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Informal Science Learning: Unpredictable, Chaotic…and Viral!

I recently represented ASTC on the scientific advisory board of a large media group that held its annual retreat in the pristine Colorado wilderness. Gathered together were leading scientific researchers, innovators, captains of industry, technology-based investors and philanthropists, artists, and science communicators.

In a relaxed venue, this diverse group explored the science issues that are most vexing in our world today and the topics only just visible on the edges of the horizon. The group examined, as well, the constantly changing ways in which the public obtains (and retains) science information now and in the foreseeable future.

In this, my first opportunity to participate in the annual event, I offered information about how science centers and museums engage our communities in science and educate and inspire our youth. As the discussion proceeded, I could see the illuminating “light bulbs of understanding” in the room about the many ways in which science centers and museums can integrate with other forms of science learning to excite audiences. I, too, came away with intriguing new ideas about blended approaches to science learning.

But one message emerged perhaps most clearly in all of the discussions. While these many approaches to science learning may at times appear unpredictable or maybe even chaotic, today’s growing “Wikipedia culture” is generally comfortable with this fluidity. Our field does remarkably well in capturing this dynamic as we design our science center and museum activities.

As if there were any doubts that the simplest and most unpredictable of tools have the potential to yield the greatest impact, I attempted to dazzle my colleagues at the retreat by concluding my presentation with a brief discussion of the two-minute video of the “quantum levitation” demonstration by Tel Aviv University researchers at the 2011 ASTC Annual Conference in Baltimore this past October. This video received an astounding 5 million views in its first week on YouTube and was subsequently featured in international media (providing excellent publicity for ASTC, I might add.)

I was taken by the fact that so many in the group were already familiar with this arcane area of physics. Why? Because, as it turns out, nearly 90% of the august attendees at this event in the beautiful Colorado mountains had already seen the YouTube video themselves!