The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

July 11, 2012

The Flame Challenge winners, and other attempts to get science communication out of its rut

I blogged recently about Alan Alda’s contest with the Center for Communicating Science: explain flame to an 11 year old. The entries, mostly from trained scientists, were judged by thousands of actual 11 year olds. But their picks, announced last month at the World Science Festival, suggest either a weak field or the kind of 11 year olds who spend too much time on Wikipedia. Compare the winners to a new NASA video that’s going around and a fizzling effort in Europe to get tween girls excited about science.

The Flame Challenge was won by Ben Ames, a 31 year old American doing graduate work in quantum optics. “I also have a passion for music, film, and the performing arts,” he writes. “So when I learned about this wonderful contest, I had finally found a project where I could put all of my interests to use.” To what effect? Channel your inner 11-year-old and take a look:

You can see the other finalists’ texts, graphics, and videos here. None of them, unfortunately, shows much clue about how the strategies and sensibilities of science communication have been changing lately.

Part of the problem lies that word ‘explain,’ which sets up someone who knows (an explainer) conveying what she knows to someone else. Right away we’re in the old knowledge-transmission model that science museums, for example, have been trying to move away from for the last decade or so (with mixed success).

And Alda probably didn’t help by emphasizing the ideal of ‘clarity’ when he talked about the contest. Making explanatory clarity the brass ring may have pushed the entrants toward the pedantic end of the spectrum. They seem to have been worried mostly about getting the facts right — and in some cases, cramming all the facts into the story.

But even within those guardrails, we could have hoped for something more than just a friendlier, animated version of a fifth-grade science textbook. What’s missing are the things that great teachers and professors do instinctively: Make us care about the question before we try to answer it. Helping us answer it instead of handing us the answer on a platter. Sharing his own personal enthusiasm for the answer in an infectious way. Making us feel like he’s talking to us, authentically, spontaneously, and without condescension. Ideally, telling us a story in which both he and (at least implicitly) we are present. ...

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Categories: Advocacy, Informal science education, Learning, Public media, Science museums, Social media, Subjectivity
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December 06, 2011

A dream conference on public science — help me imagine it

A new grant solicitation from the NSF has me thinking about how and why scientists communicate with laypeople like us, and how and why some laypeople get excited about it. I’ve blogged before about what makes that connection work, but I don’t think there’s been a national conversation about it. Maybe it’s time.

After all, the proliferation of new science content — much of it of a kind you wouldn’t have seen even five or ten years ago — is remarkable. From podcasts like Radiolab and StarTalk and live series like the scrappy Story Collider or the star-studded TED Talks, to new approaches in old-media outlets like Scientific American and PBS, not to mention all those books for the “general reader” that scientists and science journalists are writing, there’s a new energy and a new flavor around science communication. Human narrative is becoming more central, as is humor. Personality and subjectivity are breaking in. The limits of science, and its blurry boundaries with mystery and speculation, are coming out of the closet.

And the whole thing feels less like “science education” than like...well, a cultural phenomenon. Creative intellectual expression meets audience enjoyment. Science as song.

The nature of this change is fascinating to me, and it seems to be largely unexamined. We should be talking about what impulses drive it, what its historical antecedents and social influences are, and especially what it hopes to achieve.

Enter that grant program from the National Science Foundation, which invites proposals for research into innovative evaluation methods in formal or informal STEM education. Don’t worry, it took me a few seconds to sort out the self-referentiality there, too. When I got my head around it, and especially when I saw that there was a grant category for organizing a conference, I realized that this could be an opportunity to bring the best minds in the field together to discuss both sides of the coin:

What is good public science? / What good is public science?

In other words, what does engaging, energizing public science look and sound like? How does it differ from its implicit opposite, professional or inward science, and from the traditional ideals of classroom-based or museum-based STEM learning? How does it relate to other domains of cultural production and engagement?

And the flip side: what is public science meant to achieve, and for whom? What kinds of social, civic, or individual goods are at stake? Most relevant to the NSF grant guidelines, how can we tell if it’s working? We could use this dream conference to come up with new evaluation metrics—or, to use that trendy term, a framework—sensitive to these new forms that science is taking all around us. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Evaluation, Informal science education, Innovation, Institutional personality, Learning, Museums, Science museums
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March 28, 2011

Are science museums teaching ideas or just definitions?

A few weeks ago, I took my daughters to a program for girls at Argonne National Labs, a legendary facility near Chicago whose gates I’d never crossed. The half-day of tours and activities culminated in a terrific lecture-demonstration that set me thinking (not for the first time) about what it feels like to really get a science concept.

The Argonne scientist who gave the demonstration, Dr. Deon Ettinger, ran through the greatest hits of schoolroom science: the inflated, tied balloon that shrinks down to its uninflated size when you submerge it (gently!) in liquid nitrogen, then magically reinflates as it warms up; the rubber ball that bounces at room temperature but, when you go to bounce it after cooling it in liquid nitrogen, shatters like glass, startling eight rows of middle school girls wearing lab goggles.

That shattering ball would have been enough to make me think of Richard Feynman, the bongo-playing, lock-picking, Nobel-winning physicist, since Feynman’s big public moment came at the televised congressional hearings on the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1987, when he dipped a rubber ring—like the infamous O-ring that had failed on the shuttle—into a glass of ice water then snapped it in two. (The point: it was too cold to launch the shuttle that morning.)

But something else about the Argonne demonstration would have put me in mind of Feynman anyway. As I sat with the other parents watching the show and listening to Ettinger’s rapid, Socratic back-and-forth with the girls (“Do molecules stay still, or do they move around?” “Move around?”), I tried to figure out why this felt so fresh and exciting. Then, somewhere in the middle of his explanation of why he couldn’t squeeze the inflated, room-temperature balloon into a smaller sphere with his hands (“With all those molecules zinging around in there at three to four hundred kilometers a second, what happens when they hit the side of the balloon?”), I realized what was throwing me off, in a good way: the utter lack of scientific jargon, even the kind of jargon you define as you go. He wasn’t using scientific terms. He was just describing, in simple, everyday language, what was going on. The balloon example was all about air pressure, but he never used that phrase — it was all molecules “banging into each other.” Yet he explained air pressure so vividly and naturally that I got it in a new way.

This wasn’t “dumbing down,” or even talking down. If anything, it was a heightening of pedagogical aspirations: he wanted those girls to get the concept. The terms, the definitions, would come later.

And that priority (learning concepts before definitions) was a pet concern of Feynman’s. In a 1966 talk to the National Science Teachers Association, he distinguished between attempting to figure out how things work and learning what those things are called. The former is science, says Feynman; the latter is often just a false sense of intellectual security.

There is a first grade science book which, in the first lesson of the first grade, begins in an unfortunate manner to teach science, because it starts off on the wrong idea of what science is. There is a picture of a dog -- a windable toy dog -- and a hand comes to the winder, and then the dog is able to move. Under the last picture, it says "What makes it move?"

The answer the book is looking for is that “energy makes it move.” But for Feynman, saying so is a dodge. “[T]hat’s only the definition of energy; it should be reversed. We might say when something can move that it has energy in it, but not what makes it move is energy.” He continues:

If you ask a child what makes the toy dog move, you should think about what an ordinary human being would answer. The answer is that you wound up the spring; it tries to unwind and pushes the gear around. What a good way to begin a science course!

Feynman tells the science teachers something that should be obvious, but somehow, in science education, bears repeating: that they’ve taught the concept only if the student can say what’s going on in her own language. “Without using the word ‘energy,’ tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion. You cannot. So you learned nothing about science.”

You might think that this approach — engage people in the concepts, and let the definitions come later — would be the hallmark of informal science education, as opposed to the formal, classroom kind. After all, direct sensory encounters with natural phenomena are what science centers and science and nature museums are all about. ...

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Categories: Child audiences, Learning, Museums, Science museums, Young audiences
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March 14, 2011

NEA report #2: Declining arts education, declining audiences

Last week I wrote about one of the three new reports that the National Endowment for the Arts released, each of which looks at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts through a different lens. Today we’ll turn to Nick Rabkin’s eye-opening analysis of trends in arts education. We all knew the picture wouldn’t be pretty, but…

Rabkin has been studying and working in arts education for many years and knows the territory cold; he’s currently wrapping up a five-year, multi-funder study of the role of teaching artists in schools and other settings. (Full disclosure: Nick’s a friend, and he and I are developing a research project together.) Rabkin and his co-author, E.C. Hedberg, are both at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, where Rabkin is also affiliated with the Cultural Policy Center.

Their paper, Arts Education in America: What the Declines Mean for Arts Participation [pdf], dives into two big questions. That there’s less arts education going on in our schools these days is no surprise, but how much less, and for which students? And we’ve known for some time that arts education in childhood is linked to later participation in the arts, but how does the evidence for that link hold up, and what does it imply for arts policy and arts management?

The answers here are pretty grim (my sentiment, not necessarily Rabkin and Hedberg’s). The authors’ ingenious parsing of the SPPA data reveals that arts education rose steadily from the 1930s to the 1970s, which helped create a large national audience for the arts and thereby fueled the terrific growth of the nonprofit arts sector in America: the rise of “a dazzling and diverse collection” of “producing institutions and venues in cities and towns coast to coast.”

But, as you can see, something happened in the late-’70s and ’80s, a reversal that’s unusually abrupt for macro-level social change. Who threw the switch? Probably the back-to-basics school reformers, who gathered steam around that time (and who eventually won passage of No Child Left Behind in 1992). They viewed the arts as a luxury, “soft” goods with no direct impact on broader educational outcomes.

The worst part — and for me the real bombshell of the study — is that the declines in childhood arts education since 1982 have been absorbed almost entirely by African American and Hispanic children. If you look only at white respondents to the survey, there’s been some variation but no decline from 1982 to 2008. It’s the non-white communities where the drop has been precipitous. Although the data is inherently sketchy, the authors believe these declines occurred mostly in in-school arts education, not the voluntary, after-school kind (like private music or dance lessons). ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Early exposure, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, Research findings, Student research, Survey research
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January 17, 2011

Move over, arts education — The real problem may be play

Ask an arts professional what’s wrong with today’s arts ecology and you’ll probably hear something about cuts in arts education in the schools. But there could be a more basic challenge to developing tomorrow’s audiences, a cultural shift with causes and effects well outside the arts: the death of childhood play.

If you work in the arts, you’ve heard the point made so many times by so many people that it may seem obvious, irrefutable. The decades of declining attendance at traditional art forms like classical music, ballet, and theater can be blamed on decades of declining arts education for schoolchildren. If kids aren’t exposed to Beethoven, Balanchine, Botticelli, and other exemplars of the “fine arts” when they’re young, the argument goes, they won’t make them part of their cultural repertoire when they’re older.

So if we want to stem the declines in arts attendance, what we need to do is reinvigorate arts education in the schools. Education breeds affinity. Our children will, literally, learn to love it.

I’ve never quite bought this argument, in part because there are plenty of things we learn about (are “exposed to”) in school that most of us don’t choose to spend our time with later in life: algebra, geology, European history. If anything, a classroom encounter with Mahler or Matisse in junior high could do more harm than good, branding such domains as drudgery for life. Besides, the social scientists have demonstrated pretty convincingly that what happens (or doesn’t) in school is far less influential than what happens at home: family and friends are the predominant influences.

I know that the declines in arts education are real and that, historically speaking, they’re correlated with the declines in attendance. My friend Nick Rabkin has just written a very good monograph for the NEA delving into just this question. But correlation is not causation, and I’ve wondered for a long time whether there could be something more fundamental going on — some broader social change that may not seem to have much to do with the arts but is nonetheless altering our desire or ability to engage with them. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Classical music, Early exposure, Engagement, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts, Theater, Visual art, Young audiences
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November 29, 2010

Should cultural institutions be in the business of “romance” or “precision”? Ask your newcomers

The ever-valuable museum consultant Beverly Serrell, who wrote the book on museum labels, recently pointed me to the early 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I’m glad she did, because his ideas about the stages of learning help organize something I’ve long believed about classical concerts, museum exhibitions, and other cultural experiences.

In the old days — say, mid 20th century — the rap on museums and the performing arts was that they were set up for people who already knew something about the content. You had to bring your own knowledge in order to make sense of the Latin-filled labels in a natural history museum or the formalist program notes in a concert hall.  And not just the written interpretive texts, but the objects or performance itself: you needed cultural “training” in order to find meaning and enjoyment in the conventions of exhibition or performance.

No wonder left-leaning sociologists tried to “out” those cultural institutions as markets for the accumulation and affirmation of class status, “cultural capital.”

Times have changed, of course. The sector has made big strides toward democratic accessibility. You no longer need a PhD or a dictionary to understand the annotator’s comments in your program book or the introductory panel at an art exhibition. At natural history museums, those cases of inscrutable specimens were long ago surrounded (or supplanted) by explanatory graphics and texts geared to middle-school students.

But if arts and culture institutions are no longer catering narrowly to the cognoscenti, there’s still a sense in which they’re catering to the converted. You may not have to bring your own knowledge, but you do usually have to bring your own interest in the subject. The conventions of presentation still, by and large, presume that if you’ve shown up, you’re already interested in this content. They proceed (again, implicitly and unconsciously) from the notion that you’re there—in your seat or at the exhibition—because you care about this stuff, and the institution can get on with the business of giving it to you.

What about the newcomers? What about people in the categories we culture professionals dub “experience seekers” or “cultural tourists,” who have come just to check out the symphony or the history exhibit, perhaps with a friend or on a lark? Shouldn’t the experience be designed for them, too? Isn’t that the only way to broaden the audience over time? (Megachurches, by the way, get this. They play to the newcomers and fence-sitters every bit as much as to the devout, all within a single experience.)

To do that, cultural organizations would have to stop taking for granted that what they offer is a priori, automatically valuable, and start taking responsibility for sparking a love of that content in people who may never have given it much time or thought. Here’s where Whitehead comes in handy. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Classical music, Diversity, Engagement, Innovation, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, Subjectivity, Visitor experience, Visual art
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August 01, 2010

Nudging the visitor research field to think more about [fill in the blank]

Sarah and I were in Phoenix these last few days for the Visitor Studies Association conference, where the debates ran well into the night over drinks. At the “marketplace” session on Thursday, we posed a question to our fellow attendees. Here‘s the data we collected…and an invitation to add your own.

Phoenix was hot, both meteorologically and politically. But in the cool confines of the Wyndham, we set up our table (see photos, a first for the firm) next door to our friends from Randi Korn & Associates. I scrawled this question on a flip chart:

“In your humble opinion, what should the visitor studies field be thinking more about?”

As people stopped by, Sarah and I invited them to write short responses on another pad. Here’s what we got. I‘ve re-ordered the responses to group and link the ideas, but left the wording verbatim.

The visitor studies field should be thinking more about…

  • Visitor studies as a tool for organizational change → need to work with CEOs

  • Accessing boards

  • Influence

  • Organizational culture

This was a frequent theme at the conference this year. Museum evaluators and other visitor researchers naturally want their work to make a difference to the institutions they inhabit (or work with as consultants). And they’re thinking big about visitors, impacts, values, and effectiveness — thinking in ways that could really help those organizations. But the fact is that most trustees and museum directors, not to mention many museum and informal learning professionals in other disciplines and departments, are kept at a distance from visitor studies because of institutional hierarchies, silos, and communication dynamics. So the field feels a little stymied, and its members are asking themselves what they should be doing to educate their colleagues and better communicate the value of their work. (Note this year’s conference theme: understanding the public value of visitor studies.) ...

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Categories: Assessment, Conferences, Learning, Metrics, Museums, Research issues, Visitor experience
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March 28, 2010

A tasty brew of experiences at “Science Storms,” with no eco-agenda on the side

My last post was about Edward Rothstein’s Times piece on the state of science museums, “The Thrill of Science, Tamed by Agendas.” Today, a few words (and pictures) about MSI Chicago’s new $34 million permanent exhibit, which I'll bet Rothstein is going to love.

I spent a few hours at the exhibit this week, most of that time in the witty company of Charles McGhee Hassrick, a senior exhibit developer on the project. The other voice in my head was Rothstein’s, naturally, since the exhibit is a concrete example of several of his do’s and don’ts. So at the risk of letting him set the, um, agenda, I’ll just make a few quick observations that link up with his concerns.

First of all, there is little or no attempt here to foster social change, in fact nothing overtly political. The emphasis isn’t on protecting the natural world, it’s on experiencing natural phenomena first hand, ideally in ways that lead to understanding. Which is exactly what Rothstein calls for in his article.

But of course this “agendalessness” isn’t ideology-free. This is the Museum of Science and Industry, and there are more captains of industry than of science on its board of trustees. In a museum in which whole exhibits used to be designed and written by the corporations that sponsored them, we can be forgiven for reading Science Storms as in part a political statement about the proper (that is, limited) role of science: experimental inquiry and technological innovation, even artful wondrousness, but no stepping over the line into ethical pronouncements.

Or maybe this is just back-to-basics museology, a return to the hands-on empiricism of the Exploratorium and the self-driven discovery and play it encourages. Hassrick cites the Exploratorium as one of his personal inspirations, and the influence on him and the other developers and designers is visible in much of Science Storms, especially on the mezzanine level of the exhibit where the interactives are built on a more human scale. And Rothstein, you’ll recall, singles out the Exploratorium as an inspiring model of the kind of revolution that may still be possible in science museum thinking.

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Categories: Chicago, Child audiences, Innovation, Institutional personality, Learning, Museums, Natural history, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Science museums, Visual art
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March 03, 2010

Spontaneous natural history collection sur la plage

Is collecting nature or nurture? Some thoughts on a little “museum” of found objects I saw on vacation last week.

Museum directors of a certain stripe are fond of saying that collecting is a universal human impulse, especially among kids. The idea is that all kinds of people can relate to museums because everyone knows first-hand the thrill of gathering, organizing, comparing, and studying cool stuff — and it doesn’t matter whether the stuff in question is Renaissance sculpture or dead, soon-to-be-smelly sea stars that washed up in the tide.

Last week, at a hotel my family and I were staying at on St. Martin (I know, it’s a dog’s life), we noticed that a table near the beach had been covered by a collection of shells, corals, seaweeds, sea-glass, stones, and other eye-catching specimens. It seemed to belong to everyone and no one, and a security guard I asked told me that it had been there about two months. During our week there we added a few things to it and saw other guests (kids and adults) do the same. Everyone seemed to enjoy picking things up, touching them, rearranging. There was also some taking away, as my daughters and I discovered when the sea star we contributed was gone the next day. 

Still, I found it delightful. (My girls never got past their indignation that some people were treating it as a trading post.) In this age of participatory engagement and what Clay Shirky has called “the power of organizing without organizations,” here was a community collection that had arisen without rules or even communication but which mirrored (in a raw, messy way) some very old museological impulses: it was organized by form but in a pre-taxonomic way; it mixed biological and inorganic samples, marine and land species, the everyday and the exotic; it seemed to evolve over time as better specimens of the same sort or new categories altogether were added (and others were “deaccessioned” for communal or selfish reasons); and it was of course unlabeled, a piece of installation art as much as armchair science.

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Categories: Early exposure, Learning, Museums, Natural history, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Personal reflections, Visual art
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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