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


    1. science cannot be at odds with anything – especially your rich overlords’ pocket books. If, for example, climate change is occurring, then the profit lies in getting ahead of that.

  1. If you’re really worried that spending 5% of our lives in classrooms is not enough to inform us significantly about the current state of science, then it doesn’t matter how good the museums are.

    I am someone who likes science and finds it interesting. I do my own amateur science experiments for fun, and am a professional engineer. In the last 3 or four years, I spent half a day at the California Academy of Sciences, and another half day at the New York Museum of Natural History. Oh, and I went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I average an hour or two per year in science museums, and I am probably among their stronger demographics.People aren’t going to learn much from museums they don’t visit, even if the museums are good. Even if they do visit, they go once a year, at most. This is not a lot. It will not make up for a general lack of science education.

  2. I just never got the whole grey goo thing. We’ve had nano-scale constructs that convert everything they can into copies of themselves for billions of years now. They’re called “proteins.”

    1. “We’ve had nano-scale constructs that convert everything they can into copies of themselves for billions of years now.”

      Now we can, and are, modifying or designing proteins from scratch, and having them copied with existing cellular machinery. That’s new, there may be unforseen consequences, and we may make mistakes faster than natural processes respond.

      1. Sure, but that’s your standard “biological weapon” scenario, not “entire planet gets turned into a homogenous mass of nanobots” scenario. We might engineer something nasty that kills us all but it would ultimately be subject to the same checks and limitations that govern all other biological processes.

        1. Yes, I would expect that after all or most of us are out of the way the bulk of life will do just fine. I personally don’t think any gray goo could have much staying power relative to the vast resources of existing protein variety.

      2. The laws of thermodynamics aren’t going to be suspended just because we’re playing with proteomics. We don’t have giant seas of cellular sludge roaming the landscape eating all they encounter because they’d cook themselves with their own waste heat with the effort of eating random crap.

        Humans (and other omnivores) are what “grey goo” actually looks like in real life – this is how you get a large mass of cellular-scale equipment to eat the largest variety of matter and reproduce itself effectively.

        The idea of undifferentiated cells that can eat everything AND think is hilarious. How big are these cells supposed to be? I’m thinking the size of baseballs. Good luck with that.

    2. Um, you might want to reconsider that point. Nucleic acids, yes, maybe. But proteins have never been shown to self-replicate. And no, prions don’t self-replicate. 

  3. It’s frightening to imagine how much of what we as adults were taught at school was influenced by lecturers’/researchers’ personal biases. Also by the state of passing world politics. I read that the authorities in the US were considering teaching young children some kind of ‘terrorism studies’ as a compulsory subject – any idea how this would affect future opinions and international relations?!?

  4. The science museum in my home town, Seattle, trumpets sciencey-type exhibitions such as Harry Potter: The Exhibition and Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination.

      1. Maggie, if I had a dollar for every time I read an article about the latest real-time stealth device that DIDN’T include a reference to Harry Potter, I would have exactly one dollar.

        And I read a lot about that kind of thing.  It’s part of my job.

      2. I docented Star Trek: Federation Science back in the 90s. It was an excellent exhibit that got huge numbers of people to understand concepts like anti-matter and the immune system. I spent most of my time guiding people through learning the basics of spectroscopy.

    1. I’m right with you on the Harry Potter exhibition, which is essentially a show of movie props.

      However I felt the Star Wars exhibition had some interesting exhibit components and science content.

  5. Nitpick about grey goo: “Sentience” isn’t part of the equation. Unrestrained self-replication + the ability to break down anything they encounter for raw materials = grey goo, theoretically anyway. But they can be completely mindless.

  6. The bomb at ITESM-CEM (my alma mater) is just the tip of the iceberg. Things look really grim here in Mexico where the main source of information is corporations controlled TV. I don’t think that science museums will do it: Practical science information got to get to the people by immediate channels.

  7. The Science Museum in London has a very good section (sponsored by the Wellcome Foundation) about exactly how “science” is impacting modern life and what the implications may or may not be.  And it finds a good mix between the child-friendly and grown-up debate. Although it’s true that it is still a bit superficial at times.

    (In passing I would also note that part of the (imo bogus) conflict between Religion and Science is that many adults come out of school with a similarly incomplete understanding of Religion and then make equally ridiculous statements about it which sound incredibly stupid to those of us who have taken the effort to actually study the subject.  It’s exactly the same dilemma.  I know exactly how little I know about e.g. evolutionary biology, so I try not make a fool of myself in public by pontificating about it…  Sorry.  Couldn’t resist.)

  8. I agree with this article. The re-modeled Academy of Sciences in San Francisco has far less “hard” science involved. It is more about presenting phenomenon than understanding it.

  9. I agree that science (and technology) museums aren’t adult friendly. I’m a life-long science nerd, but I dread going to them. (As I KID I utterly loved them.)

    About 90% of science programming on TV is also useless to me. Specifically, the crap on cable channels. Dreary, lowbrow, repetitive . . . nnggngh, I’m getting flashbacks. NOVA and a few other PBS shows still hold my interest.

  10. If you think they’re failing adults, just imagine what the world will be like when you’re old and gray, and today’s kids are running the world.

  11. Excellent essay! I agree whole-heartedly.  I think the problem is bigger than science museums, though. It seems that in our current society, most people subconsciously think that learning is for kids. When you graduate from school, you are supposed to be done with that and your new purpose is to go off and make money. 

    Somehow we as a society need to teach people that learning is a life-long process; that it is not bad or embarrassing to not know something; that it is rewarding and helpful to learn new things.  Time and again I see adults that are afraid to learn new things, afraid to have their beliefs challenged, afraid of looking stupid or childish by admitting some naivete.

    So it isn’t just that science museums need to address this problem. It is all museums.  It is all centers of learning.  I think it is most obvious in science museums because they do attempt to teach kids, which draws in the adults.  Adults who would normally not go to a museum do it for their kids.  Art museums mostly don’t even attempt to teach kids about art, so the adults don’t get drawn in by their kids.  The only adults that go to art museums already have an interest, and are already a self-selected group.  In general, it is the other, non-interested adults that need to be exposed to learning.  So it is exactly that science museums do teach kids that gets adults in the door who otherwise wouldn’t even know what they are missing.   Sure they can do more, but they are already doing more than most other places!

    1. “When you graduate from school, you are supposed to be done with that and your new purpose is to go off and make money.”

      This notion was a huge turn off to me as a kid and still is several decades later. It is part of the paradigm that has to change if we are to live in harmony with our planet instead of destroying it. I have no interest in money and would rather learn. Maybe if society encouraged this idea, we wouldn’t have candidates for national office saying that a hurricane on the east coast is God’s punishment for homosexuality while at the same time denying any human responsibility for global climate change.

  12. Really interesting perspective. Got me thinking on some projects I’m working on… Here’s some more references of museums with “for adults” nights in San Francisco.

    The Exploratorium has their After Dark program which opens the museum, but supplements with guest exhibits and presentations upon the theme of the night. The “sunday” argument certainly applies here, but having attended these nights, they do a good job at adapting for adults.

    The Cal Academy of Sciences also hosts Night Live (sensing a theme here) which does a similar concept of providing adult programming for an evening. I haven’t made it out to that personally, but know a number of people who have enjoyed it.

  13. Portland’s Oregon Museum of Science and Industry has several really excellent exhibits geared towards teens and adults—including a breathtaking display of human fetal development that is the subject of regular freakouts by uninformed antiabortion types (the fetuses all died of natural causes)—but you can’t ever experience them in peace because the museum is treated as a playground. Many of the interesting interactive exhibits are regularly broken by rampaging unsupervised five-year-olds, and so may not even be functional during the museum’s monthly (and really fun) After Dark nights. Is it wrong to think that there should be a minimum age for the school groups that constantly roam the halls? Kids who can’t yet read don’t have much to gain from complex demonstrations of optics and genetics.

  14.   I must be odd then, I love science museums. But I also do science experiments and observations with my kids. Only slightly off topic, I saw a great exhibit at the Perimeter Institute’s Physica Phantastica last weekend about the event horizon around black holes. The display was a flat black pan with a huge hole in the centre that water flowed into. At a certain point due to the rate of water flowing, the ripples from a drop of water, would just get sucked in. Such a simple way to explain the concept.

      Another thing is that a lot of these museums will respond to requests from the public. I mentioned something off-hand on Twitter about the Air and Space Museum and they responded quickly and were happy to hear how they could make the display better.

      Aside from that Robert Sawyer had a good piece about how science fiction teaches us how to deal with the future of technology:  (Certainly that grey goo scenario is often ill-handled.) I do look forward to a post from Maggie on science journalism’s failings in the area of science education, I’m often made crazed by the level of science reportage I’ve read.

  15. Countless things need to be done to turn around the anti-science trends, but one small thing that local museums could do is put together a field team targeting adult events.  Look at the Youtube hits for videos of people running across pools of non-Newtonian fluids, of the mythbusters showing sound wave frequencies with fire-tubes, of the alien spiky fractals growing out of stimulated ferrous-fluids.  Even in urban environments a decent telescope can blow minds, with a solar filter as well as at night.

    We’re in an age of miracle and wonder… people are awestruck and excited by it.  So set have the field team demo these things at street fairs, and give out discount tickets to the museum to see more.  The travelling exhibits, frankly, take up such a gigantic chunk of funds both for the fees and for the advertising, that hands-on and local should be more prioritized.

    Also, science fairs… here in Cincinnati the finalists should be brought to Fountain Square at lunch hour for a week… thousands of people would stop by.  

    And robot fights!  Video-projection mapping!

    Basically, half the links on this site.  Two or three full time staff and a dozen coops, interns, and volunteers could flood a good sized city with great science programming.

  16. In one of his Guest-of-Honor speeches, Roger Zelazny observed that science fiction had two poles; Frankenstein and Pygmalion, and which one was dominant varied over time.  It sounds like the bombers in the opening paragraph have ODed on the ‘Science is going to kill us’ end of the spectrum, and they need more “Science is going to save us” down in Mexico.

    (Yeah, Roger and I both know that it was a goddess that brought the statue to life.  That was the SF of classical Greece.)

  17. A sad fact that struck me while reading this is that children are obviously being failed as well: They grow into adults who don’t care about science.

    It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Museums gear themselves towards children because they are the audience that is naturally most wide-eyed and enthusiastic about science. Most children are born avidly curious and with a mind open for learning. Adults typically grow out of their desire to learn and lose their curiosity for anything not directly related to their jobs/personal sphere. That sounds like a catastrophic failure on the part of the education system. It fails to teach people both the importance and the enjoyment of knowledge. My husband and myself were lucky to have avid learners as parents. It seems like love of learning is still best passed down from loved ones or mentors, not as much the educational system. 

    This article resonates with me in big part because I recently visited my hometown’s (Ottawa) museum of Science and Technology and walked out of it dejected.

    The place was filled with 30 year-old props (I remembered them from when I visited as a young child), a large section on Alexander Graham Bell and old phone technology, lots of old trains sitting around, a large section about canoes

    (just letting that sink in a bit)

    …and a few derelict satellites. That was the gist of it. I was pretty much expecting a section on ‘stick technology’ by the end of the tour. What was so depressing about the place was that it is was dedicated to old relics, dead guys in black and white pictures and husks of antique machines, while science and technology are about progress, novelty and constant change. I understand that they probably get about $200 a year in funding, which all goes to fresh candy bars for the vending machine. Nonetheless, as a Canadian, I was embarrassed to think that foreign tourists would see it and think that we don’t give a shit about science. It was even worse to consider that, judging from this pathetic museum, they would be correct.

    Hopefully, they’ll visit the Ontario Science Center instead :(

    1. “Museums gear themselves towards children because they are the audience that is naturally most wide-eyed and enthusiastic about science. Most children are born avidly curious and with a mind open for learning. Adults typically grow out of their desire to learn and lose their curiosity for anything not directly related to their jobs/personal sphere.”

      Then museums are basing their decisions on a false stereotype. Children may be wide-eyed and enthusiastic about science, but so are many adults. To say children are the most enthusiastic is to perpetuate a gross generalization. Similary, a good number of adults never “grow out of their desire to learn” and never “lose their curiosity for anything not related to their jobs or personal sphere.” Adults who don’t have a desire to learn  are likely to have had substandard educations or have been turned off to learning when they were children due to any number of deficits in the way they were educated. Some have learning disabilities that were never addressed when they were kids. Many had lousy teachers in elementary and high school. Then, we have mainstream culture, which discourages learning and portrays both kids and adults who are into learning things beyond their personal spheres and jobs as “nerds,” “geeks,” socially awkward, etc.

      There are plenty of adults who have never lost their curiosity and in fact find science far more fascinating than anything relating to their jobs or personal lives. Mainstream culture acts as though jobs and personal lives are the only thing that matter–in spite of the fact that such large numbers of people in the US economy are unemployed or underemployed.

      I went back to school to study astronomy long after graduating college, and I find the solar system way more interesting than any job or personal issue. In four years of being part of an astronomy club, I know most members’ astronomy interests but very little about their jobs. And I’m not alone. My astronomy program at Swinburne University is filled with similar adults.

      1. Whoa there! My comment wasn’t meant as a personal slight to all adults ;)

        I AM aware that many adults love to learn and keep up with science. Clearly, your astronomy program is comprised of adults who want to learn science. However, does that apply to most adults you know who are NOT actively engaged in a science field? I am asking genuinely, not trying to be snide.

        Personally, whenever I interact in groups of people who are not actually considered ‘geeks’, career scientists or ‘tech-people’, they never discuss scientific topics. They don’t watch science lectures or read science books in their free time. I have ‘sciencey’ friends and ‘non-sciencey’ friends: The latter are equally smart, articulate and great people but they generally think that science is a ‘professional’ niche topic (and they gently mocked my husband and I for watching a Stephen Hawking documentary on our second date). They obviously don’t feel interested, or even comfortable, with discussing science. They don’t think it’s ‘fun’. I meet many more of the latter kind of people, outside of actual science classes or clubs that is.

        All I meant was that if a majority of adults actively sought scientific material, got involved with their local museums and enrolled in science classes just for kicks (or because they feel it matters), then perhaps museums wouldn’t end up looking like daycare centers. I could very well be mistaken. Perhaps you see and sense this large number of science literate and engaged adults, but I sure don’t. Then again, as I mentioned, I am in a rather conservative, ‘square’ area.

  18. Our local children’s museum, which is the only “science” museum in our area, has the following rule…

    “All adults must be accompanied by a child. This policy is to ensure the protection of all children and fosters a safe family environment. For adults without children, we hold Grown-Ups Only Nights several times a year, giving adults a chance to play and experience the museum on their own.”

    While I can understand the need for safety, don’t they provide security at the museum???  I am an educator very much interested in science education.  However, as one who does not have children, there is no way for me to visit this site and see what it’s like and what’s going on.

    1. This is absolutely repulsive and constitutes deliberate exclusion. It’s exactly what a science museum should NOT be doing, and it effectively equals discrimination against those of us who don’t have kids.

    2. What. The. Heck?

      Grown-Ups Night several times A YEAR… And let’s not even get into the fact that most child kidnappers and abusers are parents (why is this fact so freaking hard for people to finally get??).

      On the upside, you know you’re not missing much. Why visit a museum that doesn’t feature a single brain in charge?

      1. With a little google-ing I found a children’s museum with the quoted policy on its page.  I don’t know if it is the one RandomConnections was referring to, but it might be:
        Children’s Museum of the Upstate in Greenville, South Carolina 

      2. I can guess it is one of many children’s museums. Because there is one leering perve in a van out of a million, all lone males are treated like molesters. Complete over reaction to stranger danger. I have done educational co-ops where men weren’t allowed to accompany children to the bathrooms (pre-school age, if needed).

  19. I love science museums, but then I’m the target demographic: my kids are 4 & 10.  Sometimes I learn new things from the exhibits, but other times I just learn how to teach my kids about science, what avenues to explore later.

  20. I think science museums will be more popular when schools do better at teaching it. People visit museums that teach what they are interested in. When I started homeschooling, I didn’t want my children to hate science the way I did, so I tried to figure out why I hated it. I realized that we had a new topic every week. I knew in history the good stuff was what was beyond the survey course level. I suspected that was also true of science. My science education was all memorization of dull facts.

    To fix this, we spent three months on each subject. Each child chose a subject and I chose the last one. We skipped dull (and inaccurate) textbooks and read books by real scientists. I learned along with them. By high school, they were having intense debates about theoretical physics I didn’t understand. Fortunately, we knew a real scientist at church who answered their questions, because their studies were over my head, even though I read all the books they chose to read.

    I would like to see science museums go more in-depth. Too many of them are a lot like those survey course textbooks–the beginning facts with none of the excitement or debate. There are only so many stuffed animals in fake forest settings I’m interested in seeing. I just added a number of scientists to my Google+ account so I can learn more about it. (I am not afraid to learn as an adult–life-long self-directed learning was the goal of my homeschool.)

    1. Yes! I am also a homeschooling mom and main reason I chose to educate at home was to impart to my kids that learning never stops. There is no moment when life will say ,”you have learned enough, now go watch TV.”

      I am so glad to see another homeschooling mom here. Its the ultimate DIY experience and I learn new things every day right alongside my kids!

  21. I had heard about telescope classes for adults at the San Fransisco science museum, and I naively looked into something like that here in Seattle.  Major disappoint. To be fair, there *are* some after hours science related programs aimed at 21 and over, but none of them involve, y’know, *touching* anything. For all the fundraising and hype, it’s a tourist attraction, not an educational facility.

  22. Hi Maggie,Thank you for bringing up a legitimate concern. It seems especially daunting for science museums nowdays given the current climate of scientific “no nothingism” and fiscal “austerity” that includes things like Republican congressmen setting up websites to cherry pick NSF grants that supposedly are “wasteful”

    One of the saddest passages in the recent biography of Frank
    Oppenheimer (founder of the Exploratorium) posed the question of whether
    Oppenheimer could even get hired as the director of a science museum
    today. Unsurprisingly (perhaps) the answer was “no way” because modern
    museum directors spend an inordinate time chasing down funds, instead of
    thinking about issues like attracting adults or changing exhibition paradigms.

    I hope your posting shakes up people’s perceptions of museums! P.S. You might be interested in checking out my museum/exhibit/design blog for broadly related info about the issues you raise.

  23. I think this is an interesting discussion but it is predicated on the idea that museums and science centres are good at information transfer as well as woollier things like inspiration, self confidence and attitudinal change.  After 16 years in the field I’m not so sure, and my worry is that attempts to cram more information into museums results in places that only appeal to the adults who already like that sort of thing.  Books, TV, live events and the internet are, frankly, better media for learning about the latest developments but museums are fantastic for creating that initial spark.  Over here in the UK the growth in live events (“Bright Club”, “Skeptics in the Pub” and “Cafe Scientifique” to name 3) is serving this need much better, I think.  But of course, that’s only my opinion…

  24. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. However, it tends to be smaller, regional/local museums that have this problem the worst – and I suspect it’s directly related to their budget, and what they can convince people to give them money for (kids’ education being easy to argue for, presumably). The larger museums in big cities tend to be a lot better, though they do often fall into the same trap – and the worst part is when they remove classic in-depth exhibits and put in some new shitty thing aimed at kids.

    The Griffith Observatory in LA is actually primarily a musem, and it’s quite excellent – tons and tons of in-depth information about concepts ranging from the simplistic to the quite complex (stuff most people won’t understand at all). It is easier to do that, of course, in a museum dedicated to a single topic (astronomy and planetary science).

  25. This is the mystery for me: Why are so many people attracted to bullshit, and so few attracted to real science?

    The REAL stories of cosmology, evo-devo, or computers are more beautiful and amazing than I could imagine. Yet every ‘science’ program focuses on aliens, conspiracy theories, and general bullshit. Why are people attracted to nonsense?

  26. I love Griffith Observatory, but didn’t leave it feeling any more informed about astronomy than I was by K-12 education. I suppose it’s good at reinforcing those lessons, and that is a good thing to do, but I wasn’t confronted with anything that challenged me to expand my understanding.

    It did, however, do a good job of engaging me as an adult. There are a number of exhibits that are fascinating in their own right, on their own merits.

    Does anyone have any other recommendations for the greater LA area?

  27. It has nothing todo with time in classrooms it has todo with interest as a culture. I spend little time in the classroom, was poor in highschool but due to being a scifi nerd have kept up with science. I read every night on it…and the more I read the more I learn the after person in the midwest has the mind of a mouse on such topics. 

    I cannot relate to my own family on the simplest stories as every discussion on science is an argument on climate denial, religion and politics. That 5% that are smart enough to keep this country alive are doing to disappear and who will fix the robots? The USA is doom’d the more jesus and tea party types continue to propagate in numbers. Don’t believe me?

    Brainwashing and religion start early and religions types have twice as many children (and younger) then those with higher education. It’s just a matter of generations before the ignorant truly own and run everything…

  28. Speaking as someone who has lived in Houston since 1978, I can attest that NASA used to be way more sober-minded and geeky than it is now…in the early 80s I thought it was very cool (but I was a middle-school nerd)…but as an adult now, it’s way, way too “edutainment”-oriented (i.e. aimed at children) to lure me back.  I still do patronize the Houston Museum of Natural Science, however…they’re not quite as bad as NASA, and I still love the dinosaur displays.  In fact, it was at a recent special exhibit at HMNS that I learned a fair bit of what I learned about dinosaurs as a kid is no longer correct because there’s more evidence now and theories have had to be modified as a result.  That’s what a science museum SHOULD be…a way to keep you updated on current science beyond your school age years.

  29. Museum here in town had a free-admission day in the Spring, decided to go, been a while.  Never again, way too many screaming ADHD kids, strollers all over the place, it was really not a pleasant experience.

    Anytime I see school buses lined up outside, I think “No, not wanting to be in THERE today”. 

    Problem is, in that filled-diaper throng, there is ONE kid who is gonna cure AIDS someday..  but try and pick him/her out of the crowd…   not easy.

    We had ‘Bodies’ touring in town.. went..   wasn’t blown away, felt like some freak exhibit in Vegas.   

  30. 1) The best science museum I have ever been to as an adult is the Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden, Germany. So good.

    2) Science literacy all comes down to cultural value: If you show up to a dinner party and you haven’t read, say, Catcher in the Rye, then OMG you’re a heathen. Show up to the same dinner party and don’t know what four nucleotides make up DNA, and nobody blinks an eye. I have been ranting about this for years, and this summer it actually happened in the flesh – I was having dinner with my father and two couples. My dad and both members of one couple are PhD chemists (I’m a BA biologist), and the other couple is one author and one visual artist. For a while, the dinner conversation was “Guess what book this is the opening line of?” (Call me Ishmael, Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again, etc.) and everyone was calling out lines and books, until my disinterested father changed the topic with some difficulty. Later, one of the chemists brought up a mental exercise: two cars, rear bumper to rear bumper drive straight 4 miles, then take a right and drive 5 miles – how far apart are they? All the scientists recognized that it was two 3-4-5 triangles, and the answer was 6. The author and the artist didn’t even try to figure it out, were shocked how fast others answered, and then insisted that they “didn’t need to know that kind of stuff”

  31. #1: i think the author has taken an incredible leap of logic to connect the actions of someone who took time to create a bomb and send it to not spending enough time in good science museums; wouldn’t that have just taught him to make the bomb better, since it is indeed science and scientists that created the technology for making bombs in the first place?

    #2: its very interesting to me that absolutely no one has taken to the time to consider what validity might lie in a non-scientist’s fear of nanotech and the unquenchable desires of an unchecked scientific mentality.

    “But how does somebody’s perception of science, and scientists, get so screwed up?” -cited from article

    first off, i am not defending sending a bomb to anyone, what i want to point out is
    that simply taking a defensive on the issue because someone doesn’t
    trust science as much as scientists do is not only counter-productive to
    inciting more sympathy and understanding from them but
    blatantly dismissive of their reality, which is simply an alternate, concurrent understanding of what is true, right, logical, etc.

    personally, i find science as interesting as i do every aspect of life but as a very well educated african-american woman i have never trusted the institutions of science as much as the average white-american. why? phrenology was created, and treated as a legitimate science, to prove that i am not a human being; why would i trust an institution that wanted me to believe that? it would be actively insane of me. it has been a practice throughout this nations history to take poor, uneducated brown folks and use them as science experiments, the tuskegee airmen are only the the most sensationalized. (if you’d care to know more, please check out: yeah, the trust is just oozing from my pores right now.

    have any idea who henrietta lacks is? probably not, but the cells taken from this black woman’s body without her knowledge, and therefore without her permission, have been the basis of countless science experiments of the last 40 years resulting in much prestige, mind absorbing lab hours and accolades for the scientists who have used them, and not a penny to her family who to this day still hovers at the poverty line. people who have not traditionally been afforded the privilege of spending their lives thinking about just what they feel like thinking about because it interests them, mainly people of color and poor folks, know and remember these things that are very easy for scientists to write off because it doesn’t affects their lives, it affects the formers far more drastically.

    a good example of how science and scientists make some decisions that we might very reasonably all be afraid of? nasa found it logical to send a rocket to the moon for the sole purpose of breaking off a bit of it so they could study it in their labs, acting in direct opposition the (finally scientifically recognized) fact that everything in the universe is anatomically, and far deeper, related and any possibility of throwing the celestial being that controls and manages (very well, i might add) our planets water systems off its natural rhythm might just be, well, stupid. and the reason they did this? to learn about how we can export a civilization that’s poisoned the water of this planet to another one. yeah, that seems totally logical and right…but then again, i’m not a scientist so what do i know?

    there are countless examples of the fact that science itself and the scientists that practice it can be quite blind, making the non-scientists fears not only NOT screwed up, but inherently valid. its sort of ironic how the complete write off of an opposing viewpoint is so incredibly human, while sitting down, taking days, possibly even months or years to understand the fears of another human being (which obviously wasn’t done) would actually be the scientific thing to do.

    1. No. Because the terrorist’s concerns are total bullshit. If I sincerely, truly believe that the Earth is going to be eaten by a giant camel, is that belief really something other people should respect? 

      The giant camel is quite probably MORE likely than the grey goo theory. 

    2. Most of us have heard of Henrietta Lack since the book about her sat on the NYT bestseller list for the better part of the year and while it is shameful what was don’t with her samples, the situation only shows that regular people need to educate themselves and pay attention to modern science  to prevent these abuses from happening again. Science has had a shameful history of exploiting and harming the “other” in the name of learning. This is true, but instead of mistrusting all science because of the lack of ethics in a small sample of them, it would be so much more beneficial to become a citizen scientist and help to keep watch and publicize lapses rather than ignore it completely

    3. @ Jihan: The amount of material brought back from the Moon by Roscosmos & NASA is miniscule, compared to the total mass of the Moon. The dynamics of the Earth-Moon system haven’t changed.

      If anything, astronomy is one of the great unifiers of humanity. We all live under the same sky.

  32. it’s the “exploratorium” problem,before that came out museums were adult centered and then everyone got on the bandwagon for touch and feel kids museums.the science museum in St Paul MN is a joke to this 65 year old guy.except for a small fossil area it’s all “turn the handle and see blood run” stuff.i grew up with the science and history museums in Buffalo NY when as a kid i could wander for hours taken in by the displays i could not touch and feel!

  33. My wife and I volunteer at my county’s science center (the Owens S.C. in Lanham, MD, just outside Washington, DC).   It’s run by my local school system, so it’s targeted to students. We do have monthly public planetarium shows, which are attended by families and childless adults. We hold family science nights, and a child is not a prereq for attendance-just a fascination with science. We’re not perfect, but we’re working with the mission we have been given. I also volunteered at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) in Chicago back in the Nineties.

    Funding is a big issue. The school board tried to strip the Owens to the bare bones earlier this year. It took a concerted effort from local science clubs to get the board to reconsider.

    My experience is that there’s nothing that works for the health of a museum like volunteers, and it’s surprising where you might be asked to lend a hand: At the MSI, I spent one summer helping the collections people classify surveying and navigating gear. At the Owens,  I am the ticket agent for the monthly shows. I’ve also written 3  shows, and a 4th is in the wings for this spring.

  34. Good article, except – “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.” – that is the opposite of scientific method!
    Guessing then trying to see if it works would prove that garlic stops you getting attached by vampires. Scientific method is devising an experiment which will work if your hypothesis is true and fail if it isn’t and then doing the experiment. ‘Try, try again’ doesn’t come into it.

  35. Most of my city’s science museum’s exhibits aren’t really geared to kids.  They show some adult’s prejudice about what oversimplified generality ought to be impressed upon the visitor, rather than presenting information, actual specimens, or a good and interesting demonstration.  It’s a mistake to talk down and sugar up to..anybody.  It’s better to provide detail that starts simple and continues eventually over most of the audience’s heads.  It’s better to draw people with curiosity about what’s going on here, and end up with loose ends, than lead with a tidy conclusion.  “Momentum Keeps Things Moving!”  The “oh, thanks for digesting the experience down to a rabbit poop before I got there” presentation style.

    I don’t think science exhibits need to be tuned so much to an age group, it’s more universal things like quality, depth and inspiration that are hard to come by.

    About the adult-free zone: kids are safer the more adults are around.  It’s the Jane Jacobs “eyes on the street” effect.

  36. Science museums I liked as an adult that are also good for kids:
    – MIT museum – lots of visual displays and interesting things to see touch and learn for kids, lots of information for adults

    – Corning Museum of Glass – probably the best museum I have ever been to. Combines an art museum, a history museum, and a technology museum all themed around the subject of glass as a medium.

  37. I agree with your comments in principal. It would be great. But, could it be that the tough mean-guy approach when approaching people who have broke the law possibly (even speeders) could be a deterrant to people like me and you who may not want to be exposed to a chewing out by a law enforcement type. I.e., obey the law, and you won’t get yelled at?

  38. The attack on Herrera was likely orchestrated by a single person with a post-grade and schizophrenia very much like what happened with Ted Kaczynski, the unabomber.

    So this very attack mentioned at the beginning of the post has nothing to do with anti-intellectualism or luddite terrorists targeting mexican scientists. 

    Anyway, I agree with maggie about the rest of the post.

  39. There are notable exceptions (the Science Museum and the Natural History museum in London are wonderful), and *some* of the “exploratorium” type exhibits are good — but I think a lot of museums let down kids too.

    In this clamour for interactivity, you get a load of “press the button and watch the video” type exhibits. Watch kids with these. They press the button, watch for all of 10 seconds, then dash off to find another button.

    ~10 years ago, the science museum in Birmingham (UK) had a number of industrial revolution steam engines and steam-driven machines, hooked up to electric motors on buttons. They were fascinating. Kids and adults alike would watch them operate, rapt. You’d go back again and again, because it was always rewarding.

    Then it was replaced by “ThinkTank”, which didn’t fascinate anyone.

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