Using Science Centers to Expose the General Public to the Microworld
Informal science education happens through channels that include television, newspapers, advocacy organizations, museums, and science centers. Each of these channels reaches a different audience and presents a different kind of information. Informal science education plays a significant role in shaping public awareness of science and technology. Science centers have been recognized as important players in this arena.
In the past several decades, people all over the world have been starting science centers. There are now about 300 of these new-style museums, two-thirds of them in North America. Science centers have visitations of over 60 million people annually nationwide. Their emphasis is on presenting subject matter in a non-threatening, friendly, exploratory, fun manner.
Science centers provide access to science, they improve our comfort level with technical ideas, artifacts and numbers, and they enable us to obtain first-hand experience with phenomena. The essence of a science center is interactive exploration of scientific phenomena. A typical science center offers exhibits on mechanics, electricity, optics, perception, health, and transportation that can appeal to children as well as their parents. On weekdays during the school year, hundreds of elementary school children visit the center with their teachers and chaperones. In addition, as individuals they participate in workshops, camp-ins, and more structured programs using the rich resource of the center's exhibits.
A word about SciTech SciTech is patterned on the philosophy of San Francisco's Exploratorium where I worked for a few months in 1982. SciTech has grown from an all-volunteer effort in 1989 and a budget that year of $20,000, to an organization currently employing 20 FTE plus an additional half a dozen scientists, engineers and other professionals paid by other organizations, or "high-tech grass-roots" volunteers. The 1994 operating budget is about $600,000. We are currently serving 100,000 people per year and still growing.
Building Blocks of the Universe The Building Blocks of the Universe exhibition seeks to bring everyone at least to the gateway of a world which otherwise exists only in a guide book written in mathematics. Present-day physics, which seeks to explore the Big Bang, the top quark, the Higgs boson, and other building blocks seemed too complex to explain and describe in terms that an eleven year old could understand, not to mention the non-physicist adult. However, through all the calculus, perturbation theory, and QCD, we must make every effort to find simple analogs and solutions.
The Building Blocks of the Universe project officially began with a grant from the National Science Foundation in June 1990. The project was a collaboration between SciTech and COSI, Ohio's Center of Science & Industry in Columbus. The partnership drew on the years of experience of the COSI staff. COSI is one of the leaders in interactive science exhibit development. It also took advantage of the wealth of talent amassed around our newly-formed SciTech, drawn from nearby scientific institutions and industries, including Fermilab, Argonne, AT&T Bell Labs, and Amoco Research Center. In both SciTech and COSI, we attempt with these interactive exhibits to convey to a wide audience some of the fascination of the world of the very small.
Is there a role for scientists in a science center? Despite the remarkable progress in the past decades in understanding our universe, we physicists have failed to communicate the wonder, excitement, and beauty of these discoveries to the general public. I am sure all agree that there is a need, if our support from public funds is to continue at anywhere approximating the present level, for us collectively to educate and inform the general public of what we are doing and why.
Informal science education, and especially science and technology centers, can play an important role in efforts to raise public awareness of physics in particular and basic research in general. Science centers are a natural milieu where physicists can communicate with and gain support from the general public.
Physicists can make a difference by volunteering at their local science center. Science centers do great 19th century physics, but they need help with the 20th century. And we can probably help with 19th century physics too. This education effort is not just reserved for the retired or almost retired!
The most promising area of growth for science centers is in their relationship to teachers and schools. Because centers are outside the school bureaucracy, because they are entrepreneurial, and because they have accumulated resources for science teaching, they are well-positioned to deliver innovative programming. There is much recent emphasis on teacher training. And a great deal of effort in science centers is going into diversifying both the audience and the staff. This evolution of the role of science centers provides many opportunities for physicists to get involved and help.
I urge physicists to visit your local science center, wander around with a notebook, spot errors or obscurity in labels. I have discovered examples, some in large science centers, where some basic physics concept is explained incorrectly. Or supposed that you see a set of wonderful exhibits on angular momentum but then remember that last year in your freshman class you did this neat demonstration that might be turned into a robust, hands-on exhibit.
Meet with the science center director and offer to help. Commit to a half-day a week for a few months. Be helpful. Write signs. Build prototype exhibits in your shop or in your basement. Become a part of the science center team as a regular volunteer. At first, the staff might not understand how you can help or that they need you. But they will soon see that you can help them present more accurate science to their visitors. You may even find that they will ask you to become a member of their regular staff. (Attention graduate students: in this shrinking job market, science centers are a growth industry.) Gain their confidence. You will have a lot of fun and you will get a lot of very positive feedback. Then start discussing bringing modern physics into the center. Offer suggestions on a hands-on atom where the visitor can excite it to different levels, for example, or some models of isotopes and signs that connect to real-life concerns.
I am more than happy to serve as a "marriage broker" and help form such partnerships. Please contact me.
Ernest Malamud is a particle physicist at Fermilab who took a leave of absence to serve as founder and director of the SciTech science center in Aurora, Illinois.