Staying relevant: Lessons we can learn from museums

In this edition of Out of the Sandbox, Margaret Honey, PhD, president and CEO of The New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) and author of Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators, describes how NYSCI is knocking down traditional museum walls to bring irresistible learning to its community and the world.
February 5, 2015

Technology, mobility, and accessibility have made us rethink so many of the ways we interact with media, especially in the kids’ realm. Margaret Honey, Ph.D., President and CEO of The New York Hall of Science, and author of Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators describes how NYSCI is knocking down the traditional museum walls to bring irresistible learning to both the community and the world.

WS: Congratulations! New York Hall of Science is celebrating its 50th year! What do you think has been the biggest change in museums—NYSCI as well as others—in the last half century?

MH: I can’t speak for all museums, only for NYSCI. We’re deeply committed to building experiences, programs, and products that allow our audiences to learn and engage through discovery and exploration. Embracing digital strategies has been a key part of this. Empowering kids has also been important. Today’s museum visitors don’t just want to look – they want to participate.  Our new Design Lab exhibit brings design engineering to the floor of the museum in ways that allow all children – all visitors – to experience a genuine sense of accomplishment.  Even if you don’t see yourself as a “STEM” person, we want you to walk away from an experience in Design Lab saying, “I can do this.”

In June of 2015 we will open a new exhibition on sustainability called Connected Worlds.  We think that this will be the largest digitally immersive exhibit ever created. The technology is different and novel, but what’s truly unique is the degree to which the exhibit supports creative exploration and discovery.

We don’t want to preach science to our audiences, we want to develop experiences that invite curiosity, that encourage audiences to ask questions, and to learn that science is fundamentally driven by what you want to figure out.  As Stuart Firestein says in his book Ignorance, scientists are driven by their desire to figure out what they don’t know, not by a quest to accumulate facts.

WS: In media, we talk about transmedia and multi-platforms for a property. NYSCI seems to embrace a similar multi-dimensional approach to museum learning with its DESIGN-MAKE-PLAY process. Explain the thinking behind this.

MH: As a science center, we are committed in everything we do to supporting deeper learning through deeper engagement.  We’ve embraced an approach that we call Design-Make-Play, which is all about open-ended exploration, imaginative learning, personal relevance, deep engagement and delight.  We see these as the ingredients that inspire passionate STEM learners.

Too much of science education in our K-12 schools is about memorizing information – we want to change this.  We do this through professional development programs, through curriculum resources, and now through digital tools that you can use irrespective of whether you have ever visited NYSCI.

WS: NYSCI (and you) are steeped in STEM learning. Do any of your programs specifically target girls, or is your approach totally gender neutral? And why?

MH: We pay careful attention to making sure we are designing experiences, programs and products that are good for all learners, especially girls.  What’s at the heart of this is giving kids choice and authority over what they get to do.  For example, in Design Lab we have an activity that is about learning to make circuits and light up LEDS.  We don’t call it “Circuit Building 101,” rather we call it “Happy City.”  Kids are invited to build something that they think will make the museums growing cityscape a happier place.  This kind of invitation is significant, because it enables kids to decide what’s important to them to build.  They learn how to make circuits to create something they care about.  This is good for girls, but even more importantly, it’s good for all learners.   We think of this strategy as creating a low barrier to entry and a high ceiling of possibility.

WS: Interactive, user-friendly exhibits are just one way to engage a new generation of kids (and parents). What else are you doing to expand the reach of the museum?

MH: At NYSCI we talk about working in three interconnected ways:  place, products, and partnerships.  Through our place, we offer exhibits and programs that use design-make-play methodologies to deepen visitor engagement and create broad pathways of opportunity for young people to pursue STEM careers. As I mentioned above, over the past five years, we have made significant changes to our exhibition and program areas – moving toward a set of experiences that support deeper engagement and deeper learning.

Through our products we reach beyond the walls of the museum using our digital Noticing Tools™ designed to transform how students and teachers learn core math and science content (http://nysci.org/tag/noticing-tools/).  Our professional development programs support over 3,000 teachers annually, and our distance learning courses connect NYSCI to teachers and students (including many that are hospital-bound) around the world.

Through partnerships we engage deeply with our local communities, we hold events such as the world-renowned World Maker Faire, which attracted more than 85,000 people in 2014, and we involve scientists and learning experts from world-class universities in all our major undertakings.

WS: How can other child-centric institutions or businesses leverage the sensibility of NYSCI to stay relevant in the digital age?

MH: Every place is different and unique.  What we’ve been able to do is leverage the core sensibility of our museum – our inherent playfulness and our skill at knowing how to deeply engage visitors – in the service of learning more broadly.  Our programs and our digital products carry this approach beyond the walls of the museum and have the effect of making STEM learning irresistible for young people everywhere. Looking at your own core sensibility – whether you have a product, a business, or process – from other angles and platforms, can help you expand intelligently, effectively, and playfully.

Hear more from Margaret when she speaks at Sandbox Summit@MIT next month. Register to attend at sandboxsummit.org.



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