Blog

Reimagined and Rebranded: Science Centers for the 21st Century

By Eli Kuslansky and Gregory Peduto
From Dimensions
September/October 2013

Science centers: bastions of fun and exploration, destinations where children can let loose, providers of hands-on learning to spark a lifelong love of science. However, when children grow into adulthood in our technologically accelerating society, are they still called to science centers to satisfy their curiosity? In fact, many adults feel that science centers are no longer a place for them.

In a 2008 Reach Advisors study, more than 80% of respondents stated that science centers best served children and families, and only 22% said adults were best served. (Respondents could choose more than one option.) Increasingly, science centers face the challenge of how to engage adult audiences. To be relevant to these audiences and society in the 21st century, science centers must broaden their brand to appeal to adults as much as they do to children.

For over 20 years, Unified Field Inc., a New York City–based interactive design firm, has built hundreds of media experiences for science and cultural centers worldwide. Through partnerships and programs, we work with cities, cultural institutions, and science centers to increase science literacy. Our experience gives us a unique perspective on how to engage both children and adults.

We believe that science centers can leverage the technological opportunities of our time to reimagine their role in society, generate innovation, and promote positive social change. They can attract a broader adult audience by championing emerging technologies through a new model of engagement that includes three programming strategies:

  1. Facilitating data literacy and public access to “big data” so that citizens can help shape their cities and neighborhoods
  2. Embracing interactive games as powerful learning tools and agents of social change
  3. Developing digital fabrication labs that introduce emerging technologies to nurture a new wave of entrepreneurs.

Teaching data literacy

Ninety percent of the world’s data has been created in the last two years, and every day we add 2.5 quintillion (2.5 x 1018) bytes (IBM, 2013). This is big data. With more people living in cities—70% of the world’s population by 2050 (UN-Habitat, 2008)—we are creating an avalanche of civic data, such as climate information, pollution levels, and power consumption.

In the 21st century, people should be data literate—able to read and interpret big data—so they can be more conversant in the smart city, which is one that uses big data for city management and urban design. According to John Fraser, president and CEO of New Knowledge Organization, New York City, “Data literacy is how we are going to survive in the future.”

Data literacy is a new literacy for the adult population; where better to teach it than science centers? To our knowledge, very few, if any, science centers currently teach data literacy as we describe it here, yet data literacy is becoming more and more essential for modern life.

Science centers can act as interpreters between data and citizens to make a city’s information understandable, or legible. Called “legible cities,” the movement to put a human face on smart cities of the future posits that a city’s data can be read like a narrative to make life and the economy more sustainable, more efficient, and more humane. As Fraser explains, “Legible cities programming can help people see their food, their waste, and how their city works, and [can] help people learn together as a community.” For more about legible cities, click here.

Games saving the planet

Interactive games may be the ultimate learning platform for both children and adults. By teaching through play and connecting a visitor’s daily life to science, games can help people modify behaviors and help society find solutions to social, ecological, and scientific problems. For example, the organization Games for Change in New York City works with science centers and others to create and distribute games such as Pipe Trouble, in which players must try to make a profit laying gas pipelines while handling negative responses from the community—thereby sparking conversations among players about the natural gas industry’s relationship with local communities.

Recent analyses estimate that by 2017, the global video game industry will earn approximately $78 billion annually. Numbers like this are hard to ignore. The gaming community is here to stay, and the public has come to expect that games will be part of multimedia installations.

Science centers can take advantage of these facts by embracing games for social change within the new science center model. They can tie games to exhibits and programs and extend them beyond their walls using a wide array of platforms, including mobile apps, the internet, and social media. In addition, they can collect data and learn how to further enrich relationships with all visitors, especially adult audiences.

Hosting the next industrial revolution

Digital fabrication labs outfitted with the latest manufacturing equipment—such as laser and plasma cutters, robotics equipment, and 3D printers—offer science centers the opportunity to foster the next industrial revolution. By providing access to and assistance in using these types of equipment, science centers can stimulate interest and excitement among adult audiences and nurture a new generation of innovators.

The Tech Museum of Innovation (TMI) in San Jose, California, offers its Tech Studio to the public, allowing visitors to experience cutting-edge technologies first hand. “There is an innovator in everyone,” says Tim Ritchie, TMI’s president. “People can build things when they are provided with tools, training, and inspiration. This is the role of the science center.”

By day, digital fabrication labs can present new manufacturing techniques, teaching visitors the secrets of industrial successes. By night, labs can be turned over to the next generation of entrepreneurs, teaching the skills necessary to compete in the modern economy. “We should challenge museums to become resources, not just teachers or entertainers,” says Ritchie.

Tech wrapped in emotion

A core principle of branding is creating an emotional bond with audiences. By adopting technologies that are poised to revolutionize life and culture, science centers can forge a powerful emotional bond with both adults and children. If science centers push the boundaries of how they imagine and brand themselves, they can be relevant public resources for all audiences well into the future.

Legible cities, games for social change, and digital fabrication labs are three strategies that can broaden the scope of science centers, provide resources and a platform for the open exchange of ideas, and create communities based on science and learning. Embracing these strategies will allow science centers to change the statistics so that people perceive them as places for adults as much as places for children.

Eli Kuslansky is founding partner, and Gregory Peduto is senior writer at Unified Field in New York City. For more of their writing, click here.

About the image: Games for social change can connect people with current ecological and scientific questions. In the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Webecut game, developed by Unified Field, players balance environmental needs with economic reality. Image courtesy the Wildlife Conservation Society