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  • Education: Science Museums

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
Furthering the Dialogue

Caren B. Les,

Science centers are hoping to bring about a better future for society by encouraging dialogue on issues such as climate change, nanotechnology, renewable energy, water shortages, and advances in medicine and health, according to Sean Smith, director of government and public relations at the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) in Washington. The organization describes itself as an international organization of science centers and museums dedicated to furthering the public’s understanding of science.

Smith cited the association’s International Action on Global Warming (IGLO) project as an example of its efforts to raise social awareness of issues such as climate change. Through the project, ASTC supports its member museums worldwide via educational materials and common events to further educate the public on topics such as the impact of the polar regions on global climate systems.


Children interact with the “Networld” exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where Internet technology is explored with the help of 30 computers, 25 projectors and various other systems, all running simultaneously. Photo courtesy of Scott Brownell, Museum of Science and Industry.

Web 2.0 social collaboration technologies such as Blogger, Flickr, Wikipedia, webcasts, podcasts and online forums are increasingly becoming a part of the museum experience, according to Smith. For instance, the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul sponsors an interactive Web site called “Science Buzz,” partly funded by the National Science Foundation, which is geared to all age groups. The digital environment, including digital gaming, is being used to get visitors involved in museum exhibits. At the New York Hall of Science in Queens, the exhibit “Connections: The Nature of Networks” uses technology to let visitors explore the science of networks, enabling them to see how the World Wide Web is like a real spider’s web, for example.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago has plans to link families to its exhibits via their home computers. The technology would allow guests to interact with the exhibit content, download at-home science experiments and create personalized museum Web pages for sharing photos and videos of their time at the museum.

The venerable material world of museums – dioramas, paintings, mummies, artifacts, dinosaur models and other traditional real-world objects – still has its place, Smith said, and many museums have found that pairing new technology with older exhibits has worked quite well. The American Museum of Natural History in New York, for instance, has updated its “Hall of Ocean Life” with touch screens, video and computers, but it has retained its large whale model and dioramas.

Looking to keep pace with changing demographics, science museums are also taking care to reach out to the over-50 “baby boomer” generation, adding exhibits that deal with aging, and including lectures and science clubs that have older citizens in mind.

Education, exhibits and engaging experiences are the focus of the $205 million capital campaign of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Called “Science Rediscovered,” the campaign has placed educational programming at the core of the museum experience. The fundraising effort is in response to a Harris Interactive survey that revealed that 79 percent of Americans feel that science education in the US is inadequate.

To complement science education in schools, the museum has created the Center for the Advancement of Science Education, which is designed to go beyond the museum walls to reach children in schools and community organizations and to provide tools and training for science teachers.

The use of atoms, molecules and molecular-scale structures to enhance existing technology and develop new materials and devices. The goal of this technology is to manipulate atomic and molecular particles to create devices that are thousands of times smaller and faster than those of the current microtechnologies.
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