Hands on science

Yesterday we had a one-day symposium here at the University on ‘Science in the Public’ – we brought together nearly 30 people from across the country (OK – across the North Island to be precise), all of who were involved in science communication in some manner.  It was a fascinating day as we learned about what others were doing and ways we could make our own efforts better.

We ended the day with a tour of Exscite at Waikato museum  (Hands-on science exhibits) and a cafe scientifique, in which Shaun Hendy talked about nanotechnology.

There is heaps that I could blog about, but for now, I’ll just pick up on one theme. We had a great talk by Peter Hodder, looking amongst other things at some of the history of science exhibitions in New Zealand.  They are not a new thing – 100 years or so ago there were some big events, partly because the scientists setting them up and performing (e.g. public chemistry experiments to wow the audience) needed the income that the public brought in.  I was impressed by the lengths that some exhibits went to – e.g. a recreation in Christchurch of Te Whakarewarewa thermal area in Rotorua – including ‘working’ geysers – albeit supplied through a pump and cold water.

Then in the 1920s, when the government began to realize that science was worth investing in, scientists seemed to lose the desire (they now had proper salaries) and perhaps the ability to communicate with the public through such impressive exhibits. Scientists seemed to become men-in-white-coats working away from the public gaze on something way too technical for the ordinary person to understand.

More recently, in the last 20 years or so, the hands-on exhibits have made a comeback. But, especially in NZ, it’s been in a rather ad-hoc manner. I was rather taken by the graph that Peter showed comparing the amount of funding given to the main centres in NZ to establish interactive science exhibits in their museums with the population in that centre.  Absolutely no relation at all – some places (e.g. Dunedin I think) got well supplied, others (e.g. Hamilton) got a whole lot less. (N.B.. I might be wrong with those place names, I’m going from memory here… I looked particularly at Dunedin, since its a museum I’ve visited a lot, and Hamilton, since it’s where I live and work.)

Another issue in NZ is that each museum has to rely on repeat visitors to be financially viable, so that means refreshing its exhibits at a high rate. That’s costly. There is some relience on touring exhbitions to bring in the money, but, by the time they hit the small centres (e.g. Hamilton) they can be looking a bit worse for wear and sometimes out of date.  That can be contrasted with, say, the Science Museum in London which has (or had, on my last visit a couple of years ago) some very tired looking things that have been there a long time – but, if you are in a city of 10 million people with a never-ending supply of tourists, then that’s not really a problem.

Interactive, hands-on stuff doesn’t have to be confined to museums though.  We also heard about a great project, LENScience, in which school children can get interactive (if not ‘hands on’ !) with real scientists – both ‘live’ (in the same room) or via video-link and live text link and so forth.  That’s another blog entry though.

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