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Tinkering and the Art of Misconceptions

Tinkering and the Art of Misconceptions

Flat Earth as illustration of scientific misconception

Recently, while having a dialogue with colleagues visiting to learn more about tinkering, the conversation shifted toward the specter of “science misconceptions,” and what our philosophy is about them. The worry, as I understand it, is that in a hands-on museum—and even more so within a tinkering practice where the exploring and learning of scientific concepts is left to the learners’ discretion—that some people could come to scientifically inaccurate explanations for a phenomenon and then carry around that “wrong” idea with them, or even worse, maybe pass it on to their children. What can we do about that? How can we prevent the emergence of scientific misconceptions?

“At least they saw something and figured it out, and got something that nobody had given to them. Something that was just their own.” – Frank Oppenheimer

This is a big question, and one that doesn’t have an easy straightforward answer for me. I think misconceptions in science are always a possibility, at all levels, and full-time professional scientists themselves are not immune. Our own understanding on scientific “truths” is always evolving, so I don’t think we can ever say that we know that something is 100% accurate. That’s why science deals in theories rather than in statements of certainty.

Children and lay people should be allowed to go through that same process. For me what’s more important is to set up a context in which people are encouraged and are given tools to figure things out on their own, ask their own questions and probe a phenomenon directly to try and reveal some answers. It is that process and spirit of curiosity that I care most that visitors come away with, not a narrowly-defined “correct” understanding of a scientific concept.

Two young hands clipping wires to electric components

To give a real practical example: we often offer in the Tinkering Studio the chance to play with our Circuit Boards activity, where visitors get to tinker with electric components and try to make working circuits with them. There are no instructions. In my view, visitors will be richer after exploring the activity if they have engaged with interest, agency, and even joy in making circuits, testing ideas, getting things wrong (and right, of course); it is not so important that they can recite back correctly the textbook definition of series and parallel circuits. If in the process of figuring the world out for themselves they somehow land on a misconception, that’s ok, that’s part of the process of doing science. We want to set up a context where those misconceptions can then be probed, tested, and hopefully debunked—and of course if facilitation is available that’s another powerful tool to offer ways of going deeper when a misconception arises.

Several adult hands collaborating at making a circuit with wires. A light bulb is brightly illuminated

To stay with the Circuit Boards example, we have a bunch of multicolored alligator clips freely available; this is important so people can use different colors for different parts of their circuit if they need to trace what goes where. But sometimes children come to the conclusion that the color of the wire matters, that this particular connection will only work with white wires, or that they need to find a black wire to go with the black motor lead, and a red one for the red. Is that bad? It’s a minor misconception, and a facilitator can pick up on it and easily offer a way to test it (“Can we try this other wire and see what happens?”). But getting hung up on the fact that they are “getting something wrong” I think overshadows the fact that here is a child forming their own theories and models for how circuits and electricity works, with autonomy, agency, and even enthusiasm. And that’s much more exciting and longer lasting!

Encourage and feed that aspect, and the experimentation will continue, and eventually the misconceptions will take care of themselves. We are playing the long game, and that kid might even, because of that process—misconceptions and all—start thinking of themselves as a science enthusiast, and eventually, perhaps, a scientist.

This short documentary from 1974 shows various aspects of life at the Exploratorium. It's worth watching in its entirety, but there is a particularly relevant bit starting around 13:30, where Frank Oppenheimer gets into an argument with an exhibit developer about the risk of kids coming to the wrong conclusions. It's so strong that it concludes the documentary. Here is the relevant bit transcribed:

“Alright, what’s wrong with that? That’s science. For them. That’s science: they’re figuring something out. They’re not just getting someone out there dishing it out for them. There’s enough in there that they actually made a connection themselves. Now, they don’t go ahead and do a whole another lot of experiments to see if it’s right, but that’s hard to do in a museum. But at least they saw something and figured it out, and got something that nobody had given to them. Something that was just their own.”