instructions, designing by trial and error instead and learning a great deal from other museum-goers by mimicking their designs and making improvements to objects left behind. In so doing, visitors behave like scientists, who similarly build on one another’s results through personal contacts as well as published papers.

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