Touch and Learning In Science Museums

My sister and niece, observing fossils from behind glass.
My sister & niece, observing Plateosaurus from behind glass.

Recently, my sister and 2.5 year-old niece came to visit me at the natural history museum I work at. It was the first time they had come to visit this museum, but I know that my sister has taken my niece to the Acton Discovery Museums at least twice, so she has had some experiences within museum settings. What happened on their visit only reaffirmed my feelings towards the serious need for change at my home museum, and I got to experience first hand the frustrations of bringing a child to visit a science museum with minimal interactivity in its exhibit space.

Before I go any further, I just want to explicitly state that the views expressed in this post (and in all my blog posts past, present, and future) are the views and opinions of myself only, and do not reflect in any way the opinions of either of my employer museums. I think I’ve put that disclaimer in my “About” page as well, but I just want to reiterate it here. This blog is my way of understanding my field, expressing concerns and delights, and interacting with other professionals online; it does not seek to criticize beyond reason. So, moving on…

My sister and niece spent about an hour in the museum with me, primarily in the zoological galleries. We checked out the evolution gallery, the arthropods room (where my niece kept yelling “yuck!” and “gross!” at everything in jars, and my sister was completely obsessed with the tarantula), and went into the photography gallery, where my niece listed the animals in the room. We moved on to the fossil exhibits, but it was already becoming obvious that my niece was starting to lose interest. She was running, gently hitting the glass, and her constant question of “what’s that?” was starting to become less frequent. We got to the dinosaur gallery, and I was really hoping she would be blown away by Kronosaurus queenslandicus, our huge fossilized pliosaur; but alas, she was more interested in climbing on the benches and jumping in front of the window. She became momentarily interested in Plateosaurus, but only because my sister tried to engage her with the fossil by asking my niece to compare her feet (hands, head, etc.) with those of the dinosaur behind the glass.

This continued as we moved through the galleries, checking out the taxidermied animals in Africa and the New England Forests. My sister seemed pretty interested in how it was possible to preserve animal hides and fur for so long, and thought it was sad that the chest of our lion cub is literally bursting open; but these aren’t questions a toddler asks. She had some fun in the New England Forests, because she could touch things and we could pick her up to look in to the fallen logs and find different bugs and birds (more on that in a second). The Great Mammal Hall was engaging enough because my niece knew so many of the animals in the room, and ran around trying to find the ones she knew so she could tell us their names. But she was running, and jumping, and yelling, and being generally hyper, like kids are wont to do. Her reactions to the big cats in the Asia gallery were funny (each of the cats has a snarl on its face, which didn’t scare my niece, but every time she saw one she said, “He’s going to get us!”), and she seemed mildly interested in looking at shells through a magnifying glass in Mollusks.

But if there was one unifying thing about their exhibit, though, it was this: in every gallery, around every corner, my niece would say, “I want to touch!”

If you haven’t been to the natural history museum I work at, I will be quite honest with you: there is nothing for you to touch, unless a volunteer is out on the floor with one of the discovery carts.

I felt bad. As an employee, it’s frustrating to see visitors’ expectations dashed as they quickly realize that there are limited opportunities to actively learn and engage within our museum. I also felt bad because I had to watch my sister deal with my niece and her building energy level; at one point she even had to take my niece into a corner to remind her that they weren’t outside, and that the museum wasn’t a place for running and yelling. I asked my sister a few days later what her thoughts on the visit were, and she said that she wished there had been “interactive areas for younger kids, and more touchable things.” The comment she made that stood out to me (especially considering the quote you’ll see in two paragraphs), was that “going somewhere to be lectured at isn’t fun”, and “who wants to go to a glass museum where you can’t touch anything? What kid wants to do that?”

Their visit, combined with a National Science Foundation article I read yesterday on active learning in undergraduate STEM classes, inspired me to do some more research and write this blog post. Now, I’m not an educator by any stretch of the imagination, but as someone who grew up visiting places like the Museum of Science, the Boston Children’s Museum, and the Acton Discovery Museums, I can say that hands-on science learning is important to developing young minds and allowing them to discover how to interact with the natural world around them. Kids need a place to engage with science in an environment that isn’t dictated by grades and tests; that they aren’t going to do something wrong and get disciplined by a teacher. Because science is just crazy awesome, and who wants to get yelled at for thinking differently about dissecting a sheep’s eye in a way different from what the instructions tell you to do? (I may be speaking from personal experience…)

My main argument/proposal is that kids (and adults!) learn more and take away more from science museum experiences when they can actively participate in what they are learning, instead of being lectured to by a label on a wall or a video screen. Scott Freeman, a University of Washington biology lecturer (who authored the study the NSF article is about), said it better than I could: “We’ve got to stop killing performance and interest in science by lecturing and instead help [students] think like scientists” (“Press Release”). Replace “students” with “visitors”, and this is the essence of what I feel needs to change at my natural history museum. We spend much of our time in the galleries essentially lecturing our visitors – the text might not even be that long, but the vocabulary isn’t necessarily accessible. Instead of explaining everything, there are ways to allow visitors to experience the facts and information we want them to walk away with. “Want to know the difference between igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks? Here, touch them! See how they feel and look! Get up close and really look at them!” would be an example of something we could do.

A great example of a static exhibit becoming more accessible (because that’s really the heart of the matter here isn’t it?) is the New England Habitats exhibit at the Museum of Science. This old-school diorama exhibit has been revamped with sensory stations. Visitors can now listen to the sounds of Vermont’s Green Mountains, smell the scents of Crane’s Beach, and feel the difference between the pelt of a moose and a beaver. All of these additions only enhance the visitor experience. Do they require more care as they take a literal beating every day from thousands of visitors touching them? Absolutely. But the visitor takes something away from the experience, especially if the family engaging with the diorama has never been to the Green Mountains. Maybe the experience they had in that exhibit will encourage them to go, and have a full-on meaning making experience. Sure, there are exhibit labels at each diorama, but now that there are participatory objects for the visitors to engage with, the labels aren’t lecturing, they are adding to the experience.

In constructing this post, I did some digging on the internet for other museums and institutions that are proponents of active play and engagement for kids. Through the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) I found an article by Judy Diamond from the mid-90s (a little old, but the argument is still relevant) that looked at the intersection of playing and learning in exhibits, and how this kind of engagement can create significance for visitors (young and old). She did a study in 1987 with the Explainers at the Exploratorium, and discovered this: “When a child invents a new way of using an exhibit, at least two important things occur. One, the child constructs personal meaning from an exhibit, and two, the child acquires the ability to approach a task by inventing an original solution” (Diamond). Isn’t one of the goals of museums to facilitate meaning-making? If personal meaning for a child involves playing and touching exhibit objects, then should we, as museum professionals, push for greater access in this area?

I also looked at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, PA. First of all, now I desperately want to go, and I don’t even have kids. But more to the point, the entire museum is dedicated to the idea of “purposeful play”, where every exhibit is constructed to allow children to learn at their own pace through “the power of play”. What I noticed when browsing their exhibits page was that each exhibit space offers kids an opportunity to explore an aspect of adult life: engineering (“City Capers”), physical science (“Flight Fantasy”), handy life skills like repairing your car (“Roadside Attractions”), natural sciences (“River Adventures”), and history (“Centennial Exploration”). In these spaces you can pretend to be a doctor, a jungle explorer, a pilot, a mechanic…the list goes on. This kind of play allows kids to be exposed to a variety of subjects that might pique their interest, starting a chain reaction that can snare their fascination in history or natural sciences early. (Coming from my own experience, my early exposure to history museums set me on a path of passionate appreciation of history, so much so that I graduated with a BA in it).

I started working in my natural history museum when I was 22. Before then, I had limited exposure to science during my college career, and I only realized how much I actually enjoyed physical and natural sciences when I took a physical geology class my senior year. It’s been 3 years since I started working at this museum, and I am now fascinated by everything we have in it. I think natural history is an amazing subject that desperately needs a renaissance, not only because it’s incredibly interesting but because it will help so many people understand why fisheries collapse and pollinators die off (in other words, it helps make the natural world make sense). However, I’m an adult, and I have the power to look up information as soon as I need to know it, and I can absorb most of the exhibit labels with minimal difficulties. A child my niece’s age (and basically any kid younger than a 9th grader, I think) cannot possibly be expected to learn much of anything from the wall labels, even with their parents with them. A child needs physical tools to facilitate learning: “Young children learn best through their senses and physical interactions with the world around them” (“Value of Play”). In my mind, this could be as simple as what was done at the Museum of Science: create synthetic pelts for kids to touch. Put out antlers and horns and bones. Have more child-friendly interactive spaces. Have a solid schedule for gallery guides to be out with carts to help kids.

I could honestly go on and on about this subject, even though I’m not an educator in the slightest. My goal with this post was to vocalize my concerns and seek advice for how to make suggestions to those who have the power to make changes. Every weekend I see hundreds of families at my museum, and I want to know how they think we could serve them better.

Maybe the best way to create change is to start by asking them.


Sources:

“Press Release: Enough with the lecturing.” National Science Foundation: News. NSF, 12 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2014. <http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=131403&org=NSF&from=news&gt;.

Diamond, Judy. “Playing and Learning.” ASTC – Resource Center – Education – Learning: Theory and Practice – Playing and Learning. Association of Science and Technology Centers, n.d. Web. 26 May 2014.

“Value of Play.” Please Touch Museum. Please Touch Museum, n.d. Web. 26 May 2014.

Touch and Learning In Science Museums