blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Science is not a theme park

My daughter has just shown me an apposite blog post written by Michael de Podesta, a friend and colleague of hers who has just been received an MBE (for Services to Science) from the Queen. He runs "a course [...] called Protons for Breakfast which aims to help the general public make sense of some of the science that they encounter." His description of the BBC show Horizon on the theme of Black Holes as "dumbed-down science at its worst" puts into words what I felt today during my visit to the national Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa.

Not all of the museum is bad; if it were rehoused in a building that looked less than a warehouse, didn't have such dismally black ceilings and if its contents were differently presented and modernised (most of the information and illustrations have not been updated since the 1980s), it could be a rewarding place for everyone to visit. Alexander enjoyed himself there, appreciating the model railway made from Lego, pretending to drive the vehicles and pressing the various buttons to make things happen, but then, he is only two. Surely a nation's tribute to Science and Technology ought not to assume that all its visitors are toddlers. Various groups of school children were there and most of them were simply running wild. In the Telecommunications (Connexions) section of the museum, above ground level, was a maze of interconnecting tunnels with coloured, flashing lights running along their sides. This installation was supposed to teach the youngsters about packet switching, but they weren't learning anything; they were playing tag. "Don't run!" said the poor woman (volunteer teacher's assistant? inexperienced teacher?) meant to be in charge up there. "I'm it!" shouted a little girl, not even noticing the adult was there. Alexander of course joined in and we lost track of him for a few moments. It was claustrophobic, dark and very noisy, not an atmosphere conducive to anyone's education. Emma, Peter and I became depressed when we started to think about it.

Who is to blame? Is it the fault of the museum's directors, the school system, the individual teachers, our ambient culture or lack of it, the children themselves, their parents, or all of the above? I suspect the museum is sadly understaffed. There was nobody in uniform to be seen while this pandemonium was going on (perhaps they were in hiding; I wouldn't blame them). The few adults present didn't seem to have a clue how to calm the children down or teach them anything. Had I been planning a field trip to this museum with a potentially rowdy class I would at least have visited it ahead of time and planned accordingly.

On the positive side, one teacher, elsewhere in the building with a different school group, was impressively and confidently in control. He didn't try to intimidate his charges, but when we watched him lining them up in the cafeteria after their lunch, they were doing exactly as they were told. The young woman who gave the dramatic 2 o'clock demo-lecture on Cryogenics also deserves praise; she did it entertainingly and efficiently in two languages, managing to aim her teaching at adults and young children simultaneously.

Maybe it depends (now as always) on extraordinary individuals like Dr de Podesta to give people young and old what they deserve to get in the way of education, but designing a nation's museums as playgrounds does not help.


Anonymous said...

I think the reference to packet switching says it all. Anyone seen X.25 around recently?

Anonymous said...

I'd be very interested to know:
why the Horizon programme is such banal science (I didn't watch it, you see);
just how much the children who lined up in the museum remember about their visit in a year from now, compared with the recollections of those who were playing "tag".

Anonymous said...

I suppose that demonstrating packet switching is so much easier than demonstrating routing but it really is historic. X.25 lost its battle with ATM and ATM its battle with IP a decade ago. Of course, the purpose of a museum is to preserve what is old, but not at the expense of what is new.

Ottawa has no good technical bookshop and is in desperate need of one. Why can't a technology museum provide at least this basic service in Ottawa?

Anonymous said...

Rather than saying what we don't want in a Science and Technology museum, I think we should say what we do want.

Here's my tuppenceworth.

1. Both science and technology build on mathematics. Having a science and technology museum without mathematics is like having Hamlet without the prince. Rename the museum to the "Mathematics, Science and Technology Museum" and include mathematics.

2. Accept that there are three equally important audiences and they need different messages:
a. children
b. adults working in mathematics, science or technology
c. adults not working in any of mathematics, science or technology

The difference between "child" and "adult" is, of course, nothing to do with age: I know 14 year old adults and 50 year old children.

3. The messages for children should be

a. mathematics, science and technology are live subjects---not fossilised things in textbooks. This is the "most mathematicians are still alive" rather than "mathematics stopped with the ancient Greeks" message.

b. mathematics, science and technology are trying to find answers to interesting and complex problems and the work is, for the right sort of person, rewarding. Not everyone can do science, mathematics or technology but, for those who can, it is actually fun.

4. The messages for the adult non-specialist need to be answers to the science-related question being thrown out by the media:

a. Every scientific theory has eventually been shewn to be wrong. Creationism, Intelligent Design, Occult Predictions, Homeopathy and Religious Beliefs have not been shewn to be wrong. Why should I believe science?

b. Is science descriptive or explanatory?

c. etc.

5. The adult specialist needs the resources for cross-discipline research including not just access to papers and experimental equipment outside her or his specialisation but also indication of direction to take: "What other field of science has addressed the question of X?".

6. And, by the way, something that the CBC programmers also need to understand: "science" is not a synonym for "biology".

Alison Hobbs said...

A Facebook friend of mine, the mother of another 2 year old, wrote yesterday: "The Museum of Science & Tech. in Ottawa is pathetic, really truly pathetic [...] It's not interactive at all. Children from schools just run amuk instead of [having] tours. Some of the displays have been the same for over 10 years. It's boring, uninspiring, and not conducive for learning. [...] They've closed part of the optic tunnels recently, the best part. The trains are great, but WHAT are children learning when they can't interact. The Museum was created for learning, yet I find very little of that happening by any of the children running around. If I wanted Charlie to just PLAY, I'd take him to the park. I want him to learn something from his play.....THAT I AM PAYING FOR!!!"

Her husband made this comment: "I've seen many primary school classes in the Toronto Science Centre and Science North in Sudbury. Both facilities are far more interactive, structured, and up-to-date. I don't think primary school students are only entertained by uncontrolled environments; they just require the material to be presented in an interesting manner."

Alison Hobbs said...

By the way, re. the interconnecting tunnels above ground level, I think I have worked out why the local children behave as they do up there. It's because they're very similar to the tunnels in the commercial playground a few kilometres away, known as "Cosmic Adventures" (, where most of them are sure to have been. A place where they're encouraged to run wild and let off steam at birthday parties and such!

Michael de Podesta said...

I am honoured to be mentioned in your blog. Thank you.

The museum 'mania' you describe is not unique to Canada. The UK's science museum has similar areas. It is hard to convince oneself that anything positive is taking place.

IMHO: The state of the museum is really a symptom of a cultural ambivalence towards science. There is a widespread refusal to acknowledge that >effort< is required to acknowledge some of the ubiquitous concepts of science and technology - such a s packet switching.
There is also a widespread misunderstanding of the concept of 'fun'. Fun is a byproduct of many activities but the focus of the all the activities which people (and children) enjoy is never fun in itself. Paradoxically, people have 'fun' when they take things seriously: When they have a good game of a scrabble; When they work hard at making a water rocket. Or when they think hard about something. These activities are fun - but seeking just to have fun is simply facile and results in mindless running about and pushing buttons.

melandfaith said...

"... seeking just to have fun is simply facile and results in mindless running about ..."

"A hall, a hall, give room! And foot it, girls!
More light, you knaves, and turn the tables up;
And quench the fire, the room is grown too hot.
Ah, sirrah, this unlook'd-for sport comes well.
Nay, sit, nay, sit, good cousin Capulet,
For you and I are past our dancing days.
How long is't now since last yourself and I
Were in a mask?"

How long indeed?

Anonymous said...

The Canada Science and Technology Museum that stimulated the original post is on the move:

It's going to be rebuilt on a new site and the CEO, Denise Amyot, is looking for suggestions on the structure of the new museum. I encourage (thoughtful) people commenting here to contact her with suggestions. I don't think that comments about X.25 will be well received.