The failure of science museums (and some radio shows)

Three years ago, I posted my ambivalence about science museums. I recently accompanied my seven year old on a field trip to one and now I am of the firm belief that they have very little utility for educating children about science.  Current science museums strive to be as interactive as possible. Many of the exhibits perform some simple experiment where the user participates by pulling or pushing some buttons or knobs. However, unless you are patient enough to read the information placard, the exhibits are more like toys or video games. I’m sure there are seven year olds out there that do read all the information and are enriched by the exhibits but not the ones I chaperoned. Their level of engagement with each exhibit did vary but if any scientific information was transferred, I would be shocked. The juxtaposition of interactivity and passive reading is just a bad idea. If you want to be interactive then all the information must be presented interactively.  No child and probably most adults won’t bother to read a sign before randomly hitting some buttons to see what happens. It may work better if there were some sort of gate that prevented access to the exhibit until the introductory information was read. I don’t know what the optimal format would be.

While I’m in the ranting mood, I’m also going to criticize my  favourite childhood radio show Quirks and Quarks on CBC. The problem I have with the show these days is that it basically only covers astronomy, dinosaurs, and animal behavior. Occasionally, it will also cover high energy physics or climate change. It pays scant attention to the rest of biology, physics, chemistry, computer science, or mathematics. The show does a very poor job of giving the public an idea of what most scientists really do and what constitutes scientific breakthroughs. I think it is more important now than ever that science shows try to educate the public on how the scientific method really works, to get across how difficult it can be to come up with experiments to test hypotheses and how long it takes to get from breakthroughs in the lab to applications. They should also better convey the sense of how it is impossible to predict what will become useful in the future and how lots and lots of failure is a prerequisite for progress. I hope Quirks and Quarks will become more serious because it’s migrating its way to the bottom of my podcast stack.


3 thoughts on “The failure of science museums (and some radio shows)

  1. My family visits dams and presidential libraries–often driving hours out of our way to bag another one.

    I will never forget the exhibit at the Hoover dam that demonstrates how to convert mechanical work energy to electricity using magnetic induction. It’s one thing to learn about it in E&M, but quite another to turn the crank and watch the current flow. My daughter still remembers how it works, too.


  2. I think that if a demonstration is well motivated as in your Hoover dam example, then they are the best way to convey information. The question is how to get to the visitor primed. Information placards don’t seem to be effective from what I’ve observed. Standing on a giant dam would.


  3. my parents liked the new mexico desert museum. never went there tho i did jump a train from texas to la via tuscon (had a few problems—had to jump from the train and then i need new clothes)
    . i liked and grew up at smithsonian institution natural history msueum (the big elephant ) learning plants and such.
    caught me a couple snakes last 2 days. let the big one go (5 feet) and showed the angry one to me neighbor then put it back.


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