Chicago STEM Museum Projects On Our Front Burner

February 23, 2012

Slover Linett’s arts & culture practice may need a broader name, given how active we are in informal science education. We’ve been working lately with Chicago’s leading STEM museums, the Adler Planetarium, Field Museum, and Museum of Science & Industry on exhibition and media evaluations using some novel methods to explore visitors’ connections to science.

At the Adler Planetarium, we’re using an innovative technique to involve the museum’s audiences in a program design process — in this case the development of a new show for the planetarium’s technologically advanced Grainger Sky Theater. In a series of four visitor panels held over the course of the development period, we’re putting two groups of visitors — the same individuals participating in all four sessions — at the table with the Adler show-development team. These panel discussions will help us understand the interests and ideals that visitors will bring to the Grainger Sky Theater, so that the production team can shape the show’s script and visuals in ways that will be compelling and memorable to audiences.

For the Field Museum’s exhibits department, we recently presented findings from a front-end study for a major anthropological exhibit. The museum is planning to renovate one of its beloved permanent halls and asked Slover Linett to conduct an exploratory study that will help the new exhibit engage contemporary museumgoers and advance the dialogue about what a 21st-century learning experience can be.

Instead of conducting a traditional front-end evaluation using survey or interview research to determine what visitors know or might be interested in knowing about the topic, we held a series of experience workshops to help visitors imagine and articulate their ideal experiences — how they might want to engage with and learn about the content. Visitors then explored the existing exhibit and compared what they saw to the ideals they had just expressed.

And for the Museum of Science & Industry, we recently helped the education staff conduct a remedial evaluation of several components of the popular health exhibition, You! The Experience. This work, led by University of Chicago anthropologist Michael Di Giovine in his capacity as a research fellow at Slover Linett, involved ethnography and in-context interviewing to identify ways the exhibit stations could be enhanced in future updates. These observational and conversational methods were well-suited to understanding engagement and learning outcomes in an exhibit that asks visitors to pose their own questions and enter into a “dialogue” with the museum.

The firm, which has worked with major science and nature museums in New York, Washington, DC., and Cleveland, is delighted to be helping these STEM institutions closer to home. The new projects complement our ongoing work with the Shedd Aquarium on its Great Lakes science-and-conservation initiative, WTTW on its “Scientific Chicago” series, and Lincoln Park Zoo.

“Public science engagement is more than an intellectual activity,” says Slover Linett chairman Peter Linett. “It’s about hoping that someone or something will bend your mind, amaze you – and stir in you the sense of awe and excitement and fun that animates scientists themselves. We’re thrilled to be able to explore that process with museum visitors, in collaboration with some of the best informal science institutions in the country.”

Linett is also currently organizing a conference on contemporary strategies of public science communication. For more information on that project, or the research and evaluation studies described here, please email us.

Mars image, above: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Category: Museums

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