A Scientist for the Day: Exploration and Discovery in the Museum
Where's the Science in Science Centers?
By J. Shipley Newlin
In his introduction to Physics for the Inquiring Mind, Eric Rogers wrote that “to understand science, each student must be, in his own mind, 'a scientist for the day.'” At the Science Museum of Minnesota, that principle has guided our work in the Experiment Gallery and other exhibitions over the past 10 years.
It has been my observation that in museums we consciously or unconsciously model our understanding of science not only in what we do behind closed doors as we develop exhibits, but also in the experiences we provide on the exhibit floor. Because we often think of ourselves as simplifiers of science, we risk casting ourselves in the role of science “tellers” rather than science “explorers.” Yet as scientists and exhibit developers, we experience pleasure in the process of exploration and discovery. Shouldn't our visitors have the same kind of pleasurable experience?
In the Experiment Gallery and other areas of the museum, we do our best to give visitors tools that both encourage experimentation and make it fruitful. We want them to enjoy our exhibits as much as we do, to play with the phenomena and devise their own questions-and to be open to saying “Gee whiz!”
Science as aesthetic experience
Like other things that are worth doing, science has a strong aesthetic dimension. When you discover something, there's a feeling of the beautiful. Things fit together; it all makes sense.
The exhibits that give me the most pleasure are those that offer insight into a phenomenon in a directly sensual way. The effect may be visual, as in a sheet of soap film that shows a patterned array of beautiful, swirling interference colors. It may be aural, as in SMM's Waves on a String exhibit, which helps us see the difference we can hear between a plucked and a bowed cello string. Or it may be kinesthetic, as when we try to turn the “wrong” end of a large gear-reduction mechanism.
A popular exhibit like our Very Large Magnet is wonderful visually and wonderful physically. You explore the magnetic field by hand, using a steel ball on a stick, aluminum plates, and wire coils. If you later go into the classroom to study electromagnetism, you can say, “I know that, I've seen it, I've felt it.”
There's great satisfaction in understanding something-in being able to model it and to express it mathematically. At SMM, we're working now with David Odde, a research scientist at the University of Minnesota. David is experimenting with ways of manipulating biomaterials, such as cells and bacteria, using the momentum of laser light. Everyone knows that light has energy, but it's amazing to see that it can actually move things. David is developing a demonstration of this phenomenon, and when it is working a smile lights up his face. The job of the exhibit we will build with him is to help visitors discover that delight for themselves.
Another example at SMM is an exhibit about large storm systems. Peder Thompson, one of our prototypers, built an exhibit that allows visitors to introduce warm foggy air into a long channel of cold air. As the warm air flows in, a beautiful thin wedge of clouds flows up over the cold air mass, pushing toward the opposite end of the chambera warm front made visible.
Forrest Price, another SMM prototyper, built a small live-steam power plant that generates electricity using a steam engine with a glass cylinder. Visitors can control how much steam enters the cylinder by setting the steam cutoff valve-and then watch the steam expand to drive the piston. After some discussion, we added a water-cooled copper tube to condense the exhaust steam. When we got it working, the engine suddenly picked up speed and generated more power. Now visitors can turn on the condenser to see and hear why power plants are always built near rivers, or with large cooling towers.
There's an aesthetic pleasure in working with something, like the steam engine, that you've only read about. This operates on many levels. For young children, there's the pleasure of making the engine run and of seeing and hearing the puff puff puff of the steam. For older visitors, there's the pleasure of experimenting, of exploring the properties, the thermodynamics, of steam.
A Place for Experimentation
The physical sciences are the focus of the Science Museum of Minnesota's Experiment Gallery, which contains more than 60 exhibits on physics, chemistry, mathematics, and earth science topics. A smaller version, containing about 25 exhibits, is currently traveling to museums around the United States. More information can be found in Experiment Bench: A Workbook for Building Experimental Physics Exhibits (1994), published by the Science Museum of Minnesota and available from ASTC Publications; to order, call 202/783-7200 x140.
Scripting the scientist's role
In the Experiment Gallery, we try to create conditions that make it comfortable for visitors to have this kind of experience, to approach an exhibit in a thoughtful way and to play the role of “scientist for a day.” It may seem obvious, but people need to have places to sit down, so they can spend enough time to become familiar with the apparatus and the problem they're going to explore. It's important that there be several variables to work with, and many possible outcomes.
At SMM, we develop exhibits that take time to do. We downplay the furniture and stay away from slickness. Everything in the Experiment Gallery is genuine. We don't make up “cute” things or add fancy elements that don't relate. The experiment is right there. So visitors come expecting to find meaning. The very name of the area“Experiment Gallery”sets up the role our visitors will play.
Ultimately, of course, science is not only about the aesthetic pleasure of discovery-it's also being able to discuss and explain things. You can't have science without conversation. So for 80 hours a week, there are floor staff present in the Experiment Gallery, people who are themselves interested in science and available to converse with the visitors. They run the hall and care for the exhibits. They can make changes if things aren't right; they can even banish an exhibit. It's clear to visitors that staff are part of the experience.
Because this personal interaction is so important,
we take care in choosing and training Experiment Gallery staff.
We hire people who have a background in the subject matter themselves
and who love science and find it beautiful and exciting. We look
for people who like people, and who aren't afraid to try things.
We encourage staff to be accessible and friendly, to be helpful
(but not to do things for visitors), and to model thoughtful conversation.
Many visitors spend more than half an hour in the Experiment Gallery,
but that's not a problem, it's a pleasureand part of the
experience of being a scientist for a day.
J. Shipley Newlin Jr. is director of physical sciences
at the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul. He can be reached