We Were Inspired by the Space Race
Many Americans over 50 recall the frequent feats of the Gemini and Apollo launches, culminating in landing on our moon, some 248,000 miles distant. Many were drawn to science and engineering due to such Big Projects that reached to even a new world! We saw history unfold and were swept up by it.
That era drew many of us to careers in science and engineering, just as optimistic television and cinema, such as Star Trek and Kubrick's 2001pointed to even bolder days ahead that were full of wonderment.
However, Big Science did not last all that long in the U.S. The Superconducting Supercollider, our nation's last Big Physics project, was designed to be several times more powerful than the now-operating CERN accelerator. However, it was ended by Congress and Big Physics (CERN's accelerator) went to Europe. Observers such as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson noted that our country's science committments required political or military goals; that is, we are often energized by short-term goals. This is arguably different than Europe's historically longer association with science.
Changes in Science Portrayal
In the lull following, science museums were sought as the new source of inspiration. Over the decades, their designs passed through an early, reverential, tone of re-examining big-science moments toward new models based on the economic realities of ticket sales and buisiness models that promised that their cultural embellishment would not create red ink. This shift, particularly true during economic downturns, created certain emphases in museum design that placed more weight upon attracting patrons. For example, IMAX theaters were sought for their "wow" factor, even though museums could not control the presentation content.
Many U.S. science museums accepted a popular business model of being "infotainment centers" rather than being centers of excellence. The model assumed that children were bored by science and therefore only "revved up" experiences would do the trick. However, it is not clear that this approach has helped our nation's science literacy.
Even popular comedy "got it" when it came to this shift in emphasis away from the awe of science to the "awe of awe", as seen in the above clips of a TV episode where the Simpsons visit a science museum.
Our Top Priorities
After visiting several area science centers, we have come to believe that, while it is indeed very important to attract and engage patrons toward science, the methods chosen are critical. We believe that:
1. Science itself must always be the top priority of presentations, with proper framing, historical context, and accurate portrayal of how science works. 2. Engagement may be assisted by new mechanisms and technology, but attention-grabbing displays may or may not effectively transmits the science. Rather, the best techniques include passionate and expert human engagement the most proven way of demonstrating the vitality of a subject. This will require a change to the prevaling business model of U.S. science centers, but will reap important dividends. 3. Along with the above, a proven way of transmitting science concepts in a way that "sticks" is through the telling of compelling stories of science. Again, this is not rocket science, but does require a strong committment to how science is transmitted to the public. In some cases, we can do better.
We believe that if there is adherence to this model of informal science presentation, a science center of high distinction can be developed that increases the societal value of such centers and can act as a national template for further reform.
Please Review Our Website
Our website is designed to address the challenges and promises of building a new kind of science center. We understand that such an effort requires incremental approaches to build interest and capacity, thus, we describe our current low-cost outreach approach as well as our larger strategies. Please look over the various sections of our site, which include: