Combatting Anti-Science in Our Society

October 22nd, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

As session leader Eddie Goldstein of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science said, “This is the Association of Science-Technology Centers. We are the people who can push and nudge society in a certain direction.” That was the foundation of Monday’s Combatting Anti-Science in Our Society session. Alan Friedman of Friedman Consults and J Newlin of the Science Museum of Minnesota also presented to a vocal and passionate audience. The session consisted of short presentations from the panelists, followed by 2-3 sentence reactions from the attendees, an open discussion, and a discussion of possible next steps.

Eddie Goldstein spoke about two “aha” moments during his career. The first was when he realized that if a person doesn’t buy into the scientific process as a whole, no amount of scientific evidence will change his or her mind on an issue. The second, when he realized that there is a difference between scientific thinking and legal or political thinking. He mentioned that as science centers, it is our job to move society, bit by bit, toward scientific thinking.

J Newlin discussed the Six Americas study from Yale University that separated Americans into 6 groups regarding climate change, which are, from most to least concerned about climate change, alarmed (18%), concerned (33%), cautious (19%), disengaged (12%), doubtful (11%), and dismissive (7%). The Science Museum of Minnesota repeated the study with their visitors and found very similar results, demonstrating that education and wealth do not correlate to specific opinions about climate change, as their demographic tends to be more educated and wealthier than the general public, according to Newlin. He suggested that science centers need to start with community-based examples and action to persuade the public instead of starting with the scientific evidence.

Alan Friedman said he used to think that if you just give people the facts, they’ll use them to think more rationally and appreciate science, but found that that approach, in fact, does not work. So, he wants to change how science centers attempt to persuade science-deniers by studying how people think. He suggested using psychology and listening to how people talk, both scientists and the general public, to determine how to avoid words and phrases that will cause defenses to be raised and all arguments dismissed.

The group discussion was very lively and ended with suggestions for possible action for science centers. Suggestions included encouraging more open dialogues, being a part of the conversation and active participants on a broader scale, getting scientists on the museum’s floor to interact with visitors, and making the distinction between knowing about something and caring about something. (For example, a person can understand the rules of football, but not care what team wins or loses.) The general consensus was, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts,” and science centers can, by trying different techniques, slowly move society away from anti-science.

The Final Frontier? Interpreting Space for the Next Generation

October 22nd, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

Space exploration is changing. The shuttle program has ended, commercial companies are rapidly advancing in space flight, and rovers are some of the most recognizable “faces” for the younger generations. How do science centers present constantly evolving space science in new and interesting ways for their visitors? In Monday’s session The Final Frontier? Interpreting Space for the Next Generation, experienced panelists addressed another standing-room only crowd to answer this question. The session was lead by Whitney Owens from Great Lakes Science Center, with panelists Joseph Imholte of Science Museum of Minnesota, Diane Perlov from the California Science Center, Julian Jackson from Adler Planetarium, and Nora Normandy, from NASA. Each panelist spoke on a different facet of informal space science education and the session concluded with a question and answer portion.

To start, Owens used a mobile poll to ask what attendees’ perception of public opinion about the space program is, now that the shuttle program has ended. The overwhelming majority find that the general public think the entire space program is finished now that that shuttle has been retired. Owens also found that people think the shuttle is still flying and that it went to the moon, so there are many hurdles in space science education. We’re also moving from having astronauts as the face of space exploration to a robotic face of space exploration. She also discussed the evolution of audience needs while walking the audiences through the Great Lakes Science Center’s new NASA galleries. There are different segments of science center audiences who want different things. “Space geeks” want as much information as possible and lots of original hardware, while families with children want interactive exhibits and popular, recent missions. She recommended combining artifacts with activities and presenting both historical and future missions, and both NASA and the new commercial ventures.

Next, Nora Normandy discussed the future of space exploration and the multitude and variety of projects on which NASA is working. NASA is a lot closer to the next launch vehicles and next missions than most people realize. Even though NASA missions and priorities can change due to budget cuts and political changes, they are consistently moving forward and developing new technologies. Normandy also mentioned that the NASA Museum Alliance, the NASA media listserv, and the NASA education listserv are great resources for informal educators.

Diane Perlov discussed how to keep a permanent exhibit fresh for visitors, using the California Science Center’s recent space shuttle acquisition and upcoming expansion as an example. She emphasized the need to connect with your community when pursuing a large project. She found that there was an emotional response and and incredible depth of enthusiasm about the space shuttle and program. So how do you keep permanent exhibits interesting? Perlov recommends designing galleries around large themes that can be modified, such as their Going Places, Looking Out, and Landing galleries in their space science area. When dealing with large, unmoving objects, create evocative displays and use the building architecture to harness the emotional power of the artifacts, while integrating stories and hands-on activities. In exhibits, update the story to refresh the experience and incorporate activities in which visitors can practice and improve performance. Graphics allow for a lot of flexibility through layering, targeted content and live feeds.

Next up was Joe Imholte, who discussed how using artifacts can be challenging but awesome. He said that the most commonly available artifacts are not the most charismatic and don’t look that interesting at first glance, but can be made very interesting with the right context and activities, like the air purifier from the International Space Station that is on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Julian Jackson focused on using programs and social media for space science, such as daily sessions on current space news, always looking for ways to make something an event (like waving to the Cassini spacecraft as it took a picture of Earth), and providing information in a context with which visitors are familiar, such as an airport arrival/departure board for NASA mission statuses. Jackson also discussed using citizen science events and live tweeting events to engage visitors.

Big Ideas for Small Science Centers

October 22nd, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

On Saturday afternoon, a large crowd gathered to discuss Big Ideas for Small Science Centers. The session was led by Michele Laverty of the National Ag Science Center, with presenters Kathy Dawes of the Palouse Discovery Science Center, Lori Ann Teriesen of Children’s Science Center, Kathleen Krafft from Sciencenter, and Christopher Cable from the Durango Discovery Museum.

The session began with brief presentations from each presenter, then the group broke out into rounds of smaller, roundtable discussions. Michele Laverty focused on gaining community support for small museums. The National Ag Science Center is a science center without a building, and their programs are completely dependent on community support so that they can provide low or no cost programs for students in underserved areas. Kathy Dawes also spoke about financial concerns for small science centers, focusing on the challenges of setting up outreach programs with a limited budget, finding and storing materials, and grant and collaboration opportunities.

Christopher Cable, who is from an institution that receives no public funds, focused his roundtable discussions on increasing income at small science centers, including the current rise in demand for evening adult programs and hosted events like weddings and parties. Lori Ann Teriesen discussed what is needed to start a science center or outreach program, such as articulating your mission and vision, responding to the needs to the community, asking for help, and using available resources. Kathleen Krafft focused on exhibit development with limited funds and space. “It doesn’t take much to just jump in,” she said. Krafft discussed using ideas from other science centers and the importance of prototyping.

Attendance Trends: Ten years Past and into the Future

October 22nd, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Christine Ruffo

How do our numbers look? How can individual science centers grow their audiences? On Monday afternoon, ASTC attendees learned about current trends in science center attendance and shifting U.S. demographics, and then discussed how science centers can respond to those changes to grow attendance and bring in new audiences.

The session began with a review of ASTC’s recent 10-Year On-site Attendance Report by research and web manager Christine Ruffo. The report showed that overall attendance increased from 2002 to 2011, but did decrease somewhat after 2009. Large centers (>50,000 square feet of interior exhibit space) had the flattest trend with 2011 median attendance being only 2% higher than 2002.

Charlie Trautmann, executive director of Sciencenter in Ithaca, New York, followed with a look at internal factors under centers’ control, such as product and promotion, and external factors, such as shifting demographics, competition, and the economy, that can affect attendance. He provided two examples: admission fees and population projections.

From 2002 to 2011, median attendance fees reported through ASTC’s Annual Statistics Survey increased every year except in 2011. Price increases could be one factor in slowed growth and declines.

The U.S. population of white children under age five is declining. Traditionally, U.S. science center audiences have been predominantly white. This demographic shift suggests that attracting more diverse audiences is important not only to science centers’ missions, but also to their bottom line.

James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, presented additional demographic data. The percentage of families with children, who are often science centers’ primary audiences, is decreasing in the United States (currently, more households have dogs than children). Again, this shift underscores the importance of broadening reach. Reach Advisors are also researching the importance of creating memories in building core audiences. They are finding strong childhood museum memories lead to more visits and stronger relationships with adult audiences.

Following the presentations, attendees shared their own strategies for bringing in new audiences that have proven successful, including:

=> Offering low-cost memberships to nearby schools.
=> Designing programs around the local community’s “natural flow.” For example, scheduling a program to coincide with a women’s running group.
=> Hosting big events to make the science center a community center.
=> Creating a diversity and inclusion position at the vice president level.

They also shared questions and concerns about external factors impacting attendance.

=> Why are audience demographics so limited? Chung believes this can change, and the value of science centers can be communicated to drive growth and bring in new audiences.
=> How can museums compete with home entertainment options that are now highly customized for leisure time? Some institutions are exploring ways of customizing the visitor experience. Shared experiences are also important, though, and through those, museums can trigger dialogue and forge personal connections.

Finally, attendees were asked how they can respond or have responded to demographic shifts and work to reach new audiences. Responses included:

=> Recruit floor staff who match the demographics of the local population. One participant had implemented such an initiative with excellent results.
=> Recognize that admission fees are a barrier for many people. One museum made September (typically a very slow month), “pay what you want” month. Surprisingly, the museum only saw a 10-cent decrease in per visit revenue.
=> Partner with other groups that have successfully reached out to the communities you want to reach. One participant’s center is currently doing this and has learned a lot from their partners about how to make their museum more welcoming and inclusive.

Presentations from the session can be downloaded here.

Activating Science in Living History Museums

October 21st, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Christine Ruffo

In a Sunday morning session, history museum interpreters and science museum exhibit developers and evaluators discussed Create.Connect, a new NSF-funded science/history partnership that has been implemented at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers, Indiana. The project blends history and STEM in living history museums in a way that stays true to the museums’ history mission while providing integrated, high quality STEM experiences. By integrating STEM into these settings, the project aims to engage people who may not think of themselves as science and engineering people.

STEM activities at Conner Prairie are story driven and meant to make personal connections with guests. Criteria for story selection include:

=> Can we identify people or persons who might make the story more relatable for our guests?

=> Does it have an emotional “hook”? Is it relevant to our guests’ everyday lives?

=> Can we support the story with historical objects, photos, or other media?

=> Was there a scientific or technological breakthrough or turning point that impacted people’s lives?

=> Is there a sense of the progression of technology that would allow guests to see how historical technologies relate to those we use today?

One successful activity is based on Boone County, Indiana’s Rural Electrification project in 1936. In the exhibit, visitors can learn how electricity changed farmers’ lifestyles and work routines. Historic objects, including an electric refrigerator and waffle iron from that era, support the narrative. Visitors then can build their own circuits with wires, switches, and LEDs.

Facilitation has similarly focused on making connections. Story-building with guests includes powerful details, focuses on building a world together (characters have something to do and something for the guest to do), and includes compelling objects, such as hand-blown Edison light bulbs.

Evaluations, conducted by the Science Museum of Minnesota, show that visitors like the STEM activities and feel that they fit well in the history museum. They’ve also shown that greater facilitation results in longer stays.

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