Science in Museums: Science for All Ages

by columnist Kacie Rice,

Museum educators, as proprietors of informal learning for all ages, often run into a unique dilemma: how do we create educational science experiences that cater to both kids and adults? I was recently having a discussion about this topic with fellow Science in Museums blogger Cira Brown and our classmate Rachel Hacunda – we noted that museums (especially science and history museums) have increasingly and explicitly catered to a younger audience in the last couple of decades, arguably to the detriment of their adult visitors.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m entirely in favor of museums teaching science to children! That’s kind of my thing! As a museum educator, I’m fully aware of and supportive of the need to use learning theory and childhood development principles in crafting free-choice educational experiences for children – but have science museums taken this concept too far? It often seems that science museums can be either for children or for adults, but not for both at the same time – and I’d argue that this is a big problem for the field. At best, it “dumbs down” science for kids; at worst, it alienates both kids and parents by providing an experience that they can’t equally participate in together. We absolutely need our science museums to be not only child-friendly, but also actively adult-friendly. It’s a win for everyone.

As a case study, let’s look at the two major science museums in the Boston area: the Museum of Science (MOS) and the MIT Museum. MOS is a place many Bostonians remember going as children and hope to take their children one day; the MIT Museum is a place where grown-up science enthusiasts go to learn about recent research at MIT. One of these is almost entirely child-oriented, the other is strictly for adults (the MIT Museum’s website even states up front that content is aimed at those over 12). They fill different niches, but this inherently means that neither of them can fill the needs of an entire family.

The major issue is that kids and adults don’t visit science museum in a vacuum: kids necessarily have to visit museums with their parents. Why, then, is the science museum experience so often only for the kids? And when adults can participate meaningfully, such as in MOS’ recent (and fantastic) Design Zone exhibition (aimed at a middle school age range, but fun for pretty much everyone) – how can we market these exhibits to let parents know that, yes, their children can learn a lot here, but so can they?

I’d argue that marketing and public opinion is a big part of what we’re dealing with – science museums are often lumped together with children’s museum in the public consciousness. They’re hands-on, they’re interactive, and they’re so often just plain fun: these are all things that read as for kids in our culture. Adults gaze silently at art, they read about current research, they want the deeper meaning behind events and objects, and they want to get these things from experts, not figure them out for themselves – these are all major barriers to getting adults to feel comfortable just playing in museums. But playing is a valuable way to learn throughout a person’s whole life. When we play and interact, we lose inhibitions, we are free to make decisions and judgments, we are ultimately free to think critically with no consequences – and this is the real stuff of learning! This is exactly how we teach kids in museums, and we’d love to be able to create these same experiences for the adults who accompany them.

Another driving force behind the ongoing kiddification of science museums is the increasing reliance on learning theory. Now, obviously learning theory is a great thing, and something we should absolutely be using as a tool in creating educational experiences – but we should be using it as just that: a tool. Not every exhibit needs to explicitly target Piaget’s Concrete Operational stage. Increasingly, science exhibitions are aimed at very specific ages (see the above example of Design Zone, aimed at young teens), and rarely do they target the adult audience, or even other kids. But as anti-vaccine debates, climate change denialism, and the emergence of creationism as a “valid alternative” to evolution show, adults desperately need to learn science too.

In casual conversations, I hear a lot about the “dumbing down” of science exhibitions. It seems that educators try to present material in a way that kids can understand, without realizing that kids can understand a whole lot more than we give them credit for. We worry about introducing difficult topics too early, but in my experience, kids can handle science. Kids don’t have the fear of science that adults often develop after years of schooling. If a certain kid can’t handle a certain topic at a certain time, they’ll get to it when they’re ready – and when they’re ready, they’ll have the background knowledge of having at least engaged with the topic before. It hurts no one to give people too much information, but it is a definite problem to withhold scientific content for the sake of remaining approachable for the lowest common denominator.

I think part of the problem here is assuming that people can only learn from those exhibitions, books, and lessons which are specifically aimed at them – but my experience has shown that this isn’t true at all. Personally, I remember visiting exhibitions “for adults” when I was a child – and I remember learning a lot from them! Even if I didn’t interact with the specific content the curators wrote in the labels, I remember seeing major works of art, huge dinosaurs, and recreations of the Battle of San Jacinto and being amazed that such things exist in the first place. When asked about memorable childhood museum experiences, adults will rarely cite carefully crafted age-appropriate interactives, but will talk at length about the Blue Whale at the American Museum of Natural History or the room of armor at the Metropolitan. These are displays that are minimally interpretive (sometimes a trait of adult-centered exhibitions), but that teach and inspire kids in intense, formative ways. And best of all: they’re exhibits that can give parents just as much joy and wonder.

We need to start thinking about what it is exactly that kids get out of museum visits – I’d predict that it would very closely align with what adults get out of them. It likely won’t be about the specific information imparted, but it can be about the experience of being around really cool stuff while doing really cool things – that’s something that all ages can get excited about! And, like play, it’s something that’s inherently educational at every level of development: isn’t that what we want out of a museum visit? The Higgs-Boson particle is inherently cool – we can’t assume that only particle physicists can understand it or relate to it. Show a kid a model of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and tell them what it does. Try telling kids about cosmology, organic chemistry, molecular biology. There’s no way that stuff isn’t awesome, no matter how old you are or what you know about science.

People just need to feel comfortable enough engaging with material, and “dumbing down” scientific content for a younger age isn’t going to accomplish this for anyone. Everyone can tell when he or she is being talked down to (and yes, even kids pick up on this extremely quickly). Let’s have faith in our multi-age audiences to engage with science. I’d be willing to bet that they’ll rise to the challenge.


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