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Inside this issue:

Technology Literacy: What Informal Education Has to Offer

A Blueprint for Change

Technology and Its Makers: A New Perspective for Science Museums

A World in Motion: Partnering with a Professional Association

A House Filled with Technology: Putting the Everyday World in Context

Tech City: Addressing Deiversity and Process in an Engineering Exhibition

Design Challenge: Learning Through Problem Solving

Celebrating Ingenuity: ASTC's Technology Museums

Playing Around with Exhibition Development


Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: September/October 2002
September/October 2002:
Building Technology Literacy
Technology Literacy: What Informal Education Has to Offer

By Cary Sneider, Larry Bell, David Rabkin, and David Ellis

We live in an age of ever-accelerating technological change, yet at the Museum of Science in Boston, our programs have tended to focus primarily on science. In the past two years, a strategic planning process has led us to conclude that, in order to serve our visitors' needs, we must enhance the presence of technology in the museum and place it on an equal footing with science.

To do so means shifting our priorities. It also means defining exactly what we mean by "technology." Discussions among staff, visitors, and trustees-including experts in both science and technology-have generated a range of views. Some feel we should represent science and technology as distinctly different; others, that we should emphasize their similarities. These discussions have resulted not only in broader definitions and deeper understanding of technology, but also in new perspectives on how it is related to science and society.

Defining our terms

As noted in a 2002 report from the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council, Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology, Americans typically use the term "technology" in too narrow a sense. We speak of "advanced technologies," meaning the latest gadgets, such as computers and DVD players. Or we say "older technologies," referring to machines from our parents' era, such as the first transistor radios and tape recorders. Few people would think of farming or cooking as technologies-yet, strictly speaking, the devices and the processes used to produce and prepare food are indeed technologies. If we, as museum educators, hope to broaden visitors' understanding of the term, it is important for us to be clear about our own definition.

In coming to a definition, our group was struck by a statement in anthropologist Ben R. Finney and astronomer Eric M. Jones's Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, the published proceedings of a conference the two scientists organized in 1983. Finney and Jones wrote, "What makes us different from other expansionary species is our ability to adapt to new habitats through technology: We invent tools and devices that enable us to spread into areas for which we are not biologically adapted. As this technological capacity developed, it allowed our distant ancestors to spread over Earth and now enables us to contemplate leaving our natal planet."

In its broadest sense, then, technology encompasses all of the products and processes that have been designed and created by people to solve a problem or to meet a human need. That includes not only cell phones, computers, and robots, but also spoons and chopsticks, woven clothing and knitted sweaters, water systems and sewer systems, and methods for growing, storing, cooking, and preserving foods. To understand just how pervasive technology is in our world, look around the room and imagine what you would see if everything designed and created by people were to disappear. You would probably find yourself standing naked in a field or forest.

  photo of boy with LEGO vehicle
LEGO/Logo and other popular engineering courses offered at the Museum of Science give visitors of all ages a chance to learn first-hand about the design process.
Photo courtesy Museum of Science
Scientist or engineer?

It is widely accepted that the role of science centers is to communicate not just the products of science, but also the nature of scientific inquiry. Similarly, to be effective communicators of technology, we must communicate how new technologies are developed. One important step is to address a common misconception about the creators of those technologies.

According to Ioannis Miaolis, dean of the College of Engineering at Tufts University, the limited way most Americans use the term "engineer" is a major barrier to the advancement of technology education in our country. Although some people might identify an engineer as someone who builds roads and bridges, to most the word connotes a person who maintains or operates heavy machinery-a railroad engineer, for example, or a ship's engineer, or even the person who operates a snowplow for the "highway engineering" department.

Speaking recently at the museum to a group of educational leaders, Miaolis noted that in Europe (and, to be fair, in some U.S. academic and business circles), engineers enjoy the same high status as scientists and are widely respected as the creative drivers of modern society. As educators, Miaolis said, we must work to expand people's understanding of engineers' work and their role in society.

One approach is to communicate the similarities and differences between scientists and engineers. Both professions require years of training and practical experience, as well as strong ability in mathematics and critical thinking. Both engage in research, using models, simulations, and experiments to refine their ideas. Both often support each other: A chemical process discovered by a scientist may form the basis of a new energy technology, while a telescope designed by an engineer may help scientists observe X rays from the stars. In fields like genetic engineering or nanotechnology, the line between discovery and invention is so fine that it is hard to make any distinction.

The primary difference between scientists and engineers lies in their goals. The scientist's goal is to understand the natural world, while the engineer's is to design a device or process that solves a problem or meets a need. There are other differences as well. Scientific inquiry involves activities like formulating a researchable question, applying relevant theory, generating hypotheses, and designing experiments. Technological innovation starts by framing a problem to be solved or a need to be satisfied, and continues through generating and evaluating potential solutions, creating a design within constraints, and building and testing prototypes.

In other words, technological innovation is not simply applied science; it is a field in its own right. And it is as important for museum visitors to learn about engineers' work and the technologies they create as it is for them to learn about scientists' work and the knowledge they produce.

The social dimension

A key concept we wish to communicate at the Museum of Science is the interaction among science, technology, and society. Society provides the institutions within which scientists and engineers work, as well as the funds to pay their salaries and purchase their equipment. Human values, needs, and problems determine in large part what questions scientists investigate and what problems engineers tackle. In return, new scientific knowledge and technologies bring about changes in human society.

Some discoveries or inventions may have only subtle effects, while others, such as the automobile and electric power, have a profound impact. Technological choices also affect the global environment, resulting in significant changes in flora, fauna, land use, and even climate. That our present world differs from the world of a century ago can be traced to the interplay of scientific discovery and technological innovation.

To clarify this perspective and guide our own thinking, we created the "Sci-Tech Circle" (see below), a diagram that illustrates the interrelationship of science, technology, and their products. At the heart of the circle is society, which drives scientific inquiry and technological innovation and is, in turn, affected by new technologies and new scientific knowledge.

Sci-Tech Circle diagram

A new framework for technology learning

The big ideas outlined in this article-a broader definition of technology, a clearer communication of the work of engineers, and an emphasis on the central role of society-underlie the conceptual framework we are now using for the overall direction and focus of our technology efforts.

We started with a definition in the Standards for Technological Literacy published in 2000 by the International Technology Education Association (available online at The ITEA Standards identify a technologically literate person as one who "understands, in increasingly sophisticated ways that evolve over time, what technology is, how it is created, and how it shapes society and, in turn, is shaped by society."

While pondering how a science center might address those aspects of technology literacy, we came across Alice Carnes' April 1986 Museum News article, "Showplace, Playground or Forum?" Carnes posed her title question and asked, "Which of these three functions should be served by a museum?" Our answer: "All three!"

In our Technology Showcase, visitors will learn what technology is and what is happening in key areas of the field. They'll look at new and historic developments and find out how scientific knowledge and technological innovation are linked.

In our Technology Playground, visitors will directly experience the creative, design, and engineering processes-imagining and inventing things of their own, learning how engineers solve problems, and trying their hand at finding solutions to a big challenge.

In our Technology Forum, visitors will examine why technologies are developed and what their impact is on people and the environment. They'll encounter historical and cultural perspectives on specific technological developments. This is where we will explore conflicting views on technological development, stimulating discussion about how to improve the decisions we make as individuals, as communities, and as a society.

In parallel with our strategic planning, we have undertaken initiatives to advance technology education. These include expansion of our Computer Clubhouse program to a worldwide network (thanks to a major grant from Intel Corporation); in-depth coverage of scientific discoveries and inventions in our Current Science and Technology Center; engineering courses (such as "LEGO/Logo," "Egg Drop Extravaganza," and "Robotics"); engineering workshops for school district teams and career programs for guidance counselors; and exhibitions and programs on engineering topics, including Boston's massive "Big Dig."

We will continue to experiment with the showcase, playground, and forum formats, integrating them into an overall technology education strategy. We look forward to exchanges with colleagues as we envision a science/technology center that fully engages visitors in scientific inquiry and technological innovation.

At the Museum of Science, Boston, Cary Sneider is vice president, programs; Larry Bell is vice president, exhibits; David Rabkin is vice president, technology; and David Ellis is president and director. For more information, visit

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