Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Science in Museums: “Storytelling and Science”

by columnist Kacie Rice

“This is boring, why do I need to know about it?” “When am I going to use this information in my real life?” “I don’t like science, it’s too hard.”

Sound familiar? As you may imagine, science educators face comments and questions like these every day in classrooms and museums. A lifetime of dry high school science lab experiments and dull college lectures has turned many people off of learning about science. As the world around us becomes increasingly scientifically driven, educators find themselves asking more than ever how they can change people’s minds about science. It’s crucial that we make science learning attractive to the public so that they can make informed health, political, and economic decisions.

But how can we do this? How can we change minds so that visitors not only understand science, but love it?

Ben Lillie, creator of the Story Collider podcast, believes the key is not only in what we are teaching, but in how we are teaching it. In an interview with Curator magazine this month, he discusses his theory that it is not simply enough to tell people they need to know something: you have to make it interesting enough on its own merits that they will want to know it. You have to invoke an emotional response. This is where the concept of storytelling comes in. Lillie invites guests onto his podcast who tell stories about their lives as scientists: while the stories are scientifically driven, they are more about the people involved than the facts. As Lillie puts it,

“…with stories that’s how people remember the facts. If it’s vital to the plot, if it’s important in the emotional narrative you’re engaged in, you may tell your friend later, “You wouldn’t believe the story about this neuroscientist, his dad had a stroke and this part of his brain went crazy, it’s called the homonculus, it’s a representation of the body inside the brain.” You’re going to remember that bit and relate it, whereas you might not if someone just told you about the homonculus without the father and the stroke and how the person telling the story felt about all that.”

As children, we often learned through stories, though we may not have realized it at the time. Aesop’s Fables taught us about the value of hard work and dedication, while Dr. Seuss’ classic books taught us about numbers, colors, and self-esteem. Lillie believes that adults also learn this way, and he works to create interesting stories around science, giving adult learners a reason to want to engage with scientific concepts. Stories can give learners a way to identify emotionally with a situation: now “climate change” is not just a collection of facts, maps, and figures, but also a young boy who lost his house to a hurricane.

“There are two kinds of learning I talk about. One is, did they learn something specific about science? And I rather think so—again, some fact or idea that’s vital to the story. The other kind of learning, and I think this is more important in the long term, is the idea that science is part of all of our lives, and that it’s something you can be entertained by and feel good about—and sad about, and all those emotional things we talked about. They’re learning that science doesn’t have to feel alienating.”

While the power of storytelling has been a trend in art and history museum exhibits in the last decade, Lillie’s success with his podcast shows that it can have powerful implications for science exhibits, even those for adults. Some science museums are trying out more exhibits that either make the visitor a “first-person” participant in the exhibit or allow the visitor to follow a protagonist through a setting. The Field Museum in Chicago currently has an exhibit called Underground Adventure that “shrinks” visitors down to insect-size in order to teach them about the world of soil microbes. The Mammoths & Mastodons exhibit, recently on view at the Museum of Science, Boston, focused on a real mummified baby woolly mammoth, Lyuba. Instead of giving dry facts about mammoth life, the exhibit talked about a day in the life of Lyuba, creating a protagonist who could help families approach information about the prehistoric world.

This concept could be the answer to teaching some of science’s more abstract topics: imagine an exhibit that lets you walk through a small model of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva as you pretend to be a small particle headed for collision. Or an interactive exhibit where you and your friends pretend to be different enzymes tasked with replicating DNA on a giant scale!

As science museums across the country become more and more educational, many of them are facing the problem of how to make science more interesting and approachable. Museum educators not only want to teach the public important information, they also want their visitors to be as excited about science as they are! Ben Lillie’s success with creating emotional responses around scientific stories may just hold the key to making science a passion for future generations.

Citation: Linett, Peter. “Interview with Ben Lillie on Science and the Story Collider.” Curator. 56. no. 1. 2013: 15-19.

Science in Museums – An Introduction!

Welcome to Science in Museums! In the fast-paced world of scientific discovery, we’re here to bring you the latest on anything and everything related to science, museums, and the complex issues museums face in presenting science to the public in a new weekly column. Check back each Wednesday for posts on all things science and museum-related. We’ll be launching our first post next week, but in the meantime we science-bloggers thought we’d introduce ourselves:

Catherine Sigmond:

Hello everyone! I’m a first year graduate student working towards my M.A. in Museum Education at Tufts. I’m passionate about finding innovative ways to teach and communicate science to people of all ages and backgrounds. Prior to coming to Tufts, I studied Biological Anthropology, French, and History at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. I use this diverse background and particular love of natural history and linguistics to craft ways for the public to engage with and develop a better understanding of the scientific issues that affect our lives. Prior to coming to Tufts, I helped organize international traveling exhibitions at Exhibits Development Group, taught English in the south of France, and developed educational programs at the National Constitution Center and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. When I’m not in class or blogging you can find me at the Museum of Science, Boston, where I work as a school visits and youth programs intern, or at English At Large, where I help develop English as a Second Language curriculum for immigrants in the Boston area.

Kacie Rice:

I’m a first year student in Tufts’ Museum Education M.A. program, and my focus is teaching people of all ages about science. While studying biology as an undergraduate at Barnard College, I worked on educational projects with the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the American Museum of Natural History. After college, I spent two years as a molecular biology researcher before coming back to the museum world, and I’m so excited to share my love of science with museum visitors! My main goal is to teach adults and children about science topics such as climate change and public health that will impact our global community into the 21st century. In addition to writing for the Tufts Museum blog, I’m also working as a paleontology Gallery Guide at the Harvard Museum of Natural History and as an intern at the Public Health Museum in Tewksbury, MA.

Cira Brown:

Hello! My name is Cira and I’m a first-year student at Tufts concentrating in museum education. My background is in the history of science and technology, and I’m particularly interested in transformative power of science in culture. My previous work has examined media climates during the US/Soviet Space Race and educational methods on the historical narrative of quantum mechanics.
It’s my ambition is to work in the field of science exhibit development. I feel strongly about the value of informal education and I am in love with the craft of interpreting and presenting information for wide audiences. I’ve learned that effective experiential design is a mish-mash of different disciplines, and my strategy has been to gain as much experience as possible to prepare me for the field. I have previously worked as a teacher, graphic designer and web developer, all of which inform the way I approach science communication. I recently completed two internships at the Museum of Science: first, as a engineering advocacy/research intern with the National Center for Technological Literacy, and second, as the exhibit development intern where I got to participate in many aspects of the development process. I am also a floor demonstration affiliate and volunteer at the MIT Museum, and this semester I will be developing two new demos for public engagement: one on the usage of gyroscopes in navigation, and the another on the Apollo Guidance Computer. I will be documenting the progress of developing and testing these projects in this blog, so stay tuned!

 

Cheers,

Catherine, Kacie, and Cira 

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