Dimensions September/October 1999
Science Centers on the Web
By Wendy Pollock
Science centers are public places with hands-on exhibits - so why be online? Using the web to market museums is now accepted practice - but what about the exhibits and programs that are at the heart of the science center mission? Those questions were the subject of a July 15-16 ASTC symposium in New York, which concluded a two-year collaboration among ASTC, the Exploratorium, and the Brooklyn Children's Museum. Project participants were joined by representatives of the Center for Children and Technology, the Arizona Science Center, Laboratorio dell'Immaginario Scientifico, New York Hall of Science, and Science Museum of Minnesota, who reviewed the project, noted questions that merit further research, and identified lessons learned about appropriate and effective uses of the web.
Worlds of experience, virtual and real
The web offers possibilities, participants agreed, that are consistent with the science center's value on first-hand experience - at the same time that it raises challenges. Like visitors to museums, web users come from diverse backgrounds and through many entry-points. The web, like the museum, offers opportunities for browsing and meandering, for being in touch with primary sources, and for the "wow" of immediate experience. Unlike museums, there are no geographic boundaries, material can change rapidly - and space is virtually unlimited.
However, the web does have limitations that museums don't. With the exception of some online games, the experience is more linear - you generally can't walk through it or perceive many things simultaneously. Image quality is lower, time and space are collapsed, and there's no relative sense of scale and volume. And as with any graphic representation (maps, for example) there are questions of authority - how can users trust that what they see online is a valid and reliable representation of reality?
Experiments are pushing at the edges. For example, Noel Wanner of the Exploratorium is exploring use of wireless networked computers that can be taken on a walk through the neighboring Park Presidio - one way, perhaps, of bridging the online experience and experience of the "real" world. Natalie Rusk of the Science Museum of Minnesota is developing a web site in connection with a new exhibition, which will provide dynamic ongoing exchanges among students and archaeological fieldworkers.
A tool for communication and collaboration
The web unquestionably opens up new possibilities for collaboration on a global scale, participants agreed. But new ways of working bring with them management challenges.
Besides techniques like those the Exploratorium and Science Museum of Minnesota are trying, experiments have engaged people in data gathering and off-line activity to make connections with everyday experience. "The distinctive feature of the virtual space," Joel Halvorson of the Science Museum commented, "is not its incredible power as a storage medium. Rather, it is its nature as a platform where people can really do things. They can discuss, collaborate, exchange, construct, and above all, they can build up knowledge, together, in a cumulative process of mutual help and shared perception of problems and needs."
This was the experience of the Laboratorio dell'Immaginario Scientifico (LIS), in Trieste, Italy, which opened in June, but had its origins in Internet-mediated projects involving students in several European communities. "Real time use of technology can enhance exchange among different cultures and foster the identification of important issues for globalization," commented Andrea Bandelli, who was instrumental in the center's development.
Inviting visitor participation online raises management issues, just as it does in the real world of the exhibit floor - among them the potentially high volume of responses and the need for some degree of moderation and selection. And no one knows whether serving online users brings paying visitors through the door. Several strategies for managing feedback on the web were noted, among them NASA's use of classroom teachers to filter and respond to routine questions and comments.
Learning research lends support to an emphasis on collaboration and participation in web design, as well as to real-world problem-solving, according to Laura Martin of the Arizona Science Center. "Learning is socially organized activity - integrated around a common motive and directed to specific objects," she noted.
Who's using these web resources - and for whom are we designing? With traveling exhibitions, the partners decided, the principal audience would be staff of host museums - who in some cases have linked to or adapted the web material for use with their own audiences. Understanding this ultimate, and invisible, audience is a challenge - though some new approaches to analysis of log files may be providing useful data, Rob Semper of the Exploratorium suggested.
Related are questions about management and financing of work on the web. Where will we find time, with visitors on the floor, and the impact of web resources still largely undocumented? Partners used different strategies - from the Exploratorium's well-funded new media center, to the Brooklyn Children's Museum's contracted-out graphic design and web-page development. At ASTC, most work is done in-house by largely self-taught staff distributed throughout the organization.
Remembering Core Values
Participants urged that in work on the web, science centers not lose sight of their core values. Joel Halvoron cited futurist John Naisbitt, who wrote in his 1995 book Global Paradox that "every high-tech revolution is followed by a high-touch revolution." Less important than how technology is used in exhibits or programs, Halvorson suggested, is ongoing and cross-disciplinary reflection about the nature of the museum experience. Thinking of Naisbitt's forecast, he said, "the affective dimension of the museum experience should be stressed, to provide the compensatory human response - or 'high-touch experience' - demanded for survival in a highly technological society."
Check the ASTC web site for prototypes of online resources based on Turbulent Landscapes, Wild About Plants, and Animal Eyes, developed through a collaboration among ASTC, the Exploratorium, and the Brooklyn Children's Museum. Go to www.astc.org, click on Exhibits, then Exhibits Library. The project, Making Sense of Information, was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the IBM Foundation.