|ASTC Dimensions: March/April 2007
Performing Science: The Once and Future Science Show
Why Live Demonstration Still Matters
By Dante Centuori
"You can dream, create, design, and build the most wonderful place in the world...but it requires people to make the dream a reality."—Walt Disney
A few years ago, while working at Walt Disney World's Epcot, I attended a meeting for people involved with the Innoventions pavilion. This is an area sponsored by different sci/tech companies that showcases the latest gadgets and technologies.
Innoventions is heavily staffed and draws on many departments. Our meeting involved people from operations, entertainment, corporate administration, "Imagineering" (the creative group), and my group, Epcot Science.
The conversation turned to challenges with the floor team; staff were "clumping" and not engaging guests proactively. An Imagineering team leader turned to me and asked, "Dante, how do science centers solve this problem?" Even Disney, with all its resources, it seemed, had not figured out the magic formula for keeping staff consistently engaged with visitors.
What this story really communicates is the importance of live presenters. Disney had invested tens of millions of dollars in Innoventions, but they still saw that a human presence in the pavilion was a key part of the guest experience—so much so that they thought it worth spending time on improving the team, rather than tossing the presenters aside in favor of more animatronic robots.
As technology forges ahead, it is easy to react with more technology to present the science in our institutions. What could be ignored is people's need to come face-to-face with the real world and experience its wonders and phenomena firsthand. Regardless of age, school system, or geography, audiences are still utterly amazed to see Rice Krispies rising up and sticking to a balloon rubbed on someone's head! We should not take for granted how incredibly fascinating "low tech" science phenomena can be.
The power of narrative
Here's what we know. The live experiences we offer in our museums and science centers are among our biggest assets. They are a key part of what visitors want. Several years ago, COSI Toledo started a tobacco education program that featured a 3-D laser show produced by Liberty Science Center. Visitor studies showed it to be effective, but also indicated that people thought the addition of a live presence could improve it. When the show was adapted for COSI's 3-D theater, a discussion component with a facilitator was added for the program. This component was well received and proved to have a positive impact on students' attitudes toward smoking.
Before the Great Lakes Science Center (GLSC) adopted its current business plan, considerable research was done, much of it on audiences. Despite recent trends toward more consumption of personal technology, live science demonstrations turned out to be the number-two ranked experience of interest to visitors, right after traveling exhibitions. Guests also wanted "to feel invited to the center" and "to participate in science-based enrichment." The strongest way to fulfill perceived needs like these is with people.
That finding has since been incorporated in GLSC's strategic focus, as we grow and improve our base of public and school demonstrations and programs. The key to making the wonders of science come alive still rests with the people who bring concepts to life.
The author uses a leaf blower
and a beach ball to bring the Bernouilli principle to life for a school outreach program
Photo by Gary Yasaki
Science centers are filled with hundreds of fascinating stories. These can be as simple as pulling a tablecloth out from under a place setting of china to demonstrate the principle of inertia or as complex as taking infrared temperature readings to show the interconnectedness of lake, sky, and land. As Dennis Barrie, whose projects include the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, likes to say, "Narrative is the strength of any exhibition or education."
To unlock the stories, it takes storytellers—maybe not in the formal sense of the art form, but in the more natural sense of a human tradition that goes back millennia. In a science show, there are characters, there is drama, there is build-up, and there is denouement (or catastrophe!). It's all there, and in the hands of a skilled presenter it becomes an engaging window into science and nature for our visitors.
A passion for storytelling
So how do you find a great presenter? It's not impossible, but it does take effort.
Passion and personality come first. Most science centers have the resources for content training, and often you will find a great performer who has some solid science background. Not everyone needs to have prior training in science or education, but it is essential that all have a drive to share some part of the story through science, education, or learning. Passion brings a sincerity and enthusiasm that training cannot.
Personality and stage presence are equally important. Candidates invited to "audition" should be required to bring a prepared 5-minute presentation. There's a lot to learn from this besides presentation skills: You can see if a candidate is well organized, and if he or she has any special talents. Did this one do background research on your institution? Did that one stay within the time limit? Is this candidate able to think and react quickly?
Here's a technique to try: Do a group interview with several candidates and observe how they interact with other potential team members. Can they play off each other? Does someone dominate? How is the chemistry? At Epcot, half-day workshops were used to audition 10 facilitators at a time. GLSC has initiated all-day charrettes of prospective education team members. (Scott Mair, of CRD Parks in Victoria, British Columbia, helped us set up this system.) This is a great way to learn if candidates have the stamina to be "on stage" for a seven-hour shift.
All of this sounds like a huge investment, but it's an investment that will pay off—with fewer mistakes in hiring and, thanks to a corresponding drop in turnover, fewer resources expended in the end. To apply a technology metaphor, a machine is only as good as its operating system. If our exhibits are the "hardware" for the science center experience, then the floor staff and presenters are the essential "software."
Of course, new technologies used well do help to enhance the live presence. Distance learning brings many concepts and experiences to new audiences. Media and video tools help us share intimate live phenomena with larger audiences. And clever uses of stage effects and lighting enliven the experience of a science show.
With developing technology touting "connectivity" and "communication," it may be tempting to focus limited institutional resources on more "stuff." But in the end, it is the excitement that comes from making a personal connection that will continue to drive our industry. And the ultimate argument comes from the visitors themselves—their desire to be invited, to participate, to learn something new and amazing about science. There are so many stories to share. We must provide the storytellers to share them.
Dante Centuori is director of education and outreach at the Great Lakes Science Center, Cleveland, Ohio; www.GreatScience.com