Existing in Two Worlds Pecha Kucha

October 21st, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

A packed room was engaged in Sunday afternoon’s presentation on the convergence of the virtual and physical worlds in science centers. Using the PechaKucha format (Japanese for “chit-chat”), seven presenters each presented 20 slides and spoke for 20 seconds on each, highlighting existing, new, and conceptual products that bridge the gap between technology and the museum space and serve to engage visitors. The range of presenters from technophiles to technophobes stirred up a lively discussion on the benefits and drawbacks of virtual experiences and their ability to captivate visitors and propel science centers into the future.

The discussions kicked off with Jennifer Martin of TELUS Spark, who discussed the struggle between learning vs. play and competency vs. content. Lath Carlson, from The Tech Museum of Innovation, followed with thoughts on incorporating the virtual world into the physical world through the use of the Tech Tag for exhibits. Jim Spadaccini of Ideum examined the use of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) in exhibits, which was immediately juxtaposed by Paul Orselli’s (POW!) analysis of the social barriers posed by the use of screens. Darrell Porcello from Lawrence Hall of Science highlighted three user engagement websites aimed at educators, youth, and citizen scientists, and Eli Kuslansky of Unified Field provided commentary on the surge of maker labs and whether these spaces are a fad or revolution. The presentations were concluded with Liza Rawson’s (Liberty Science Center) tour through the in-development Beyond Rubik’s Cube” exhibit.

After the PechaKucha presentations, time was allotted for interactive discussion with the panelists where the concepts were explored further and the presenters were challenged on their positions. All in all, it was an interesting, educational, and mentally stimulating session where the presenters were instructed to and successfully managed to “be brief, be brilliant, and be gone.”

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

October 21st, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

“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.”

Meet the McGrath Fellows

October 21st, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Emily Schuster

 ASTC’s Lee Kimche McGrath Worldwide Fellowship aims to help individuals from science centers and museums outside the United States to attend the ASTC Annual Conference, in the hope that this experience will help them in the development of their institutions and the growth of the field worldwide. The Fellowship is named for ASTC’s first executive director.

This year, four Fellows have been chosen, thanks to significant financial support from the Gelfand family: Diego Vaz Bevilaqua, director of Museu da Vida/Fiocruz, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Netzach Farbiash, deputy general director for scientific content at Carasso Science Park, Beer Sheva, Israel; Susan Wairimu Mahachi, a science teacher at Chisipite School, Harare, Zimbabwe, who has started working on creating the Zimbabwe Science Centre; and Fiorella Silveira Segui, head of education at Espacio Ciencia, Laboratorio Tecnologico del Uruguay, Montevideo.

We spoke to the McGrath Fellows during ASTC 2013 to learn about their work and what they hope to gain from the conference.

In what ways is your institution’s work meaningful to its community?

Bevilaqua: Museu da Vida is located on the campus of Fiocruz and is surrounded by poor communities, so one thing that has been stressed at the museum is to really do a long-term relationship with the schools that surround the campus.

Silveira Segui: Espacio Ciencia is the only museum of science in Montevideo. We provide teachers and students [with] tools, we have many workshops, and we bring students to do activities related to scientific work in laboratories.

Mahachi: The science center that is up and coming, its first objective is to reach the students. So one of the main goals right now is to get a hold of a mobile center, which will be able to go out and reach the rural schools in particular, where science, particularly hands-on, practical science, is really not available. Another objective that we have in the long term is to talk about issues of sustainability, of health, of clean water, and energy, which I think are really key issues of today’s concerns.

Farbiash: Carasso Science Park is in Beer Sheva. The surrounding area is 30% of Arabic speaking—that means that all of the park is in three languages—Hebrew, Arabic, and English—which is very, very important. In addition, we have Arabic-speaking guides so the local community with all its variety will be able to understand and to communicate with the guides. Since it’s a very new [science park], only three months on the air, we have some programs that are made together with the Ministry of Education, so all the kids around from all schools come [to the science park]. That way we can explore and can show science for everybody.

What challenges and opportunities lie ahead for your institution?

Bevilaqua: We have a big challenge for the next six, seven years. We are planning to have all these buildings that [are] occupied by the administrative staff and use [them] all for cultural purposes, especially scientific exhibitions. We will have opportunity to export more [of] what science is being done right now by the institution.

Silveira Segui: We are planning to go on with workshops with students and proposing workshops for teachers to improve the knowledge about science.

Mahachi: Our key challenge is to get our science center out and up and functioning. Funding basically is our key objective at the moment, to be able to get that mobile center working. From there we’ll also be able to have workshops for teachers and also be able to bring in people to the school where the science center is currently centered and be able to offer workshops to them.

Farbiash: Beer Sheva is not a touristic city. We have to do all the work in order to bring people from other places and say there’s something going on in Beer Sheva and you should come. So this is one challenge.

I had the chance of being [there] from the very beginning three years ago, and it’s like a dream come true to see everything that you have been working on, dreaming on, thinking on, just starting to work. We are already starting to work on renewing some of this stuff because within a year or two or three, people would like to know what’s new. So this is a challenge—and of course, the challenge of working through limited budget.

What do you hope to gain from attending ASTC 2013?

Bevilaqua: Networking. To gather resources about new exhibitions, new ideas, infrastructure, buildings, and all sorts of information.

Silveira Segui: To have the opportunity to be in touch with other educators and to know about what other museums are doing [and] new technologies. I’m very happy to be here.

Mahachi: For me, it’s been the opportunity to find out how people make exhibits, and also to network with people, [to] have access to more materials and resources through the networks, and also to build partnerships.

Farbiash: To get to know many of our colleagues around the world, to have a network that can help in delivering ideas, because we are not the first science park in the world, and others have been trying to solve problems that we are just starting to have now. Second, to see some of the commercial companies that present very nice ideas. And third, to [let] people know that there is a new science park in Israel [and] to invite everybody to visit and to come to see.

About the image: The 2013 Lee Kimche McGrath Fellows (left to right): Diego Vaz Bevilaqua, Susan Wairimu Mahachi, Fiorella Silveira Segui, and Netzach Farbiash. Photo by Christine Ruffo

Ramu Damodaran sparks science centers’ curiosity

October 20th, 2013 - Posted in Uncategorized by Larry Hoffer

“Science informs all the choices we make—what to eat, what time to wake up each day, how we will commute to work—whether we realize it or not.”

With that quote, Ramu Damodaran, deputy director for partnerships and public engagement for the United Nations’ Outreach Division, opened his ASTC 2013 keynote presentation on Sunday, October 20. He explained that in its 70-year history, not only has the UN changed from an organization representing 51 member states at its founding to an organization representing the more than 8 billion people on the planet, but it has also transitioned from one of globalization to one of “peoplization.”

Damodaran suggested that ASTC’s acronym should stand for:


“Everything you [science centers] do sparks curiosity,” he explained. “This curiosity can be taken back by your visitors to change the world around us.”

That curiosity is necessary given the state the world is in. Water being diverted to agriculture is not being used for drinking water. Twelve million hectares of land are being degraded every year (equaling 50 percent of the United Kingdom’s land area). A child who doesn’t get adequate nutrition immediately after birth is likely to be stunted. Every 90 seconds, a woman somewhere in the world dies of complications related to pregnancy or childbirth. One-third of children can’t read, write, or do basic arithmetic after seven years in school.

We need scientific, sustainable solutions to these problems. Damodaran pointed to the Toronto Declaration, which emanated from the 2008 Science Centre World Congress, as it established the UN’s Millennium Development Goals as something science centers can work to support, a way science centers can make a difference.

Damodaran encouraged science centers to link to the UN and the people who believe in it. He suggested that they display UN and ASTC stickers on their premises in order to let visitors know they are part of an international community. He also raised the possibility of designating 2019 as the International Year of Science Centers, in order to better translate the work of science centers beyond their communities.

The importance of linking sustainability and science was stressed repeatedly. In fact, Damodaran coined another acronym to reflect this:

Unpredictability and
Understanding of

In closing, Damodaran answered to a question from the audience asking if there is a way to make the facts impact people with strong beliefs. The audience member cited the example of a nine-year-old boy who shook his finger at a science center employee who gave a presentation about dinosaurs, and said: “You’re teaching evil—evil-ution!”)

Damodaran’s response: “You can’t win them all. There is an Indian proverb which says, ‘the only person you can’t wake up is the person who is pretending to be asleep.’”

The 4th Paradigm: Connecting Visitors to Complex Science

October 20th, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

Saturday afternoon, a packed session room in Albuquerque listened to a thought-provoking presentation entitled, The 4th Paradigm: Connecting Visitors to Complex Science. Session leader Stephen Uzzo of the New York Hall of Science introduced presenters Patrick Hamilton of the Science Museum of Minnesota, Catherine Cramer of the Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence, and Geralyn Abinader, also of the New York Hall of Science. The session focused on the rapid rise of easily accessible data and how to make this data interesting and understandable to science center visitors. The presenters all emphasized the importance of visualizations and immersive experiences and environments.

Stephen Uzzo opened the session by highlighting the differences between pre-21st century science and current science. In the past, scientists focused on observing and recording nature and creating physical models based on their observations. Now, scientists and researchers can use “the 4th paradigm,” also known as e-science or the data driven approach. Massive amounts of data are captured by instruments and analyzed by computer software. “More data has been collected in the past year than in all previous years since science began,” Uzzo said. Informal science educators and institutions can work with these scientists and researchers to bring this information to the general public.

Patrick Hamilton spoke next about the Future Earth initiative at the Science Museum of Minnesota, a National Science Foundation-funded project focusing on humans’ impact on the earth and environment. He showed fascinating visualizations of global data, including farming and grazing land around the world, roads, railways, and dams, the pH levels of oceans, and even Facebook users. These visualizations demonstrated the translation of “big data” into easy to understand visuals for the general public.

The next presenter was Catherine Cramer, who spoke about the Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence and the Ocean Literacy Framework project. Much like what was mentioned in Uzzo’s discussion, many ocean scientists are using data and computer models to conduct their research, rather than spending time in the open ocean. Cramer also discussed current hands-on informal science projects, which translate very complex ocean data into easy-to-understand activities, such as robotics kits, NOAA’s Adopt a Drifter program, and the Build Your Own Buoy projects. Another avenue being explored to translate ocean data for the general public is the collaboration of artists and scientists to display data. In her experience, scientists really want to work with educators and informal science institutions!

Geralyn Abinader finished up the individual presentations by discussing the Connected Worlds exhibit in development at the New York Hall of Science. The project immerses visitors in an interactive environment in which they can modify elements of one environment and witness the effect on other environments. This immersive environment makes visitors less likely to hang onto their preconceived ideas and allows them to walk away with a deeper understanding of the material.

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