Where is the Science in a Maker Space?

October 20th, 2014 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

The debate over the value of maker spaces continued on Monday afternoon with “Where is the Science in a Maker Space?” led by Hooley McLaughlin from the Ontario Science Centre. Building off of a similarly divisive session from ASTC 2013, presenters Lisa Brahms from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Karen Wilkinson from the Exploratorium, San Francisco, and Paul Orselli of POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop) described their work with maker spaces while McLaughlin took the (unpopular) anti-maker space stance.

McLaughlin started the session by stating his view that maker spaces are a danger to science centers (followed by a great deal of murmured dissent from attendees). In his opinion, science centers should be educating visitors with classic methods on the basic principles of science so that visitors have a stronger foundation on which to build their interest and knowledge of STEM subjects. McLaughlin believes that while all experimental scientists are makers, putting people in an environment where they get to be makers will not make them think like a scientist. Often participants are just moving things around and not thinking about the process. Needless to say, the panel and many maker professionals in attendance did not agree, leading to a lively and passionate discussion.

Orselli pointed out that many museums are not clear on what their criteria for a successful maker space should be or how it should be measured. He said that asking where the science is in a maker space is a bit of a red herring, since a lot of what maker spaces are about is the learning process and developing abstract thinking. Maker spaces may be spreading like wild fire, but that doesn’t mean everything that came before will be destroyed. This led to a larger discussion about what the overall purpose of a maker space should be. Wilkinson stated that science centers should be the biggest, broadest playground for science exploration in many forms, and Brahms added that the maker movement has sparked a new conversation about learning and thinking about learning as a social process. Attendees were very vocal in their support for maker spaces using “scientific play” as the gateway to a deeper interest and understanding of science.

Brahms then discussed her recent study based on a text analysis of Make magazine that showed that making activities corresponded with many learning disciplines and learning practices. She also stated that through making, children are learning how to set and reach goals and how to work with others. At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s Makeshop, the goal is not science or science learning, but simply learning. This led to a discussion of the “maker space” brand. There are museums that have received funding and built maker spaces without knowing what to do with the space, or that have simply renamed craft areas as maker spaces. These less purposeful maker spaces dilute the term and bring down the overall impression of maker spaces. However, just because the maker movement is popular and museums around the world are jumping on the bandwagon doesn’t mean that making and tinkering are not effective.

Overall, this thought provoking discussion brought out a plethora of opinions on the maker movement and the debate is sure to continue. Resources and research on learning in maker spaces is being compiled at makingandlearning.org, a project from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Innovative Trends in Communicating Climate Science

October 20th, 2014 - Posted in Annual Conference by Emily Schuster

As session leader Jamie Klein of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) put it, the session “Innovative Trends in Communicating Climate Science” provided “tools, techniques, and food for thought” for addressing climate change in science centers and museums. All three museums that participated in the session use visualizations in different ways to help visitors understand this complex issue.

The first presenter, Eddie Goldstein of DMNS, described the program A Tale of Three Planets, which the museum presents on Science On a Sphere, sometimes with a presenter or facilitator and sometimes without. The presentation compares the climates of Earth, Venus, and Mars to help visitors understand how climate works on Earth. The museum’s research showed that the approach of comparing the three planets was helpful to visitors and that the visualizations were effective.

Patrick Hamilton of the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM), St. Paul, told attendees about four outreach programs driven by SMM’s Future Earth exhibition. The programs outline the effects of climate change on four different levels (global, Minnesota, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and SMM) and communicate what can be done to address the issue. All four programs communicate the message that Earth’s future will be determined by human decision making, whether by default or by design, and we should work for the future we want.

John Anderson of the New England Aquarium, Boston, talked about efforts to empower people to think and talk about climate change in more constructive ways. Currently much communication about climate change is contentious, he said, and it’s not considered a polite topic of conversation. Science centers can help to change that by letting people know why climate change matters, how it works, and how we can improve the situation. The aquarium does this using visualizations and dialogue with visitors.

Real + Virtual: New Horizons for Engagement with Nature

October 20th, 2014 - Posted in Annual Conference by Emily Schuster

At the Monday morning session “Real + Virtual: New Horizons for Engagement with Nature,” participants learned about ways to use both “real” hands-on natural history specimens and “virtual” digital collections with the public. Session leader Cindy Lincoln of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS), Raleigh, was joined by presenters Steve Turner, also of NCMNS; Bruce J. MacFadden of the Florida Museum of Natural History/University of Florida, Gainesville; Amy Bolton of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Richard A. Kissel of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven, Connecticut; and Cynthia Spratley and Steve Fields of the Museum of York County, Rock Hill, South Carolina.

MacFadden described iDigBio, a U.S.-wide initiative to digitize collections in nonfederal natural history museums. Specimens are available both to researchers and to “downstream users,” including fossil clubs and K–12 teachers and students.

Bolton discussed her work on NMNH’s new exhibition Q?rius, which has 32 cabinets with objects visitors can take out and explore. All objects are digitized, and audiences can access information about them by scanning QR codes on the objects, accessing touchscreens in the exhibition, or using the internet at home.

Kissel outlined the difference between object-based learning (where audiences can explore single specimens, as in discovery rooms) and collections-based learning (where they have access to a collection of thousands of examples of a single type of specimen). Collections-based learning allows learners to see patterns and draw larger conclusions, and Kissel believes museums need to provide more of these types of experiences. Digitization can be one way to do this.

Fields described the Museum of York County’s Naturalist Center, where visitors can interact with and handle specimens. He said that when visitors have access to specimens, they have more “aha! moments” and meaningful experiences because they are in charge of their own learning.

After the presentations, session attendees moved around the room to discuss the topic in more detail with the panelists at small tables.

Beyond Discovery Rooms: Bringing collections to life for young learners

October 19th, 2014 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

Discovery rooms, a popular museum feature, started as nothing more than a room full of boxes with items visitors could physically touch, as opposed to the strict “no touching” policy of most museum galleries at the time. These rooms have grown into the immersive, hands-on spaces for children that we all know and love. But what happens when visitors leave the discovery rooms? How can discovery room experiences be integrated with the rest of the museum? Conference attendees gathered on Sunday afternoon to hear Daniel Zeiger from the American Museum of Natural History, New York City; Rebecca Kipling from the Museum of Science, Boston; and Ashley Gamell from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York, discuss their ideas.

After experimenting with some discovery room activities from the presenters’ institutions, Zeiger described common key components of a discovery room including:

  • Safe, relaxed environment
  • Child centered
  • Free choice
  • Intricately linked to the rest of the museum content and mission

He then described challenges the discovery rooms at his institution have faced, such as how to connect visitors to the rest of the museum. Zeiger has addressed this challenge by introducing children to an object in the discovery room and then giving the families necessary guidance and materials to find related objects in the museum collection, with activities that do not require children or their caregivers to read a lot of text. Zeiger’s keys to discovery room success include:

  • Focusing on the objects. No one wants to just read a book.
  • Giving visitors a chance to explore the objects with the tools of a scientist.
  • Providing open-ended prompts that encourage creative thinking.
  • Using dedicated staff familiar with facilitation and listening techniques.
  • Not being afraid to try new things.

The discovery center at the Museum of Science, Boston, is wildly popular, but, due to fire safety concerns, had to drastically reduce the number of visitors permitted in the room at one time. Kipling discussed how she took the discovery room activities out into the rest of the museum, especially into some less popular spaces. Gamell described the transformation of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden discovery garden during a time when it had no set space due to the construction of a new discovery garden. Their decision to create portable activities in multiple places around the garden raised their visibility, both to the public and to staff, and doubled visitor participation in just two years. The session closed with attendees sharing their tips, stories, and questions about their own discovery rooms.

Best Practices for Social Media

October 19th, 2014 - Posted in Annual Conference by Emily Schuster

According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 73% of online U.S. adults now use some kind of social media, and 42% use multiple social networking sites. So how can science centers and museums best harness social media to engage audiences and advance their institutional goals?

On Sunday afternoon, Lauren Frieband of the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, led “Best Practices for Social Media,” a session packed with social media case studies, tips, and best practices from panelists Kalie Sacco of the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education; Nancy Somers of Science North, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada; Janet Noe of the Lawrence Hall of Science; and Mike Steger of TELUS World of Science, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Here are some of the top tips and best practices:

  • Make it fun.
  • Find useful tools. (Panelists recommended Tweet Archivist, Hootsuite, Google Analytics, RebelMouse, and Woobox.)
  • Provide opportunities to interact.
  • Engage influencers.
  • Keep it brief.
  • Use the platform that works for you and your audience.
  • Foster good relationships between staff scientists and marketing staff to get more science in your social media content.
  • Empower your staff (including scientists) to have access to your social media accounts—but if you have multiple staff members creating social media content, be sure you are consistent in how you communicate.
  • Look at your analytics and do more of what works and less of what doesn’t work.
  • Try organizing a sweepstakes or contest. Make it fun, interactive, simple, easy, and quick.
  • Leverage the power of celebrity. Involve celebrities in exhibition openings or other events and fan the flames with social media (as TELUS World of Science Edmonton did by involving James and Oliver Phelps, who play the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter movies, in the opening events for the Harry Potter: The Exhibition). Get to know your local concierges—they may send celebrities your way!

Halfway through the session, attendees were let loose into the Exhibit Hall to find something they thought was cool about science (something that shows science has “swagger”) and share it on social media using the hashtag #socialswag. When the group reconvened 25 minutes later, analytics showed #socialswag had more than 55,000 impressions (i.e., the number of times the hashtag was displayed in different social media accounts).

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