The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

March 28, 2011

Are science museums teaching ideas or just definitions?

A few weeks ago, I took my daughters to a program for girls at Argonne National Labs, a legendary facility near Chicago whose gates I’d never crossed. The half-day of tours and activities culminated in a terrific lecture-demonstration that set me thinking (not for the first time) about what it feels like to really get a science concept.

The Argonne scientist who gave the demonstration, Dr. Deon Ettinger, ran through the greatest hits of schoolroom science: the inflated, tied balloon that shrinks down to its uninflated size when you submerge it (gently!) in liquid nitrogen, then magically reinflates as it warms up; the rubber ball that bounces at room temperature but, when you go to bounce it after cooling it in liquid nitrogen, shatters like glass, startling eight rows of middle school girls wearing lab goggles.

That shattering ball would have been enough to make me think of Richard Feynman, the bongo-playing, lock-picking, Nobel-winning physicist, since Feynman’s big public moment came at the televised congressional hearings on the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1987, when he dipped a rubber ring—like the infamous O-ring that had failed on the shuttle—into a glass of ice water then snapped it in two. (The point: it was too cold to launch the shuttle that morning.)

But something else about the Argonne demonstration would have put me in mind of Feynman anyway. As I sat with the other parents watching the show and listening to Ettinger’s rapid, Socratic back-and-forth with the girls (“Do molecules stay still, or do they move around?” “Move around?”), I tried to figure out why this felt so fresh and exciting. Then, somewhere in the middle of his explanation of why he couldn’t squeeze the inflated, room-temperature balloon into a smaller sphere with his hands (“With all those molecules zinging around in there at three to four hundred kilometers a second, what happens when they hit the side of the balloon?”), I realized what was throwing me off, in a good way: the utter lack of scientific jargon, even the kind of jargon you define as you go. He wasn’t using scientific terms. He was just describing, in simple, everyday language, what was going on. The balloon example was all about air pressure, but he never used that phrase — it was all molecules “banging into each other.” Yet he explained air pressure so vividly and naturally that I got it in a new way.

This wasn’t “dumbing down,” or even talking down. If anything, it was a heightening of pedagogical aspirations: he wanted those girls to get the concept. The terms, the definitions, would come later.

And that priority (learning concepts before definitions) was a pet concern of Feynman’s. In a 1966 talk to the National Science Teachers Association, he distinguished between attempting to figure out how things work and learning what those things are called. The former is science, says Feynman; the latter is often just a false sense of intellectual security.

There is a first grade science book which, in the first lesson of the first grade, begins in an unfortunate manner to teach science, because it starts off on the wrong idea of what science is. There is a picture of a dog -- a windable toy dog -- and a hand comes to the winder, and then the dog is able to move. Under the last picture, it says "What makes it move?"

The answer the book is looking for is that “energy makes it move.” But for Feynman, saying so is a dodge. “[T]hat’s only the definition of energy; it should be reversed. We might say when something can move that it has energy in it, but not what makes it move is energy.” He continues:

If you ask a child what makes the toy dog move, you should think about what an ordinary human being would answer. The answer is that you wound up the spring; it tries to unwind and pushes the gear around. What a good way to begin a science course!

Feynman tells the science teachers something that should be obvious, but somehow, in science education, bears repeating: that they’ve taught the concept only if the student can say what’s going on in her own language. “Without using the word ‘energy,’ tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion. You cannot. So you learned nothing about science.”

You might think that this approach — engage people in the concepts, and let the definitions come later — would be the hallmark of informal science education, as opposed to the formal, classroom kind. After all, direct sensory encounters with natural phenomena are what science centers and science and nature museums are all about. ...

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Categories: Child audiences, Learning, Museums, Science museums, Young audiences
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January 24, 2011

Music education sure, but which kind? Nick Rabkin's thoughts on the NEC announcement

This past week, two big stories on music education. In one, Carnegie Hall (which is not, at its core, an educational institution) expands its commitment to education. In another, the New England Conservatory (which is, obviously) parts ways with El Sistema USA, one of the most important music ed organizations in the country. Interestingly, both make arguments based on their missions.

The long-ish NY Times article covering the New England Conservatory announcement was vexing in it vagueness. Why is El Sistema USA, the year-old U.S. version of Venezuela’s phenomenally successful music program for children and youth, “not a good fit” with the mission of the august New England Conservatory? Something wasn’t being said.

So I emailed my friend Nick Rabkin, my go-to guy on all things arts education, especially since I attended a presentation he gave recently on his Teaching Artists Research Project [pdf], a multi-funder effort to understand and document the role of working artists in arts ed. (Nick has also written a monograph for the NEA looking at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts data through an arts education lens.) Here’s what Nick dashed off in response:

It is easy to understand why the original El Sistema has drawn attention and admiration from the world of classical music in the US. The Venezuelan network of training centers and orchestras is developing talented, passionate musicians who play music for a growing and appreciative audience — and this in a nation that prides itself for breaking with European classical ideas about almost everything. Its most famous alumnus, Gustavo Dudamel, is now the musical director of the LA Philharmonic. And, oh yes, El Sistema helps keep 400,000 mostly poor Venezuelan young people off the streets every day.

Sixty years ago, network television in the US regularly broadcast classical concerts, but classical music seems quite marginal to the cultural life of most Americans today. Its audience has slowly drifted away and aged. Music education has become so atrophied that relatively few young Americans are even introduced to classical music. And, as in Venezuela, the streets provide the risks, thrills, and opportunities that young people crave but most can’t find in inner-city schools or social programs.

So the New England Conservatory of Music had reason to take great pride when, in 2005, it announced that it would be the home of El Sistema USA, a modest effort to develop a US version of the Venezuelan program. Now NEC and El Sistema USA are breaking up, at the conservatory’s initiative. Cost was an element in the decision. But NEC president Tony Woodcock expressed more concern about El Sistema’s “fit” with his institution. He told the NY Times, “We felt this was outside our mission altogether.” Joseph Polisi, president of the Julliard School, supported that notion. “The core mission of any institution has to be protected,” said Polisi. ...

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Categories: Child audiences, Classical music, Performing arts, Young audiences
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June 19, 2010

Guest Blogger (a first for us!): Holly Arsenault on engaging young audiences

You may remember a quote from Holly in my recent post about “pipeline” vs. “parallel” strategies for young artsgoers. Holly knows this turf far better than I do: she runs Seattle Center Teen Tix, a thriving program that lets teens buy $5 tickets to almost any arts organization in the Seattle area. And she has a secret wish.

Guest blogger Holly Arsenault is the program manager of Seattle Center Teen Tix and has taught theater and writing to students from kindergarten through college. She is also a playwright and dramaturg. I asked her whether engaging young people requires a shift in artistic programming to accommodate their distinct needs, or whether we can attract them to existing programming with targeted marketing messages, social events before or after the program, etc. Here’s her full response:


Ha! Yes. That is the question. I’ve always said (actually, I’ve rarely said, but I’ve always thought) that my secret, subversive goal with Teen Tix was to drag the median age of Seattle arts audiences down enough that it would start to have an impact on programming.

I’ll tell you this: if you were to look at our show-by-show numbers, you’d see that there’s no amount of packaging I can do that’s as impactful on our ticket sales to teens as a show simply being compelling to teenagers. Of course, I see a difference in our numbers when I’ve done a good job of illuminating for our members why a particular show is relevant to them in a way that might not have been apparent, but I can’t make something that’s clearly irrelevant seem like it is.

Nor would I want to. The last thing you want is to convince a young person to go see something by claiming that it’s something that it’s not, then have them bored or alienated by the experience. So, despite our success at growing this audience, I do spend a lot of time wishing that I had better (meaning: more youth-friendly) material to work with.

That said, I do find that teen audiences, particularly at the younger end of the age spectrum, tend to be more conservative in their tastes than you might expect. I think some of them have a preconceived notion of what an arts experience should look like, and they like to have that notion confirmed before they become interested in branching out and trying new things. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Child audiences, Museums, Performing arts, Theater, Visual art, Young audiences
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March 28, 2010

A tasty brew of experiences at “Science Storms,” with no eco-agenda on the side

My last post was about Edward Rothstein’s Times piece on the state of science museums, “The Thrill of Science, Tamed by Agendas.” Today, a few words (and pictures) about MSI Chicago’s new $34 million permanent exhibit, which I'll bet Rothstein is going to love.

I spent a few hours at the exhibit this week, most of that time in the witty company of Charles McGhee Hassrick, a senior exhibit developer on the project. The other voice in my head was Rothstein’s, naturally, since the exhibit is a concrete example of several of his do’s and don’ts. So at the risk of letting him set the, um, agenda, I’ll just make a few quick observations that link up with his concerns.

First of all, there is little or no attempt here to foster social change, in fact nothing overtly political. The emphasis isn’t on protecting the natural world, it’s on experiencing natural phenomena first hand, ideally in ways that lead to understanding. Which is exactly what Rothstein calls for in his article.

But of course this “agendalessness” isn’t ideology-free. This is the Museum of Science and Industry, and there are more captains of industry than of science on its board of trustees. In a museum in which whole exhibits used to be designed and written by the corporations that sponsored them, we can be forgiven for reading Science Storms as in part a political statement about the proper (that is, limited) role of science: experimental inquiry and technological innovation, even artful wondrousness, but no stepping over the line into ethical pronouncements.

Or maybe this is just back-to-basics museology, a return to the hands-on empiricism of the Exploratorium and the self-driven discovery and play it encourages. Hassrick cites the Exploratorium as one of his personal inspirations, and the influence on him and the other developers and designers is visible in much of Science Storms, especially on the mezzanine level of the exhibit where the interactives are built on a more human scale. And Rothstein, you’ll recall, singles out the Exploratorium as an inspiring model of the kind of revolution that may still be possible in science museum thinking.

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Categories: Chicago, Child audiences, Innovation, Institutional personality, Learning, Museums, Natural history, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Science museums, Visual art
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December 14, 2009

Back to the elephant

Peter and Sarah fly to Washington this week to present findings to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. All of us are excited about the evaluation and what we've learned from visitors. But for me the project feels larger-than-life because now, at the age of 45, I find myself working with the museum I loved more than any other as a kid.

My family wasn't big on museums; my parents were dedicated suburbanites who shied away from cities, which ruled out many of the usual options.  But we did take a family vacation to Washington,  DC when I was about nine, and the Smithsonian was at the top of the agenda.

My most vivid memory of Natural History, oddly enough, is of my father being worried that we wouldn't get a table at the museum's vast cafeteria (the very place where we'll be conducting interviews with visitors in a few weeks).  He took the uncharacteristic risk of leaving me in charge of my two younger brothers while he disappeared into the sea of tables to wait in the distant lunch line.  As we waited, I felt a welling sense of responsibility and adultness, and that sense stayed with me as we explored the exhibits after lunch.

My memories of the exhibits are less concrete, with the exception of that huge elephant standing proudly in the lobby.  I recall thinking (or rather, feeling) that this was a place where new things can happen, where people can change. If there was a little risk involved, there was also an urgency and excitement. The cumulative effect of all the gems and minerals, the fossils and skeletons, and the dioramas wasn't just awe at nature's breadth and beauty.  It was also a sense that this museum was about who we can become, about surprising ourselves.

Hats off to a great museum for inspiring this kid for life.


Categories: Child audiences, Early exposure, Museums, Natural history, Personal reflections
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »



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