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Museums Offer Hands-On Ways to Teach Science

NEW YORK—A 200-gallon aquarium isn't much to brag about. But the tank, together with workstations, microscopes, displays and a helpful staff, have made quite a splash at the new New York Hall of Science in Queens. The aquarium is one of more than 100 exhibits at the museum, which formally reopened its doors last fall after a five-year, $9 million renovation and a summer-long dress rehearsal. Like the museum itself, the aquarium exhibit is designed to "bring the microscope into the macrosco

By | February 23, 1987

NEW YORK—A 200-gallon aquarium isn't much to brag about. But the tank, together with workstations, microscopes, displays and a helpful staff, have made quite a splash at the new New York Hall of Science in Queens.

The aquarium is one of more than 100 exhibits at the museum, which formally reopened its doors last fall after a five-year, $9 million renovation and a summer-long dress rehearsal. Like the museum itself, the aquarium exhibit is designed to "bring the microscope into the macroscope," explained Geri Unger, biology program coordinator. "We want to demonstrate another layer of the living world and help people learn more about what's under the surface of what they see every day."

The New York Hall of Science is part of a growing international community of hands-on science museums. Some 150 million per-Sons visit more than 800 science museums each year in the United States alone, and the international Association of Science-Technology Centers has more than tripled its membership since it was formed in 1973. The movement has enlisted the aid of thousands of scientists, and has stimulated research into how best to acquaint people with the principles of science.

Listen and Revise

"Science centers operate like science itself," said physicist Alan Friedman, director of the Hall of Science. "In addition to our interactive exhibits that provoke inquiry and experimentation, the sharing of efforts and results is one of our most important hallmarks. Like scientists themselves, we do not work in ivory-tower labs. We share our work, evaluate findings, listen to criticism and proceed accordingly."

Community outreach is an important activity for museums. The Queens museum is one of 22 science centers to receive a grant from the General Electric Foundation to train local science teachers. It is training educators to use inflatable planetariums to complement the traditional textbook approach to teaching astronomy.

"The fact that museums are now legitimate applicants for grants for teacher training indicates the serious new role of museums as tools for change in the educational system," said Michael Templeton, program director at the National Science Foundation, which provides funding for museum-based teacher training.

Ties with Scientists

A preview night for New York-area members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was part of a national effort to strengthen the bonds between scientists and local science museums. The program, which began in 1981 and was recently expanded to 12 museums, has enabled 1,500 volunteer scientists to create exhibits, present lectures and advise museum staff.

Despite such efforts, there is a consensus that the relationship is nowhere near cozy enough.

"There is a vital need to get scientists more involved," said Bonnie VanDorn, executive director of the Association of Science-Technology Centers. "We need their input to carry out honest, quality programs."

The growth in the number of museums also has stimulated research on how people learn from them. Some researchers call for more sophisticated testing of exhibit ideas. "It's the only way to be sure that the concepts for teaching science will work as we expect them to work, and that science museums go beyond fun and actually succeed in teaching basic principles of science," said psychologist C.G. Screven of the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee.

At the Hall of Science, most exhibits begin as prototypes and are revised by staff in light of feedback from visitors and suggestions from a scientific advisory group.

"The New York museum has set up a development system that goes well beyond what others in the field are doing," said Judy Diamond, a biologist and museum learning researcher. "By being as experimental as possible, it has developed a way of designing for the future."

McDonald is on the staff of The Scientist.


European Exhibits Offer Mix

CARDIFF, WALES—The crowds around the old Gas Company showrooms here aren't window-shopping for the latest appliances. Instead, they're watching children and adults interact with exhibits— collectively called Techniquest—that range from cans of food being rolled down a slope to a simple television system where aspiring newscasters face the camera. The opening of Techniquest this winter ended the first phase of a team effort, led by John Beetlestone of University College here, to make the pursuit of science and technology fun by providing interactive exhibits accessible to all.

Techniquest is one of a number of small interactive science and technology centers developing in Britain with philanthropic support. Its opening in December contained exhibits lent by some of the others: Richard Gregory's Exploratory at Bristol, the Merseyside Museum Service at Liverpool, and the Science Museum's Launch Pad in London.

The development of the exhibition brought together many Welsh organizations, both industrial and educational. Design students from Gwent College produced many of the exhibits, including possibly the simplest and best Cartesian Diver display in any interactive science center. (The display demonstrates the compressibility of air with a sealed chamber filled partially with water.) From the large walk-through "impossible triangle" to the Bernoulli table that allows a number of investigations of the effects of air streams, the design invites participation, speculation and investigation. Enjoyment is the keynote and, as in the other British exhibitions, there is no overriding theme nor outside structure to interfere with the exhibits.

The situation in Paris could not be more different. On the site of an old cattle market at la Villette, the French government last spring opened the Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie in the refurbished auction hall of the old abattoire. Explora, a permanent exhibition devoted to science and technology, occupies much of the space, and is organized around four themes: earth and universe, the adventure of life, language and communication, and matter and human work (including the evolution of technologies).

These exhibitions combine interactive and static displays, with conceptual links both explicit and implicit. Similarly, in the Inventorium, the exhibit areas specifically designed for children, strong thematic connections exist. The working television studio is equipped with a teletype link to a news agency, and participants can prepare up-to-the-minute news bulletins. The theme of communication is reflected in adjacent exhibits, with compressed-air message transfer systems and voice pipes available to be explored.

In addition to Explora and the Inventorium, the Cite des Sciences contains temporary exhibitions, reference centers where visitors can consult printed and audio-visual resources, a planetarium, and exhibition space where industrial concerns and the French regions can mount displays. Officials call it a total center, "a work of art, an instrument of communication which each person will use in his own way to discover or rediscover the world in which he lives."

Techniquest and the other small centers have the potential to excite, inform and stimulate their British visitors. Whether that interest can be translated into a national commitment to science and technology is still an open question. By the same token, a large national center such as the French have created at la Villette offers viewers a massive amount of information. But it is not known if such an approach can lead them to a better appreciation of science.

—Arthur Lucas is Professor of Science Curriculum Studies at the
Centre for Educational Studies, Kings College, University of London.


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