Science Museums as Environments for Learning

Physics Today, vol. 43, no. 11, pp. 50-56, Nov. 1990.(American Institute of Physics)
Robert J. Semper
Executive Associate Director, Exploratorium, San Francisco, CA

A science museum is created by its contents and the activities relating to them. These contents may be historical artifacts, such as a steam engine, or exhibits of natural phenomena, scientific ideas or technological inventions. A museum is an educational county fair, a serious and exciting learning environment where the relationships between one exhibit and the next, and among the exhibits, the visitors and the space as a whole are important. This location-and-object specific attribute sets museums apart from other communications media such as television, books and periodicals.

The numbers of science museums in the United States and worldwide have exploded during the past 20 years. Today there are some 200 science centers and museums in the US alone, with a combined visitorship of at least 50 million people per year.1 These institutions include both the traditional museums of science and technology, which emphasize collections of historical artifacts and industrial devices (often donated by companies) and the more contemporary science center (see PHYSICS TODAY, March 1987, page 65).

Founded with academic principles in mind but designed to serve the broadest general public, these science centers usually house a mixture of exhibits; educational programs; libraries; film and computer resources; and teaching, exhibit development and scientific staff. The cardinal feature of these new science centers has been the development of interactive exhibits and educational programming keyed to the idea that learning is an active enterprise. The centers provide an important community-based resource for science learning at all ages: In a survey conducted in 1987 by the Association of Science-Technology Centers, more than half the visitors to such centers were found to be 17 or older.

Role in public education
Science centers exhibit scientific phenomena and ideas as well as objects, machines and instruments. They show the activities of scientists, the consequences of technological advancement, and the state of our knowledge of the universe and ourselves. They excel at presenting examples of natural phenomena, human and animal behavior, and real-world applications of science. They provide multiple opportunities for the public to broaden and deepen its knowledge and understanding of science, technology and nature.

The exhibits in these museums present natural phenomena, technological innovations and scientific ideas in ways that prompt visitors, interacting with them, to ask themselves questions and reinforce their own learning. Exhibits are designed to isolate a piece of nature or a concept from the complex world so that a visitor has a chance to poke at, fiddle with and thereby begin to comprehend it. For instance, visitors can learn about refraction by passing light beams through large plastic lenses, by watching waves bend in a ripple tank as they pass from deep to shallow water, or by examining the lens from a cow's eye dissection. Museums also can provide a vivid experience of the scientific discovery process by presenting or recreating actual events such as the reception and analysis of live images from the Pioneer and Voyager satellites as they sweep past the planets.

The resonant pendulum at the Exploratorium is a good example of an exhibit that invites interaction. It is a 300 pound pendulum with a metal collar surrounding the weight. Visitors can swing the pendulum after throwing very weak magnets onto the metal collar and pulling on the attached cords. If one pulls in phase with the motion of the pendulum, the motion is reinforced; if one pulls out of phase, the magnet drops off immediately. This exhibit is dramatic and fun: It is obvious how to make it work, and the significance of resonance-as manifest in a small, weak magnet moving a large, heavy pendulum when pulled repeatedly in phase-is apparent. Also two people standing a quarter-circle apart can observe a graphic representation of vectors by simultaneously pulling the pendulum. This simple exhibit has fostered a variety of discussions with people at many different levels of scientific understanding. It prompted a family to talk about pumping swings; it inspired physics teachers to discuss the underlying resonant phenomena supporting refraction in glass; and it helped Robert Wilson, the emeritus director of Fermilab, demonstrate the resonant operation of the cyclotron.

But good science centers do more than provide specific information or a view of the scientific process. Experiences in museums motivate children and adults to become more inquisitive. They encourage the development or redevelopment of curiosity. People comment after a visit to a science museum that they feel they begin to notice things in the outside world that they have missed before. Clearly something basic has happened, something deeper than the mere learning of a specific fact or idea.

Museums and science centers also sponsor programs and activities designed to relate to particular audiences. Because they are not part of the formal educational structure, which can sometimes be seen as threatening, museums can successfully host science-related activities that reach families, community groups, underserved youth and women and members of minority populations who are underrepresented in professional science.

The resources of museums and centers are used in formal teaching as well: Exhibits are used by classes and students as props for learning; and they provide the base for a teacher education curriculum. Teachers develop worksheets for students to use when they visit a museum, and teachers often develop versions of exhibits for their own classroom use. Today there is a growing use of science museums as settings for intensive teacher preservice and inservice development. And many museums are adding libraries, information systems, film and demonstration theaters and other resources to help people develop a deeper understanding of what they are experiencing.

Learning in science centers
Science centers are indeed educational institutions, but they are not schools. Museums offer learning opportunities that are difficult to replicate in a traditional school settings. The educators, scientists and designers working in science centers instinctively feel that significant education is happening, and most museum educators have an impressive list of anecdotal evidence that shows that this is the case. But the exact nature and extent of the learning activity in science centers are not fully understood.

The lack of extensive research results should not be surprising. Research on learning in museums is hard to do because of the episodic nature of the interaction, the divergent backgrounds of the visitors, the free-form nature of a museum visit itself and the non-verbal character of the experiences that museums particularly excel in providing. But it is also just those features of the museum experience that make the question of learning in museums so interesting and worthy of study.

Museum goers don't take tests or receive grades. As Frank Oppenheimer, founding director of the Exploratorium used to point out, "No one ever flunked a museum." An experience in a museum may trigger an idea in a class two months later or a family discussion during the next vacation. Many of the existing studies of learning in the museum consist of visitor-behavior studies or visitor interviews of one sort or another. Such studies have given insight into the behavior of visitors using a museum and therefore have provided some hints about how to design good exhibits and labels. The more subtle learning experiences that museums provide are harder to document. Research only now is beginning to address the question of what learning models are appropriate for museums.2

The museum experience
It is important to note that the learning experience in the museum often occurs within a social context. People come with other people: friends, family, fellow students. They interact with other visitors, either consciously or unconsciously. The social groupings often include people of mixed ages, experiences and backgrounds. An exhibit may serve as a prop for a discussion between two students or between a parent and a child. Exhibits provide an opportunity for joint experimentation, in which the role of teacher and student can alternate back and forth between participants.

Peer interaction in learning can be an important support for education, and it is one that formal schooling often militates against. In a museum, opportunities naturally arise for people to relate to each other, and one can overhear delightful arguments between two visitors about how something works. In fact, some of the Exploratorium's most popular exhibits are designed to work best with more than one person.

Significantly, people must make an active decision to visit a museum, and most visitors clearly see museums as educational. When we ask our visitors why they came to the Exploratorium they usually make it quite plain that they came to learn-either to have an educational experience themselves or to offer it to their family. Thus they view a visit to a science center as different from a visit to a theme park or an amusement center. At the same time, our surveys also show that the museum learning experience is accessible and enjoyable to visitors. They often say somewhat wistfully, "If science had been taught like this when I was in school, I would have stayed with it." Many returning visitors say that they come back to have fun as well as to learn something new.

The ideas and objects in a museum are discovered by the active process of people's moving about: Inside the building, visitors browse with their feet, going to exhibits that interest them and bypassing the ones that don't or that are being used. People have the opportunity to wander and to make their own personal connections and meaningful choices. There is no requirement for them to see everything. The relatively freeform environment allows and even demands that the users create their own learning path.

Some of these paths and connections are scientifically valid; some are not. But this personal pathfinding is important for learning science. Philip Morrison pointed this out years ago in another context:3

I think our instruction has been single-pathed. You're in a forest, you walk carefully along a path and reach the chest of doubloons on the other side, and solve the problem! And that is the way we-I too- teach physics. But the kids that try it get lost at each turning of the path. The trouble is that they think there is only one safe path, that they have to stick as close to that as they can, and they are afraid to go off into the deep woods. I think that the only way to teach pathfinding is to make them get lost many, many times, to make all the false starts, to try out all the alternatives....Of course you can't learn many paths this way, but you learn a way of going down a path. Then if someone gives you another start, you might be able to find your own way for yourself, hopefully, some other time.
A casual observer may get the impression that visitors have only brief interactions with exhibits. But the frenetic activity observed in science museums often camouflages much more purposeful approaches. Judy Diamond studied the behavior of family groups by following them during their visits. She found that they would look at a number of exhibits for a short period of time (less than a minute) and at a few exhibits for a much longer period of time (5 to 30 minutes).4 In his studies at the Smithsonian Institution, John Falk also discovered a bimodal distribution of time spent at exhibits.5 Such studies indicate that a substantial part of the museum visit is spent in detailed examination of a number of exhibits, thereby providing the opportunity for significant learning. Visitors select the topics that interest them, and then they are ready to investigate further.

For most visitors the museum experience is episodic. A single two-hour visit is the norm. At first thought, this short time would seem to limit the pedagogical effectiveness of the museum. But visits to the museum for many people are more than single experiences. Over 10 percent of our visitors return within six months for another visit. People enjoy seeing their old exhibit friends and delight in demonstrating them for others. Some of the students who visit during a field trip return with their parents in tow. Other students and teachers use the exhibits in formal classes. And the museum store offers books and gadgets that can help visitors continue the experience at home.

Pedagogical foundations
There are at least four rich themes in education theory that especially relate to the learning activities found in museums. These comprise curiosity or intrinsically motivated learning in education, multiple modes of learning, play and exploration in the learning processes, and the existence of self-developed world views and models among people who learn science.

Surprisingly little systematic attention has been paid to the role of curiosity or intrinsically motivated learning on the part of students or the general public. In our educational system extrinsic reward structures such as graduation, examinations, grades, approval of teachers and potential future employment are common motivators. But intrinsic factors-such as curiosity, enjoyment in learning and mastery of challenge-also form potent motivational tools. Curiosity is a fundamental drive in humans and animals alike, and for obvious evolutionary reasons learning is an enjoyable activity.

While much in our formal educational system tends to diminish the student's natural curiosity, learning environments that cater to curiosity can be devised. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied intrinsically motivated activities from rock climbing to chess playing.6 He makes the point that this kind of learning succeeds only when the challenge is close to but slightly greater than the skill level of the person and when feedback is immediate. If the challenge is too easy, there is nothing to question; too hard, and there is no chance to feel the sense of accomplishment that accompanies success. This notion argues both for creating a variety of exhibits that match the interests of many different visitors and for creating a variety of levels within each exhibit to maximize the chance that something will connect with the visitor in a meaningful way. Not every exhibit will be of interest to every person.

In the best museums, learning is multisensory, and the exhibits support many learning styles and abilities. Exhibits are visually exciting and most have a text to help explain what is going on. But they also produce sounds and encourage touching. Exhibits often use interesting kinetic experiences, play on words, spatial relationships and intriguing sounds as well as text and images. Because of this richness, museums and exhibits have the opportunity to connect with many different learning modes that people use.

Howard Gardner has pointed out in his book Frames of Mind (Basic Books, 1985) that we learn and develop intelligences in a multiplicity of ways. There are different ways one might categorize these intelligences, including linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial and bodily kinesthetic.

Traditionally we think of science education as being primarily logical-mathematical. There are certain concepts, however, that can be reinforced by other kinds of learning. For example, learning about magnetic fields can be enhanced by holding two bar magnets close together so as to feel the variation in the field or by putting a bar magnet in a pile of black magnetic sand. Spatial, tactile and visual experiences can provide rich imagery to complement the mathematical descriptions.

An exhibit at the Ontario Science Center in Toronto gives visitors a kinestetic sense of the relationship between electric energy and work. Two hand pumps let them pump water from a large glass chamber into a similar one above. The two chambers are connected by a gravity-feed tube containing a valve and a turbine generator that can power one light, two car headlamps or a small electric train. It takes about 5-10 minutes to pump all of the water into the top chamber. The visitor then opens the valve to let the water run back into the lower tank. As the water flows, the visitor can select the items to be powered. The single light shines brightly; the auto headlamps shine much less brightly; and the train moves hardly at all. This exhibit makes viscerally apparent the work necessary to produce a particular electrical outcome.

Play and exploration
The role of playing and exploring with objects and ideas as part of the learning process is an important but often overlooked feature of education. Both Jerome Bruner and Michael Polanyi point out the importance of play in support of learning. Yet play is rarely considered a significant part of learning.7 In fact, play is considered an activity for kids, and often not a serious one at that. The playful atmosphere of science centers leads many people to think of them as places only for children.

But play is a serious matter in science education. It leads to the development of skills in observation and experimentation and the testing of ideas, and it provides an opportunity to independently discover order in nature. Behavioral studies, in addition to indicating the importance of play in developing creativity and learning skills, give support to the idea that the manipulation of objects, as well as sketching and drawing, actually helps the brain think creatively about problems. By providing a garden of rich and relatively unrestricted examples of natural phenomena and technological props, a museum can create a playground of science that helps develop the fundamental experiences necessary for later learning.

In a museum, where the age and background of the visitors are incredibly diverse, one quickly realizes that the range of knowledge of the visitors is immense. Not only do visitors have many different and disparate world views of nature, they have differing amounts of formalized instruction in science. The visiting public ranges from a six-year-old child to a PhD physicist. In fact, the same family group may include both.

Early in life, most people develop a sophisticated world view to explain the everyday events that they see. One is struck, when talking to visitors in the informal atmosphere of a museum, by the variety of differing views about how the world works, many seemingly 'incorrect' from a scientific point of view. These views are firmly held even years after formal education has supposedly created a compelling consistent scientific world view. Recent research has focused on how science education affects the existence of this "pre" knowledge of how nature works.

Fortunately science museums are uniquely able to respond to the highly variable baseline scientific knowledge of the visitors. By creating exhibits that vary in both subject matter and style, a museum can provide a potential for meeting the comprehension level of many different people. More fundamentally, key exhibits can be designed to challenge widely held self-developed knowledge by creating cognitive dissonance between an internal theory and an external example. Exhibits give visitors the opportunity to investigate and validate (or invalidate) their personal theories directly.

Elsa Feher has shown how this can be the case by using exhibits on light and shadow. At the Reuben Fleet Science Center in San Diego, she has used interactive exhibits to investigate the internal existing theories of students. For example, Sophisticated Shadows, an exhibit with positive and negative pinholes and a light source that is shaped like a cross, was used to elicit predictions of images and shadows from students. These predictions showed a strong preference for believing that shadows are produced by objects, with little reference to the light source. This kind of research leads not only to clues about how we can teach science better but also indicates how exhibit designers must be careful about the assumptions they make about the visitor's world view.

Exhibit design
How do the preceding considerations influence the creation of exhibits? Often, only in retrospect can one make the connection between learning theory and exhibit design. If you ask exhibit designers to reflect on their work, you quickly find that it is hard to get them to admit to any set of explicit rules. But we have found at the Exploratorium that a few guidelines are important to good educational exhibit design.

The user of an exhibit, not the designer, should be in control of the learning activity. A designer naturally sets out with a desire for the user to experience some particular things. But the danger is that the design will dictate the behavior of the user so that any kind of independent learning is impossible. Therefore it is critical for the designers to pay careful attention to their own interactions with the exhibit, to become its first users. This is why the Exploratorium relies heavily on the development and testing of full-scale exhibit prototypes rather than doing paper designs. These prototypes are also tested by visitors.

Everyday objects and experiences offer good starting points for many exhibits. The closer an exhibit is to the personal experiences of the visitor, the better the chance that the exhibit will stimulate the visitor's own questions and conclusions. Topics such as human and animal perception, or color, or bubbles are naturally of interest to people. When thin-film interference is shown in terms of the opalescence of an abalone shell or of a pearl, it becomes more interesting than the more classical presentation using two plates of glass.

The development of the exhibit aesthetic is critical. Rich, sensual, authentic and aesthetic experiences are fundamental to the educational enterprise. Well-developed exhibit aesthetics-creating the best example of a natural phenomenon or providing an interesting kinesthetic experience or sound-lead to a longer and more involved interaction between the visitor and the exhibit. For example, use of very-high-dispersion glass prisms creates the most spectacular spectrum possible. Also authenticity is crucial. People respond with great interest when they feel they are in contact with the genuine article, whether it is a real experience or an authentic object. Live, noisy images of Saturn that are being sent by a distant Voyager spacecraft are immensely more exciting than high-quality textbook photographs.

Artists, as well as scientists and educators, can provide ideas for exciting exhibits. The artist's process of investigation and presentation of nature provides a creative and dramatic counterpoint to that of the scientist. In fact, at the Exploratorium the exhibits developed by artists are often the most highly evocative among museum visitors. We have found that artists quite naturally model the exploratory process essential to good science learning.

The functional design of an exhibit is important for learning. Objects have their own natural language of use. The use of an exhibit should be apparent from the form of the parts and not depend on elaborate graphics. And the spatial and visual presentation should naturally lead one to the conceptual ideas. In the resonant pendulum exhibit mentioned above, the pendulum looks heavy, the magnets are tiny and the attachment of the cords invite throwing. Two magnets, mounted at 90 degrees to each other, invite a subtle lesson in trigonometry by pulling two cords in phase.

Exhibits have an individual scale and a group identity. We have discovered that exhibits that are standalone and are about the size of a tabletop tend to encourage a feeling of approachability and privacy; they also provide the ideal setting for small-group interaction. Learning can then be reinforced by creating a number of exhibits on similar topics that as a whole may serve to develop a curriculum to reinforce a particular concept or idea. For example, at the Exploratorium we have about 10 individual exhibits on different aspects of the refraction of light. In one exhibit, you can dunk a lens into a tank of mineral oil, changing its optical properties while you look through it at a scene. In another, a small light projects on a wall the shadows created by the refraction of convection currents produced by a heater in a water tank. These quite different exhibits demonstrate the relationship of refraction to the optical properties of materials.

The entire museum environment is important. To create surroundings where people feel comfortable to explore and learn, one must allow visitors to develop their own personalized space within an institutional environment. Museums can provide this atmosphere by creating a variety of exhibit designs and spaces where people feel they can discover things on their own. William Whyte, who has studied the individual uses of urban plazas and parks in cities by careful observation of people, has developed a set of principles that can readily be applied to museums as well.8 Primary among them is the need for people to personalize their own space.

Looking ahead
As science centers and museums continue their evolution, there are some interesting new emerging trends in exhibit technique and program design that point to future developments.

To present phenomena that may be hard to visualize, or too small or too large, or too fast or too slow for standard interactive exhibits, museums are beginning to make more use of interactive video techniques, time-lapse films, computer-generated graphics and interactive computer simulations with visual modeling outputs. These new media techniques allow many new complex ideas and concepts of science to be presented interactively just as for existing exhibits, which present basic physics principles.

A number of science centers are developing exhibits, auxiliary learning stations on the museum floor and integrated libraries to address the desire of many visitors to learn more about a particular subject or to develop a theoretical understanding of a general concept. These activities support in-depth, extended learning experiences that are somewhere in between a casual museum visit and a class setting.

Science museums are developing programs and activities that go beyond the walls of the museum. They are beginning to work with such other media as publishing, television and radio to present science to the public. Museum shops provide science instruments, books and science toys, enabling visitors to take their museum experiences away with them.

Recently, researchers in education have begun to realize that the museum environment is a good laboratory for the study of learning in general. This is translating into the development of research projects at museums, which will shed more light on the learning process as well as help museums further develop their educational potential. By means of their combined resources of exhibits, teaching programs, research activities and diverse staff, science centers and museums are developing into a new kind of public learning center, fulfilling some of the public education role that modern universities have neglected. They form an important bridge between the formal science-education system and the community at large.

Inside the Exploratorium
Many science centers were founded specifically to serve as educational institutions. In the case of the Exploratorium, physicist Frank Oppenheimer was interested in developing an institution where people could experience the phenomena of nature and science directly for themselves. Remembering his own museum experiences fondly as supreme learning opportunities, he came to San Francisco and opened the Exploratorium, a museum of science, technology and human perception, in the cavernous Palace of Fine Arts in 1969 (see PHYSICS TODAY, November 1985, page 122). Over the years, the Exploratorium has developed into a center containing over 600 exhibits-each built in its own open shop-a staff of 200 and a visiting public of 600 000 each year.

Philip Morrison captured the ambience of the Exploratorium in his foreword to Hilde Hein's book, the Exploratorium: The Museum as a Laboratory (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1990). He began his description by saying: "A strange, dim, and lofty aura draws the visitor in, to wander from one exhibit to the next, hundreds of the them set within the acres of floor spanned by this celestial attic. When it first began to grow, it was already a delight; today the Exploratorium has grown to what must be the most original museum of science in the world. For me, it is also the most brilliant. Of course that judgment is subjective, the opinion of one physicist. The museum is itself openly subjective, for it is styled 'a museum of science, art, and perception.' . . .

"The researcher, the teenager, and the little family group alike enjoy what they perceive here. The crux is perception; here learning is direct, experiential. Indeed, no one can convince you by works alone that the random-dot pattern displays a three-dimensional form. You must see it-or perhaps miss it-for yourself. It is that feeling of shared experience that dominates the subjectivity of the research worker and the serious student of science, and here it is offered over and over again to everyone who will try.

"There is not much of a collection of famous artifacts here, not many models of imposing works, nor mementos of the great. Most of what is here was made right in the building, drawing on the richness of a contemporary world city. The collection rests on a set of ideas, ideas that have been made concrete by artist and artisan, with eye, hand, and tool animated by and interacting with purpose and concept. The machine shop is wide open, right by the door. Every visitor can see there both the necessities and the freedom to employ them.

"The working of wood, metal, glass, even light and air, is what produces the artful systems on display. The spectrum is as real as the mirrors, and the vortex as tangible as the steel beams."

According to The Exploratorium's author, H. Hein, "The exhibits are the museum's principal educational device. They have been carefully designed and tested to attract and hold the attention of visitors so that people will want to figure them out and make them work. The philosophy that imbues the exhibits is clearly expressed in a statement by Oppenheimer: 'The whole point of the Exploratorium is to make it possible for people to believe they can understand the world around them.'

" ....Under Oppenheimer's direction the Exploratorium maintained its positive view of technology.... It considered technology and the products of art and science natural expressions of human capacities continuous with matter and life....

"Human productions include science and works of art, and their integration is another theme that is central to the Exploratorium's exhibit philosophy....

"The thesis that science has an aesthetic dimension and art a cognitive one is implicit in the experiential concentration and perceptual focus of the museum. Oppenheimer stated it explicitly in a document that he circulated in the beginning to potential supporters. It is most convincingly expressed in the exhibit style of the museum, which strives to engage people through their senses in the study of their perceptual processes and reactions."


1. Assoc. Sci.-Tech. Centers, 1987 survey (116 institutions reported "through the door" attendance of 60 million) Washington, D. C.

2. B. Serrell, ea., What Research Says About Learning in Science Museums, Assoc. Sci-Tech. Centers, Washington, D. C. (1990). 3. P. Morrison, Am. J. Phys. 32, 441 (1964).

4. J. Diamond, Curator 29 (2), 139 (1986).

5. J. H. Falk, J. Mus. Ed. 7 (4), 22 (1982).

6. M. Caikszentmihalyi, I. S. Caikazentmihalyi, eds., Optimal Experience, Cambridge U. P., New York (1988).

7. R. A. Hodgkin, Playing and Exploring, Methuen, New York (1985).

8. W. H. Whyte, City, Doubleday, New York (1988).

With permission of Physics Today, American Institute of Physics.

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