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Exploratorium, San Francisco

Science Centers as Learning Laboratories

Thanks to Andrea and staff of the science center, and the province of Torino.

I am delighted to talk with you this morning about some interesting ways in which science museums and centers in the US, UK and Europe are increasingly becoming unique forums that bring together different communities to learn from each other through the exchange of perspectives, understandings, insights and questions.

These forums bring together scientists, with artists, with educators and with the general public creating a situation of public understanding of science AND science understanding of the public.

My interest in this significant and unique learning situation that museums can provide comes from my over 20 years of teaching and exhibit development work at the Exploratorium in SF, this work has included many collaborations with researchers from physics, cognitive science and education fields.

This morning I will discuss three ways in which informal science centers have been and are being used as research and learning laboratories, and I will end my talk by mentioning a new collaboration I am involved in between 2 universities, UCSC & KCL and the Exploratorium in SF.

The three ways I am focusing on in which science centers connect the public and research communities primarily involve exhibits.


- demonstrations of current research on the museum floor

- the exhibit is research experiment

2) opinion forums visitors voice/public voice into the museum

3) connecting visitor voice with the research experiment

Museums since their inception have been used as settings to show latest technological and scientific research and design ideas. A recent form of this that I find of interest is exemplified in an exhibit called the materials bar, SJ Tech Museum

Artifact with the inventor/researcher

In addition to being a demonstration of research, the exhibit itself can be an actual research experiment.

There are some interesting ways in which the exhibit has been used as a research/data gathering tool. This can allow the public to participate in a real research experiment seeing a current question in science and how it is trying to be answered

-detection of a flickering light to see wide age range of variance

-decision making situations, consumer choice and value of things


-bristol handedness- 2 SLIDES

-memory exhibit experiment- 1 SLIDES

There is another aspect of science centers and museums that adds a key ingredient to their capacity to be vital research and learning forums

and that is that they are highly social places and there is a high degree of interest people have not only in their own responses and interactions at exhibits, but also high degree of interest in seeing what others do, say, and think.

Color Block SLIDE

I first became aware of this high degree of interest in a language exhibit I developed:

-reaching for meaning-4 SLIDES

Intentional design using visitor voice in an exhibit-

-bristol dream wall uses this as an intentional technique 3 SLIDES

-explo. Also made use of this technique in a memory exhibit we developed

-earliest memories, 1 SLIDE

-collective memories/ shared memories time line-1 SLIDE

- this social interest can offer a significant avenue for people to learn about their own and each other's points of view.


The Explo and other museums have also found that different perspectives on scientific issues can also be effectively explored through this form of exhibit

-Nagasaki same SLIDE

-Amsterdam prototype

With newer technology it is now fairly easy to design a number of different ways for people to see cumulative patterns of response.

-Explore at Bristol opinion stations-4 SLIDES

-London Science Museum,

Wellcome Wing opinion stations 2 SLIDES

They also have dialogue tables 2 SLIDES, LAST SLIDE

Combining with the idea of research on the floor, with visitor voice can offer a unique opportunity in which this can be data in research study is then not just for the museum staff or university researchers, but also for the museum visitor, creating a unique learning forum for multiple communities.

Not just science but also other museums can be used in this way-

-The National Gallery in London had an eye tracking study with University of Derby to research how people look at paintings differently-researchers and museums visitors were able to see the many variations people’s eye movements had as they looked at the same painting.

In addition to providing the researcher with a large number and diverse data base of responses, the "research exhibits" can provide a meta-level of experience for visitors to learn more about their own and others ways of thinking and learning.

creating a unique multiple party mutual learning endeavor - a three way conversation between the visitor, museum and researcher.

And that brings me to the final collaboration example between an informal science center & science research communities – it is a new center funded by NSF called CILS, Center for Informal Learning and Schools

-it is a collaboration between UCSC KCL & Explo

-use the science center to learn more about the learning of science and science of learning

– look at factors that contribute to the apparent high motivation in these environments and how that can impact the classroom teaching

-MA, PhD and Post Doc programs to look at effective alliances between the formal and informal educ settings

program structure & timing

other spin offs-EU research center….,

learning about learning from each other/about each other

public understanding of science and science understanding of the public.

I conclude with a story from a science exhibition in a shopping mall in the UK that I was part of-

with engineering students working on ideas concerning risk

brynne wynne quote:

Do the public misunderstand risk? Yes, of course they do and so does everyone else.