The “Team Sport” of Science Center Learning

Watching young visitors move among the exhibits in science centers and museums, I am often reminded of how my children first learned to play soccer (or football in most of the world). We called it “pack ball” because of the way the entire team tended to follow the ball in unison. Groups of young people often navigate through our science centers in much the same collective fashion. This is not surprising, but it creates a challenging knowledge acquisition environment that must accommodate both individualized experiences and the dynamics of small group learning.

The traveling “pack” observes the actions of the individual and offers an almost immediate, collective reaction. Does the group enhance or impede the learning process for the individual? To what extent is learning a function of individual engagement, and to what extent is it influenced by the response of the group? Increasing the number of individual experiences helps fuel the process of collective understanding, taking into account the diverse competencies and perspectives (and broader social dynamics) that exist within the group itself.

Scholars have spent considerable time studying the relationship between individual experience and small group learning. My thesis here is far less intellectual. It is only to reflect on our young soccer players who learn that team success is achievable when individuals are given the opportunity to apply their unique skills and vantage points to move the ball, collectively, down the field. So too, we are challenged in science centers to help our visitors slow down, share their reactions, and take a participatory role in a collective learning process.

Science centers encourage learning through engagement and try to maximize individual opportunities. We must also fashion mechanisms for effective small group learning to reach those who tend to travel with the pack and learn by observation.