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.

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 (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

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