Science museums are failing grown-ups

Last month, Armando Herrera Corral was wounded when a package delivered to his office at Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education turned out to be a bomb. Nobody knows who sent the package. But someone posted a manifesto online, taking credit for the attack and explaining why they targeted Corral.

The terrorists, by their own account, acted out of fear—of “grey goo,” the sci-fi scenario where sentient nanotech robots replicate themselves to the point that they devour everything on Earth. If you believe that threat is imminent, you have no choice but to defend humanity. Even if that means trying to kill people like Corral, director of a technology transfer center at the Monterrey Institute.

But how does somebody’s perception of science, and scientists, get so screwed up?

This isn’t that hard to understand. In fact, if you think about how little time most adults have spent actively learning accurate information about science and scientists, it’s a little amazing that more people aren’t equally confused.

Make no mistake, the attack on Armando Corral is an issue of education and confusion. According to John Falk, Sea Grant professor of Free Choice Learning at Oregon State University, Americans spend less than 5% of their lives in classrooms—and even less of that time learning science.

We graduate high school knowing that Issac Newton discovered gravity, the general anatomical location of our stomachs relative to our hearts, and what happens when a car travelling 30 miles per hour crashes into a brick wall. At some point, probably in grade school, somebody told us about the scientific method, but not how that actually plays out in the real world. We learn the basics. We memorize some charts.

And then we live our lives in a world where science is much more complicated, and constantly changing.

Of the emerging technologies that New Scientist believes will be vitally important during the next 30 years, not one is something I learned anything about in school. Synthetic biology, remote sensing, machine language translation, artificial intelligence, and, yes, nanobots.

What bridges the gap between that stuff and the basics we learned during our formal education? What do we toss into that chasm when we don’t have a textbook? Something we heard about in a chat room? Half-remembered facts from the news? Science fiction?

There are some sources of science education outside school. Journalism, for one, when it’s done right. And museums. Of the two, people trust the museums more. But, of the two, museums do less to address adult science education. I think that’s a problem. Earlier this month, I got a chance to speak at the 6th Science Center World Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, about why I think museums are failing adults, and what to do about that problem.

"My son is now a bit too old for the science center"

Right now, science museums are not bad places for adults. And they don’t ignore adults completely. I don’t want to imply that. Evidence shows that adults visit these museums and learn from them. But there are problems with the status quo and those show through in the evidence, as well.

Reach Advisors is a firm that focuses on museum audience research. In a 2008 survey of adult American museum visitors, they found that more than 80% of the respondents to a multiple choice survey said science museums best served children and families. And 59% said the museums best served school groups. Just 22% said adults were best served, and only 17% said teens.

In that same survey, the respondents gave answers that implied they felt the science museum was for children, not for them. They talked about their kids becoming “too old for the science museum.” They expressed surprise that the museum was supposed to be a place where they learned something, too.

And there are good reasons for people feel that way. Many, many science museums in the United States, and abroad, base their image and advertising around bright, primary colors and kid-centric messages. They’re filled with large, loud rooms where packs of children run from one station to another punching buttons. And they feature exhibits that focus on the same kind of timeless science basics taught in school. More importantly, they don’t reliably connect the science back to real-life issues, ongoing controversies, and the news that adults see every day.

The Reach Advisors survey shows how these trends impact the way adults feel about science museums. An informal Q&A with my Google+ circles turned up the same sentiments. Adults don’t like spending time in science museums. They don’t think it’s for them. They feel weird being there. They wish more exhibits had information they found challenging and useful.

Science museums do intend to reach adults. But it doesn’t matter what message you mean to convey, if what people hear is, “Science museums are kid stuff.” And when the museums fail them, and science journalism isn’t trusted*, we can’t be surprised when adults wildly misinterpret the reality of science.

We all scream for ice cream

So what do we do about it?

The good news is that this is not about fun versus serious business. I’m not here to tell you that grown ups really dig lots of signs with tiny font print. Over the past few months, I visited several science museums in the Midwest. I read a lot of literature on adult museum visitors. And at the Congress, I was introduced to some cool examples of museums getting this stuff right. The truth is: There are ways to engage adults and kids at the same time, create comfortable environments, and add depth and relevancy to the regular exhibits.

• At the Iowa Science Center in Des Moines, they've got an exhibit that's fun, and very hands on, but also teaches something fundamental about how science works. It's called "When Things Get Moving" and it's one of those big rooms full of physics demonstrations. But it has a deeper purpose. Instead of just hitting a button and seeing what happens, you're challenged to take a problem and try to solve it. More importantly, you're encouraged to compete against other people to see who can come up with the best solution. Build a rocket that flies the farthest. Create a hydroelectric dam that produces the most energy. It's really a clever way to teach people the scientific method—if your first hypothesis didn't work, come up with a new one. And it engages adults because we aren't told how to solve the problem. We have to experiment, too. This is what interactivity looks like done right.

The Ontario Science Center has an exhibit called "A Question of Truth," which is all about how the way we perceive the world—and even the way we do science—can be twisted by personal biases and deeply held beliefs. In fact, it used to be the first thing you walked through upon entering that museum. When I found out this exhibit existed, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. This exhibit talks about uncertainty in data and how scientists deal with the possibility that the evidence they've collected could be misleading, and acknowledges times in not-so-far-off history when scientists allowed their own racism to warp their findings. That's the kind of challenge, and the kind of context, I'm looking for as an adult. That's the kind of thing that helps adults better understand their world.

• You've probably noticed that more museums are having "grown-up nights" with booze and more advanced demonstrations. Some have also started hosted hackerspaces. That's awesome. And it's something that the adults I've talked to want to see even more of. More special events. More clubs and classes. More interaction with the DIY and citizen science communities.

So if stuff like this is happening, why do I think science museums are still failing adults? And why do surveys reflect such serious dissatisfaction?

I think this is a sundae problem.

A sundae is a bowl full of ice cream. You put some stuff on top of it, but it remains, fundamentally, a bowl full of ice cream. And when I talk about examples of really great adult engagement in science museums, I am, generally, talking about the sprinkles, not the ice cream. The museums acknowledge the problem, but they’re dealing with it by adding in a couple of things here and there. A traveling exhibit. One exhibit out of the whole museum. One night a month. What they really need are serious changes to the bulk of the experience.

When I spoke at the 6th Science Center World Congress, here’s what I heard, over and over: “Oh, yeah, you’re totally right. Other museums need to get on that. But our museum has taken care of the problem already because we did this one thing.”

But the sprinkles are not enough.

Not for average adults, who just want help making sense of the technologies and choices that are part of everyday life. Not for anyone who wants to see science discussed in a saner way in Washington, D.C. And definitely not for the people who have been scared, by confusing information, into thinking that the only way to save humanity is to attack scientists.

For some more good sources on this, I recommend:
Designs for Learning; Studying Science Museums that Do More Than Entertain by Sue Allen
The Unintended Effects of Interactive Objects and Labels in the Science Museum by Leslie Atkins, et. al.
Beyond Science Literacy: Science and the Public by Xinfeng Liu
• Nina Simon's Museum 2.0 blog
The 95% Solution by John Falk
All the PowerPoint presentations from the 6th Science Center World Congress are available online. You can search the list of sessions by title. There's some really interesting stuff in here about addressing controversial topics, science and religion, and science and indigenous communities. Unfortunately, there's no video of the sessions.

*For good reasons, in some cases. But that’s a whole other post. I don’t want you to think that I think science journalism isn’t dropping the ball in some ways, too. Just one thing at a time.

Image: Science Museum, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from pahudson's photostream