The Final Frontier? Interpreting Space for the Next Generation

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.