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Boston’s “Activity Centers”

The largest-scale effort to develop exhibits that focus on scientific-thinking skills-a series of six “activity centers”-is under way at the Museum of Science in Boston, the institution where I work. This past March we inaugurated the activity center “Investigate! A See-for-Yourself Exhibit.” This center focuses on skills associated with conducting an experiment: asking questions, formulating hypotheses, planning and carrying out a procedure, collecting data, analyzing evidence, and drawing conclusions. At the entrance, visitors encounter a sculpture of a girl standing atop a stack of bedroom furniture, just as she’s about to drop a softball and a golf ball to see which will hit the ground first. This evocation of Galileo’s apocryphal Tower of Pisa experiment symbolizes the exhibit: conducting experiments on one’s own.

Behind the sculpture is a wall of questions and a room devoted to the first step in conducting an experiment-asking a question that can be answered. This room, intended to encourage reflection, contains intriguing objects identified with questions rather than answers: “What is it made of?” “What could you use it for?” “Where did it come from?” “Was it once alive?” Visitors can add their own questions to the wall or their thoughts about the objects by writing these on index cards and posting them for others to see.

From that central room visitors can head in different directions. Those who turn to the right enter a brightly lit room with several experiment stations. Using a wire temperature probe attached by a cable to a computer with a colorful display screen, investigators can measure the temperature of various items as they consider whether, say, Styrofoam keeps a drink hotter than a paper cup does, and how quickly fans blowing on a hot cup cool it. Visitors can also devise experiments involving their skin temperature, such as one to determine whether one person’s hand is warmer than another person’s. “Challenge Cards” offer some initial ideas for research questions, but the exhibit becomes truly successful when patrons start pursuing inquiries developers didn’t consider.

Soon after we opened the exhibit, we noticed one such set of inquiries at the “Drop Stop,” which lets visitors recreate the Galileo experiment. They put all sorts of objects in two metal buckets and push a button to transport them 12 feet into the air. Pushing another button makes the buckets open and drop their contents at the same time. A row of sensors connected to a computer tracks the falling objects and indicates their locations at different points in time.

What we didn’t expect to generate so much interest is a safety-interlock mechanism that prevents each returning bucket from accidentally hurting someone. Visitors who hurry to open the clear plastic door before the bucket is back at the bottom find it stops where it is and resumes its downward movement only when the door is again closed. This discovery has sparked a series of activities involving the interlock: visitors investigate how fast it works, if they can beat it, and where the electrical contact is that makes the gizmo work.

The two most elaborate areas of the activity center-and the ones at which visitors spend the most time-are the solar-car workshop and the “Midden Mystery.” The workshop’s main activity is similar to part of the Oregon museum’s exhibit “Engineer It!” Visitors assemble model solar cars at a long workbench with room for many people to work at once. They can experiment with wheels of three sizes. They can adjust the tension on the rubber-band pulley that connects the solar-powered electric motor to the drive axle. They can move the motor and make a front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive vehicle. And by turning their vehicles upside down on a bench with embedded lights-to activate the solar cells-they can check at any time how the wheels spin. Visitors can also take their cars to a test track where variable light controls and automatic and manual timers allow an entire group to have a role in a test run. For people who are interested, challenge cards suggest activities beyond how to make cars simply work or go as fast as possible. For instance, one idea proffered is to figure out how to run the course in exactly 12 seconds, which usually means slowing down the vehicle.

“Midden Mystery” focuses on drawing conclusions. A midden is an archeological garbage dump. Ours, of course, is simulated; it resembles a large sandbox filled with crushed walnut shells. (They don’t stick to skin and clothes as sand does.) Questions such as “What did the inhabitants of this site do here?” are placed nearby. As visitors brush away the “sand,” they find in it shells, animal bones, arrowheads, and other stone tools. THey also discover some fiber-cast objects, such as of an animal skeleton, embedded in harder layers below.

Near the dig site are workbenches for measuring, recording, bagging, and posting information about the finds. Visitors can speculate on what the objects may have been used for and can take them to tables with reference collections of mollusk shells, small mammal bones, and various stone tools, and they can compare their ideas with experts’ opinions that have been left on answering machines at two “curators’ desks.” Finally, visitors can “publish” their theories using a computer terminal outfitted with a miniature video camera and a microphone, and can learn about other museum-goers’ results and conclusions.

We have purposely built many such reporting mechanisms into “Investigate!” We want visitors to be able to leave behind their questions, speculations, observations, measurements, and conclusions for others to learn from. The idea in that activity center is to supplement the educational voice of the museum to illustrate the idea that scientific truth is determined not by authority but by evidence. We are finding that only a small fraction of visitors record detailed conclusions, but nearly everyone contributes answers to limited questions posed on computer terminals throughout the exhibit. These answers become part of growing databases. We are also learning that strangers frequently talk with one another about matters far more detailed than “What does this do?” Questions such as “How did you get this to happen?” arise.

The activities in “Investigate!” actually constitute the Boston museum’s second activity center. The first center was much simpler, representing our initial foray into the new approach. The activities in “The Observatory,” which tend to be less complex, are designed to encourage museum-goers to become aware of their observational skills. In one area a visitor can operate a remote camera aimed at a terrarium to take a close look at, say, a lizard’s eye or a giant Madagascar cockroach. Another activity is designed for two people to play with emitting and detecting sounds from any of 12 overhead speakers. We are now drawing up plans for the other four activity centers.

Other science museums are moving in a similar direction. When “Investigate!” opened this year, staff from 21 other science centers attended a workshop to examine that exhibit and the way it was developed; many were already making similar plans.

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