When I was a child, I lived across the street from the Ontario Science Centre. I loved the place and would go quite often. When it first opened 40 years ago, the Science Centre was quite innovative in its use of interactive exhibits and demonstrations as well as its architecture. It drapes over the side of a valley. I still remember the excitement of riding down the escalators to the lowest levels where my favourite exhibits were.
I went back to the Science Centre this past weekend for the first time in several decades. It has changed quite a bit but some of the old exhibits still exist in a room called the Science Arcade. The architecture looks a little dated on the outside but holds up fairly well on the inside. As I walked around, I wondered whether people actually learn anything at these museums. There are lots of neat things to play with but do they actually get it. An example is an exhibit of a Cartesian Diver, which consists of a small glass fish inside a cylinder of water. The fish is partially filled with water. The visitor pushes a button that pumps air into the cylinder and the fish sinks to the bottom. However, there wasn’t a detailed explanation of how it works. The write up basically said that as air is pumped into the cylinder the pressure rises and squeezes the air inside the fish. It didn’t say explicitly that the fish had a hole in it so that water could move in and out and as the air in the fish was being squeezed by the water moving in due to the increased pressure, the fish became less buoyant and thus sank. I saw a boy watch the fish sink and say, “how did that happen?” Perhaps, the exhibit will spur his curiosity to learn more about it.
I believe the current idea of curators who design science museums and exhibits is that science museums should try to make science fun and cool. Thus the exhibits need to been highly interactive and entertaining. Maybe this is the right strategy and people do get a lot out of visiting science museums. I really don’t know. The National Academy of Sciences has a report, which I haven’t read, on this very issue. I think having a science literate public is more important now than ever. Do science museums play an important role in educating the public?