The evolving roles of science museums

Besides partnering for nano science education, science centers and museums, working with research centers, have the opportunity to serve as interpreters of nanotechnology for public audiences and as arenas for engaging citizens in the consideration of benefits and risks of the various applications of nanotechnology. These roles can, in fact, apply to any new domain of cutting edge science and technology, though our emphasis here is on nanotechnology..

The interpretation role is a familiar one for science museums. As informal science educators, science museum staffs provide insight into scientific methods and findings regarding the natural world and into human-made tools and technologies.

Science centers and museums that have already committed themselves to the challenge of providing exhibits and programs on current science and technology will see the robust and influential domain of nanotechnology as an essential element of their mission-driven educational portfolio. These organizations will no doubt also have also begun to grapple with their approach to considerations of the ethical, environmental, public health, and societal controversies that surface with many emerging technologies.

Such science and society issues engender values-based as well as fact-based discussion and debate. As a result, the role of the science museum interpreter is often to help audiences understand the distinction between the two, remaining neutral on the values questions, while serving as a resource for the accuracy of the factual information. “Remaining neutral on the values questions,” however, no longer means they are ignored as if completely separable from the science itself. Instead, it may mean that educators find ways of facilitating their audiences’ understandings of the framework and terms of the debate and the various perspectives brought to bear.

Science, technology, and society discussions tend to engage mostly adults and some teens. Their emergence as an important aspect of the science museum experience has helped to expand the very concept of the science museum far beyond that of a kid-centered, indoor playground filled with hands-on opportunities to explore the natural and manmade world.

With nanotechnology, science museums once again have the opportunity to expand the horizons of their visitors with awareness and understanding of the ways future technologies could transform our world in unique and unexpected ways. They can provide a forum for citizen participation in thoughtful consideration of the application and governance of new technologies. They can also bring science and technology researchers as well as other stakeholders into the discussion.

Science as Culture – An Ongoing Story

Science museums are conveyors of culture – the cultural quest for scientific knowledge of our world – and the culture of wonder, discovery and invention. They help us honor these key aspects of the human spirit and human achievement. Science museums celebrate visionary explorers and inventors the way art museums celebrate visionary painters and sculptors and symphonies celebrate visionary musicians and composers. And like symphonies and museums of art, it is important for science museums to try to recognize great new works in the making.

Some of the nanotech research pioneers of today may emerge as the Nobel Prize winners of tomorrow, the progenitors of a significant paradigm shift in science and engineering. We can’t know; these milestones are usually realized only in retrospect. Einstein is famously pictured as a wild-haired old man, but he was a handsome and passionate 20-something when he began publishing his most influential work.

Just as Galileo’s telescope opened the heavens to close inspection, and ultimately to space travel, and just as Leeuwenhoek’s microscope opened our eyes to the teeming world of micro-organisms, and thus to modern medicine, perhaps it will be said in the future that IBM’s development of the scanning probe microscope first put human beings in touch with atoms, the very building blocks of matter, and opened up new frontiers of materials, electronics, and photonics possibilities. Or maybe not. Maybe the analogy is less to instruments of vision and more to enabling technologies – the harnessing of fire, the carving of the wheel, the development of agriculture, the discovery of radio waves, the invention of the transistor.

In any case, for science museums, the trouble with waiting until the history books are written, the Nobel is awarded, or a nano-enhanced cure for cancer wins FDA approval, is that it makes the story of science so anti-climatic. There’s no suspense, no challenge, no fighting against the odds; it’s the equivalent of reporting on the medals count at the end of the Olympics rather than watching the highlights of the competition along the way. The stories we tell about what John Durant calls “finished science” are pre-determined – we know which way they end; who was wrong; who was right. [2006 Durant]. We end up conveying facts, like textbooks, making today’s inventions look the result of an inevitable line of progress. No wonder the history of science seems so boring to so many people. Even a hands-on exhibit allowing a museum visitor to explore Newton’s forces is, at best a re-enactment, with a known outcome. If “the experiment” doesn’t turn out “right,” we know the exhibit needs maintenance, or, perhaps our use of it requires “adjustment” – we don’t expect to turn an accepted theory – one that has sent men to the Moon – on its head. On the other hand, if we dare to ride the actual wave of discovery and experimentation, we can portray the culture of science as it truly is: the proverbial story of blindfolded people exploring an elephant, trying to grasp what it is; five pathways up a mountain, all but one of them dead-ends; a flash of inspiration that ends up saving a million lives; a flash of inspiration that lies in a pool of embarrassment on the laboratory floor.

It is part of the mission of most science centers and museums to foster appreciation as well as participation in the culture of science and engineering. Authentic encounters with and stories of the pioneers in our midst – nano researchers and others – bring science alive and capture the imagination of the next generation of explorers. We are celebrants as well as holders of the flame for inspiring that next generation.

Science Museums in the Vanguard

Sometimes a sea change in science makes waves in science education too, and in the case of nanotechnology, these waves are rising with the tide, lapping away at the already crumbling borders between the domains of physics, chemistry, and biology, between science and engineering. By filling in the gaps in knowledge and tools that used to divide the disciplines; we have achieved a remarkable continuum of knowledge from the very small scale to the extremely large scale, from atoms to galaxies.

Then too, current science, engineering, and technology challenges require teams with expertise in an extraordinarily wide range of specialties. Research teams need the fluidity to draw from areas as diverse as biochemistry, information technology, fluid dynamics, solid-state physics, and materials science in pursuing solutions to common challenges.

What does any of this have to do with science museums?

Funding agencies tend to see science museums as educational institutions that supplement the role of schools in teaching youngsters about science and encouraging them to consider careers in science. And indeed, this is true. There is no shortage of testimonials from scientists recounting their first career inspiration at a science museum. There is no shortage of middle school teachers thankful that their students finally got the aha about wavelengths of light on a science museum field trip. But this nation is failing to produce enough students majoring in science and going on to careers in science and engineering to sustain our innovation-based economy and technological competitiveness. We are also failing to update quickly enough many of the science curricula in many of the more than 13,000 distinct, self-governing school districts, to reflect the constantly evolving developments in science and technology and their interdisciplinary nature. Continuing education for science teachers is all too scarce.

Science museums, working closely with university-based research centers, are organizations that can help to fill these gaps. We can inspire students by expanding their imagination, introducing them to cutting edge innovations, getting them face-to-face with young researchers on the frontlines of solving very real global challenges. We can enrich outdated curricula with hands-on experiences in new areas like nanoscale science and technology. We can test innovative pedagogies, new ways of engaging students that may help inform the next generation of K-12 educators. Science museum staff, exhibit designers, educators and performers – working in concert with researchers – now serve roles akin to forum moderators, science journalists, and translators of technical knowledge.

In sum, why should science museums build our capacity to do education about nanoscale science and engineering?

  • To fulfill our mission of providing relevant science and technology education
  • To keep our audiences in touch with a significant new range of emerging technologies that may have profound impact on our lives and our world.
  • To help prepare and empower citizens to weigh in on issues of concern surrounding these and other future technologies.
  • To help open new career horizons for young people in a rapidly expanding field of investment and research.
  • To help us build institutional capacity to address the frontiers that lie beyond nanoscale science and engineering.
  • To make good use of the new financial and intellectual resources available in this area from federal, state, and university sources.

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