Thursday, 3 March 2011

Science in context


It’s been a good while since I updated my blog so I thought I would start with a thrilling and exciting discussion on interactivity!

Over the last few months I have been working at Techniquest in Cardiff helping on the floor and working in the science theatre and planetarium. The overall aim of the science discovery centre seems to be the introduction of scientific concepts and the nurturing of visitors interest in science through interactive exhibits and shows.

But how effective is this really and to what extent are these exhibits and shows actually interactive?

Inside Techniquest, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, Wales                         'Orbits' at Techniquest
Take for example an exhibit called 'Orbits' that consists of a flat surface, deformed in two places to produce 'gravity wells'. Visitors are invited to take balls and roll them around the surface to observe how the gravity wells effect the path they take.

The accompanying explanation indicates that this is a representation of how planets move around stars or any object with mass moves when inside the gravity of well of another mass.

However, from observing the interactions of visitors, this exhibit seems to be engaging and fun, but are visitors actually taking away the core concepts?

By designing the balls to look more like planets, i.e. painting them and designing the surface to look like a star field, the idea that this is how planets move around a gravity well could be more easily interpreted visually even if the visitors do not read the accompanying information. Similarly, the addition of more balls with different sizes and masses would add a new level understanding that gravity acts on objects differently depending on their mass.

As is, without reading the information accompanying the exhibit, which few younger visitors appear to do, the understanding of what the exhibit represents is lost and it just becomes a fun game of which ball is going to go in which hole.

Other exhibits that involve a single user interacting with a simple touch screen animation or an exhibit that takes input from the user to produce a response seem interactive but are based on a pre-programmed sequence of events that is not different to a user browsing through a website. Is this interactivity?

Not only this, but many exhibits engage a primary user and relegate all the other visitors in that users group to the role of observer or interferer. These exhibits may be interactive, but hey limit the social interactions that help cement concepts in visitor’s minds.

If more exhibits were designed in a way that encouraged groups of visitors to interact, communicate and think about the concept that is trying to be conveyed, I think that the message would be much more effectively and efficiently absorbed.

Science discovery centres often want to move away from coming across "museumy", but by doing so they ignore the context of the science. The social, cultural and technological developments that were necessary for our understanding of the concept and the developments, socially, cultural and technologically that came from it.

It is one thing to demonstrate to a child the way that a fan can provide lift for pieces of foam, but how about telling them about aeroplanes, birds, the scientists that discovered and developed the ideas and the way in which it applies to their life.

I think that a fear of being to "museumy" means that visitors are exposed to a disconnected world of colourful "big toys" that demonstrate basic concepts of science without contextualising the importance of these concepts.

It is one thing to understand science; it is another altogether to understand how science affects your life and the world you live in.

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