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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May 02, 2012

Alan Alda warms up science communication with the Flame Challenge

How would you explain flame — what is it? what’s going on in there? — to an 11 year old? I grew up watching Alda play an army doctor on M*A*S*H, but his acting and PBS interviewing work have led him to some real-world questions about how science is conveyed to us laymen. In partnership with Stony Brook University, where Alda teaches scientists how to improvise and “be more authentically themselves” with the public, he has organized a contest for scientists and anyone else who wants to enter. Submissions are now being an 11 year old near you.

I blogged a year ago about how little patience the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman had for standard science pedagogy, which too often teaches us vocabulary (“energy,” “momentum”) but not what’s really going on.

Alda is putting on Feynman’s mantle when he describes his own 11 year old self asking his teacher what a flame is and being told, predictably, “It’s oxidation.” As he writes in a recent guest editorial in the prestigious journal Science, “I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name.”


Hence the Flame Challenge, which received more than 800 entries from 30 countries. After being vetted for accuracy by scientists, the entries were sent to kids at 130 schools around the US for judging. Finalists and a winner will be announced next month at the World Science Festival in New York. (That festival, as I’ve mentioned, is run by the real latter-day Feynman, theoretical physicist Brian Greene, along with his partner, the science journalist and media producer Tracy Day.)

The emphasis here is on clarity, on helping somebody really get the concept. Alda is no fan of dumbing down; there’s no condescension here about the sophistication of the average 11 year old. The point he’s making is that if you can communicate a complex idea successfully to a kid, you know you’ve really nailed it. And a sixth grader is less likely than an adult to nod sagely when he’s fed an “explanation” that’s really just a vocabulary list.

But Alda is onto something deeper here. When he pursued that clarity and accessibility in his interviews with scientists, he found that the interactions became warmer, more human, more connected. It wasn’t just the facts that came to life, it was the people behind the facts — as well as their relationship to Alda and, by extension, viewers at home.

Having to talk with someone who was truly trying to understand caused an actual human interaction to take place in these interviews. There was more warmth, and the real person behind the scientist in the white lab coat could emerge. Suddenly, both young people and adults could see that scientists were like them, with a natural way of speaking and even a sense of humor. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Informal science education, Institutional personality, Natural history, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling, Subjectivity
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April 06, 2012

Do cultural institutions tell stories? A new bestseller gets me thinking

The rise of live storytelling in recent years is remarkable, both for its bottom-up, scrappy scene (headquartered in Brooklyn, of course) and its rehabilitation of a historical form of entertainment and conviviality. A few storytelling events are held at museums, but that’s not the same as museums telling stories in their own exhibitions or programs. A new hiking memoir, of all things, just reminded me what the recipe has always been.

Having been laid up sick for a few days with the book, Wild, for company, I can tell you that its author, Cheryl Strayed, deserves the praise that critics have been showering on her. The book, which is about how she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone in order to put her reckless, splintered life back together, is heartfelt, honest, gripping, funny and, for me at least, deeply moving.

Those are critical clichés, I know. But there’s one kind of cultural narrative they’re almost never used to describe: museum exhibitions. Museum people often speak of exhibitions as “telling the story” of so-and-so, or collections as “telling the stories” of a particular time and place. But compared to the real storytelling that’s going on these days, from The Moth (pictured) to This American Life to books like Strayed’s, museums’ use of the word “story” feels like a mere metaphor, an approximation.

You’ve seen plenty of exhibitions with a historical shape, and a beginning, middle, and an end. But when’s the last time you came out of an exhibition feeling like somebody had told you a story? 

When’s the last time you’d have described an exhibition — or a symphony concert or dance program, for that matter — as heartfelt, gripping, honest, or moving? The individual artworks, historical artifacts, or performances, sure. But the exhibition — the evening — the program created by the cultural institution itself?

Strayed’s book got me thinking about the difference between a narrative (that slightly precious, academic word) and a story. Her book, like all good stories, moves in two directions, which we might call horizontal and vertical (see diagram, below). The horizontal direction is the unfolding of the plot: where the story is taking us, and how we’re going to get from here to there. It’s the dimension of surprises, twists, and the pleasure of wondering (or fearing or wishing) what’s going to happen next. When we say something is gripping or suspenseful, we’re praising the horizontal dimension.

Exhibitions, for all their traditional emphasis on chronological and other kinds of narratives, aren’t particularly good at this. As I’ve asked here before, when do museum visitors ever feel suspense about what the next gallery will tell them, or how it’s going to end? ...

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Categories: Classical music, History museums, Institutional personality, Museums, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling
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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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November 28, 2011

Everybody’s favorite astrophysicist leads science into new territory: popular culture

I’m not the target audience, and neither are you. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s weekly radio show and podcast, StarTalk Radio, is aimed at people with a high-school education who listen to commercial talk radio call-in shows — the “blue collar intellectual” segment, according to a grant summary from the National Science Foundation, which supports the show. But there are big lessons here for us white-collar intellectuals who work in museums and the arts.

I didn’t know anything about StarTalk when I stumbled on it a few days ago on iTunes. But I’ve been watching Tyson’s public science persona evolve for years and have read several of his books, so I downloaded a few episodes and played them in the car during a family Thanksgiving drive. I was immediately struck by the commercial sound of the show. Fast pace. Voices bantering and interrupting and laughing. Comedians and celebrities mixing it up with Tyson and his scientific guests. Rock and Motown hits pumping us in and out of the segments. And Tyson’s voice, more animated and...well, slicker than I’d ever heard it.

So I was excited but not surprised to read that StarTalk was created to “bridge the intersection between pop culture and pop science” and that it bills itself as the “first and only popular commercial radio program devoted to all things space.” In other words, it’s content you might expect from public radio or public television (and Tyson has put in plenty of time on those media), but repackaged in a commercial format for people who’ve never heard of Radiolab or Story Collider and don’t watch NOVA.

Which proves that innovation in public science — and by extension other social and cultural domains that are too important to leave to the experts — doesn’t have to be geared to the educated, urban, young creatives who stream Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! and the Slate Political Gabfest on their smartphones, nor to the older, affluent generation that’s still watching PBS and attending lunchtime lectures at their local university. It can meet a different (larger?) demographic on its own turf. And that, for anyone who cares about reaching underserved audiences and getting the arts and sciences out of their 20th-century temples, is good news. ...

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Categories: Demographics, Informal science education, Institutional personality, Public media, Science museums, Subjectivity, Young audiences
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August 05, 2011

Beyond learning: museums as aesthetic experiences

Part of the fun of the Visitor Studies Association conference two weeks ago was getting to bat around provocative ideas with some terrific colleagues. My own lob into the fray was a brief talk asking what we’d gain by seeing museum visits — even to science museums and the like — as aesthetic experiences. Here’s the gist of it.

It helped that one of my fellow panelists, Jennifer Novak-Leonard, had just talked about impact assessment in the performing arts. Everyone knows a symphony or a contemporary dance performance is an aesthetic experience, right? But in the museum world — even in art museum category, I’m afraid — what dominates the conversation about purposes and outcomes is learning. That fits the Enlightenment roots of museums, sure, but based on my experience researching audiences in the cultural sector (from Baroque music to science centers to zoos) it leaves out what matters most.

When we ask visitors why they came to the museum today, the top two responses are usually something about having fun and something about spending time with family or friends (the specifics depend on how we ask the question). Coming in third is learning something new or exploring the museum’s content area (natural history, wildlife biology, art history, whatever).

Whatever else it is, museum-going is a pleasure-seeking activity. Learning can be pleasurable, of course, and it’s a key ingredient in the stew. But it’s not, in itself, what draws people to museums. As the logicians would say, learning is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of a successful museum experience.

Yet what is our entire apparatus of museum evaluation built around? What are the funders paying us to assess? What do we set our exhibit and program outcomes around? Not our visitors’ first two goals, pleasure and social interaction — despite the fact that both of these are getting attention as components of a healthy, sustainable society. We focus almost exclusively on their third priority, learning.

Of course, we acknowledge that museum experiences have to be engaging, stimulating — pleasurable — in order to hold people’s attention long enough for them to learn something. But the hierarchy is clear: pleasure (if it’s present in our conversation at all) is the means to an end: it’s one of many things that can contribute to the desired outcome (learning). What if, for once, we flipped that and saw learning as one thing that can contribute to pleasure? What if pleasure, that basic building block of human and social happiness, were the highest goal?

In other words, what if museums took a page from the performing arts and thought of exhibits and programs as aesthetic experiences? By “aesthetic” I don’t mean “beautiful” or even visually striking. I’m using the word in a broad sense based on a tradition that runs from Aristotle to Kant and Schiller and right up through 20th century formalism. An aesthetic experience is one that’s intrinsically, not instrumentally important. It feels purposeful but doesn’t serve any purpose external to itself — except pleasure. It’s a sensory experience but somehow weaves sensation and rational understanding into a whole that transcends both parts, with results that are emotional. It’s a species of play. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Culture sector, Institutional personality, Museums, Science museums, Visual art
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June 23, 2011

Where have I been? (Hint: It has to do with where I’m going)

Did you see that article not long ago about the ridiculous percentage of blog posts that are apologies by the blogger for not having blogged in a while? Well, here’s my contribution to the genre. But it’s also a chance to share some big personal news with those of you who are interested. (The rest of you can skip it; I’ll have more musings on the changing cultural sector for you very soon.)

The news is something I’ve been telling colleagues and clients about for several months, though this is the first time I’m putting it in print. This summer, after almost twenty years in Chicago, I’m moving with Cheryl and our kids to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The New Mexico Museum of Art on the Santa Fe Plaza (yes, I'm joining)

It’ll be a serious shift for us in a hundred ways, and it has all but taken over my life for the last few months. Fixing up and selling our house in Chicago, flying back and forth to Santa Fe to search for a new house there, dealing with realtors and inspectors and contractors on both ends — that’s only the half of it.

There’s also the professional side: working with our terrific team at the firm to ensure it’s a transition in which everyone grows. Because this is no stepping back for me, nor for Cheryl. We’ll continue to lead the firm from what everyone is calling our Santa Fe office, and we’ll continue to work with clients around the country in both our worlds (higher ed and arts & culture).

Sure, we’ll be giving up some day-to-day management, but that was happening naturally as we’ve grown to a staff of a dozen. More significantly, we’ll be sharing real leadership of the firm with Bill, Sarah, and Chloe, who recently received some overdue promotions and became our first vice presidents. (Anne and Mike were also appointed to more senior roles, becoming the firm’s first associates.)

All that would have happened organically anyway, but our impending move to the southwest has become the dust mote around which the whole cloud is rapidly condensing. In a small team — and especially in a family business, which this one literally is — sometimes the senior people need to make a little room so the next generation can step in.

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Categories: General, Personal reflections, Science museums, Visual art
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May 30, 2011

The participatory revolution is all around us

Okay, maybe “revolution” is a little dramatic. But preparing for my talk last week at the American Association of Museums meeting in Houston, I found no shortage of evidence that our culture is being reshaped by the work of many hands. Authority ain’t what it used to be.

I was chairing a panel on which three great people from STEM museums (Shari Werb from Smithsonian Natural History, Tom Owen from an exhibits firm working on the Kennedy Space Center visitor center for NASA, and Meg Lowman, a pioneering rainforest canopy biologist who directs the new Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences) talked about how citizen science — or more to the point, visitor science — will play out in new facilities they’re building.

My job was to frame the topic, and I did so pretty broadly. This isn’t just about museums, I told the museum professionals in the room, or even about the culture sector more broadly. It’s about new roles that people like you and me are playing in all kinds of domains.

Those roles are described by various buzzwords, from crowdsourcing and user-generated content to maker culture, citizen journalism, citizen science, and so on. They’ve occasioned a slew of books, some celebratory (like Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, or We Are Smarter than Me) and some critical (Andrew Keen’s The Cult of The Amateur).

What’s it all about? Among other things, a changing sense of what authority and expertise are supposed to look like. (Not coincidentally, authority and expertise have been the foundation of museums’ value systems. No wonder they’re anxious.) At the root of “authority” is the word “author,” and I suggested that what’s changing is who gets to tell the story, who gets to be the expert. The answer, increasingly often, is you.

You’re not just a voter; you’re a civic problem-solver, at least if you live in one of the four cities where Give a Minute is operating. You’re not just a consumer or an armchair inventor, you’re an Innocentive problem solver (“We need your brain power to help solve some of the world’s toughest problems”).

You’re not just a buyer of stuff, a la Amazon. You’re a maker of the stuff in the first place, thanks to online communities like Etsy. And community isn’t just a metaphor here; Etsy also happens in real places where you can make things with others (like the Brooklyn Etsy Labs below).

In music, you’re not just an audience member. You’re a “rusty musician” playing onstage at the Baltimore Symphony alongside the pros (a program I blogged about last year). ...

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Categories: Citizen science, Museums, Natural history, Science museums, Visitor experience
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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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October 26, 2010

Crowdsourcing the next great science museum exhibit — Yes! (But…)

My colleague Sarah noticed this little bombshell in a recent e-newsletter from the Museum of Science, Boston: the museum is holding an Innocentive contest to dream up a large-scale science or technology exhibit. Think fast, though, because the deadline is tomorrow.

If you’ve heard the term crowdsourcing, you’ve probably also heard of Innocentive, the online matchmaker between “seekers” of solutions to technological, scientific, commercial, civic, or other kinds of problems and “solvers” with bright ideas to share. The company believes that “breakthrough thinking can come from anywhere,” and that the future of innovation is open, distributed, and untethered from traditionally-defined professional and scholarly domains.

Since it was founded in 2001, Innocentive has posted more than a thousand challenges, more than half of which were successfully met by a community of 200,000 solvers from 200 countries. The awards have ranged from $5,000 to a million bucks, but the vast majority are on the low end of that scale: the average is about $8,000, which is the amount that the Museum of Science (MOS) is offering.

As someone who’s been thinking about innovation and its discontents in the museum field for several years, I’m excited about this. The MOS team are clearly a forward-thinking, energized bunch who understand that, these days, authority works best when it’s shared. (Check out the museum’s Creativity and Collaboration Center and its current exhibit, which is based on stories from users.) ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Engagement, Institutional personality, Museums, Science museums
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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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