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Interactive, Touch Tables, Maker Spaces: Trends, Fads, What's Next

“Science and technology centers started as a fad and an entire museum sub-field was born.”

Session leader Wayne LaBar of Alchemy Studio opened a standing-room-only session with this impactful statement on Sunday afternoon. “Certain ideas run rampant like wildfire,” he continued, “while we don’t spend time reflecting on what we’re doing.” This session looked at the presence of so-called fads in science centers, such as Science on a Sphere, interactive kiosks, and touch tables, and the session quickly developed into a lively and passionate discussion, complete with spontaneous applause and a full range of opinions. The trend that captured the majority of the session was the rise in making and tinkering spaces in science centers and museums.

The conflicting opinions on the maker movement started with the panelists themselves as they examined if we are blindly following a fad or if we are paving the way for a new revolution in audience engagement, interactivity, and inspiration. Kirsten Ellenbogen of Great Lakes Science Center classified trends into three categories: media trends, such as Science on a Sphere, which are constantly evolving; content trends, about which science centers need to be very careful, as they present this content to inform their communities; and experiential trends, about which science centers also need to be very weary, as once these activities are institutionalized, their value for participants may decrease. Science centers should always be asking what they can add to these experiences and why they should be adopted, Ellenbogen said.

Next, Eric Siegel (New York Hall of Science) challenged that “people are adapted to learn from people” and by reducing that interaction in science centers in favor of touch screens and kiosks, we’ve lost something. He argued that we need to shift our expertise from creating objects from which people can learn to cultivating people from which people can learn, which is a strength of the Maker movement.

Hooley McLaughlin (Ontario Science Center), however, warned that the adoption of the Maker movement by science centers is a “bad marriage.” He believes that just giving kids materials to play with doesn’t necessarily lead to the moments of discovery and inspiration that are the foundation on which science centers are built. “All scientists are makers, but not all makers are scientists,” he said.

Dana Schloss from TELUS Spark said “we need to be way smarter about how we’re stealing from each other” when it comes to exhibits and programs. Know where the idea originated and talk to the people from whom you stole the idea. When you adopt someone else’s idea, you also need to improve upon it, otherwise it’s just stealing for stealing’s sake.

After the panelists presented their views, the audience took over, voicing differing opinions and diving deeper into specific pros and cons of the Maker movement. Eventually, the moderator had to halt the discussion and move the group on to a guided SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat) analysis of the Maker movement, the results of which the session leaders intend to post in the Making & Tinkering Spaces in Museums Community of Practice at community.astc.org. (The session leaders have also posted the results on the Alchemy Studios blog)

At the end of the session, LaBar reminded the audience that 90% of the issues mentioned both for and against maker spaces could also apply to other trends in science centers and informal science education (ISE). Knowing this, ISE professionals can recognize what programs and experiences are desired and where challenges will arise, and therefore be better prepared to strategically adopt or avoid future trends in the field.

This eye-opening session was noted by some participants as “the most significant discussion of the conference” and “the reason why we are really here.”