Last month, Armando Herrera Corral was injured when a package delivered to his office at the Mexican Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Monterrey turned out to be a bomb. No one knows who sent the package. But someone posted a manifesto online, taking credit for the attack and explaining why they targeted Corral.

The terrorists, by their own admission, acted out of fear – of “grey goo,” the sci-fi scenario where sentient nanotech robots breed to the point of devouring everything on Earth. If you think this threat is imminent, you have no choice but to defend humanity. Even if it means trying to kill people like Corral, director of a technology transfer center at the Monterrey Institute.

But how can someone’s perception of science and scientists get so screwed up?

It’s not that hard to understand. In fact, if you think about how little time most adults spend actively learning precise information about science and scientists, it’s a bit of a wonder that more people aren’t equally confused.

Make no mistake, the Armando Corral attack is all about education and confusion. According to John Falk, Sea Grant Professor of Free Choice Learning at Oregon State University, Americans spend less than 5% of their lives in the classroom, let alone learning science.

We graduate from high school knowing that Isaac Newton discovered gravity, the general anatomical location of our stomachs in relation to our hearts, and what happens when a 30 mph car crashes into a wall. of bricks. At some point, probably in elementary school, someone told us about the scientific method, but not how it actually works in the real world. We learn the basics. We memorize some cards.

And then we live our lives in a world where science is much more complicated, and constantly changing.

None of the emerging technologies that New Scientist predicts will be vitally important over the next 30 years are something I learned in school. Synthetic biology, remote sensing, machine language translation, artificial intelligence and, yes, nanobots.

What bridges the gap between this stuff and the basics we learned in our formal education? What do we throw into this abyss when we don’t have a manual? Something we heard about in a chat room? Half-forgotten facts of the news? science fiction?

There are some sources of science education outside of school. Journalism, to begin with, when it’s done well. And museums. Of the two, people trust museums more. But of the two, museums do less to address adult science education. I think that’s a problem.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak at the 6th Science Center World Congress in Cape Town, South Africa on why I think museums are failing adults and what to do to solve this problem.

“My son is now a little too old for the science center”

Right now, science museums aren’t bad places for adults. And they don’t completely ignore adults. I don’t want to imply that. Evidence shows that adults visit these museums and learn from them. But there are problems with the status quo and these also show through in the evidence.

Reach Advisors is a company that focuses on research on museum audiences. In a 2008 survey of adult visitors to US museums, they found that more than 80% of respondents to a multiple-choice survey said science museums best served children and families. And 59% said museums better served school groups. Only 22% said adults were better served and only 17% said teenagers.

In this same survey, respondents gave answers that implied that they felt the science museum was for children, not them. They said their children had become “too old for the science museum”. They expressed surprise that the museum was supposed to be a place where they also learned something.

And there are good reasons people feel that way. Countless science museums in the United States and abroad base their image and advertising on bright primary colors and child-centric messages. They are filled with large, noisy rooms where groups of children run from station to station, hitting buttons. And they feature exhibits that focus on the same kind of timeless science basics taught in school. More importantly, they don’t reliably connect science to real-life issues, ongoing controversies, and news that adults see every day.

The Reach Advisors survey shows how these trends are impacting how adults view science museums. An informal Q&A with my Google+ circles revealed the same sentiments. Adults don’t like spending time in science museums. They think it’s not for them. They feel weird to be there. They would like more exhibits to contain information that they found stimulating and useful.

Science museums do intention to reach adults. But it doesn’t matter what message you want to send, if what people are hearing is, “Science museums are kid stuff. And when museums fail them and science journalism is untrustworthy*, we can’t be surprised when adults wildly interpret the reality of science.

We’re all screaming for ice cream

So what do we do about it?

The good news is that it’s not about fun versus serious business. I’m not here to tell you that adults really like a lot of signs with tiny characters. Over the past few months, I have visited several science museums in the Midwest. I have read a lot of books on adult museum visitors. And at Congress, I was presented with some cool examples of successful museums. The truth is, there are ways to engage adults and children at the same time, create comfortable environments, and add depth and relevance to regular exhibits.

• At the Iowa Science Center in Des Moines, they have an exhibit that is fun and very hands-on, but also teaches something fundamental about how science works. It’s called “When Things Move” and it’s one of those big rooms full of physics demonstrations. But it has a deeper purpose. Instead of just pushing a button and seeing what happens, you’re challenged to take a problem and try to solve it. More importantly, you are encouraged to compete with other people to see who can come up with the best solution. Build a rocket that flies the farthest. Create a hydroelectric dam that produces the most energy. It really is a smart way to teach people the scientific method – if your first guess didn’t work, come up with a new one. And it engages adults because we are not told How? ‘Or’ What solve the problem. We must also experiment. This is what interactivity done right looks like.

• The Ontario Science Center presents an exhibit called “A Matter of Truth,” which explores how our perception of the world – and even our way of doing science – can be distorted by personal biases and deeply held beliefs. In fact, it was the first thing you pass through when entering this museum. When I found out this exhibit existed, I had to lift my jaw off the ground. This exhibition talks about the uncertainty of data and how scientists deal with the possibility that the evidence they have collected could be misleading, and acknowledges moments in not-so-distant history when scientists let their own racism distort their conclusions. It’s the kind of challenge and the kind of context I seek as an adult. It’s the kind of thing that helps adults better understand their world.

• You have probably noticed that more and more museums are hosting “adult nights” with alcohol and more advanced demonstrations. Some have also launched hosted hackerspaces. It’s awesome. And that’s something the adults I’ve spoken to want to see even more of. More special events. More clubs and courses. More interaction with DIY and citizen science communities.

So if things like this happen, why do I think science museums are still failing adults? And why do the polls reflect such dissatisfaction?

I think it’s a sundae problem.

A sundae is a bowl filled with ice cream. You put stuff on it, but it’s still, basically, a bowl full of ice cream. And when I talk about really great examples of adult engagement in science museums, I’m usually talking about the nuggets, do not ice. Museums recognize the problem, but they deal with it by adding a few things here and there. A traveling exhibition. An exhibition on the whole museum. One night per month. What they really need are serious changes to the gist of the experience.

When I spoke at the 6th World Science Center Congress, here’s what I heard, over and over again: “Oh, yeah, you’re absolutely right. Other museums need to get on board. But our museum has already fixed the problem because we did this one thing.”

But nuggets are not enough.

Not for average adults, who just want help understanding the technologies and choices that are part of everyday life. Not for everyone who wants to see science discussed in a healthier way in Washington, D.C. And certainly not for people who have been scared, by confusing information, thinking the only way to save humanity is to attack the scientists.

For other good sources on this, I recommend:

•Designs for learning; Studying Science Museums That Do More Than Entertain by Sue Allen

• The Unintended Effects of Interactive Objects and Labels in the Science Museum by Leslie Atkins, et. Al.

• Beyond Scientific Literacy: Science and the Public by Xinfeng Liu

• Museum Blog 2.0 by Nina Simon

• The 95% Solution by John Falk

• All PowerPoint presentations from the 6th Science Center World Congress are available online. You can search the list of sessions by title. There’s some really interesting stuff here about dealing with controversial topics, science and religion, science and indigenous communities. Unfortunately, there is no video of the sessions.

*For good reasons, in some cases. But that’s a whole other post. I don’t want you to think that I think science journalism doesn’t drop the ball in some ways as well. Just one thing at a time.

Image: Science Museum, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from pahudson’s photostream


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