Science museums are not just for kids

What do science museums and Wiggles concerts have in common? You’re only going to see adults there if accompanied by a child – and in one case that’s a shame.

I visited Scienceworks in Melbourne over the weekend and was pleasantly surprised to see how many of the parents there were attracted to, and spending time on, the exhibits. Seeing adults engage with the exhibits was pleasing and thought-provoking. Now it goes without saying that the only adults there had kids with them; but, that’s not surprise, because in many science museums the exhibits function solely as a playground for the kids and the parents spend their time sitting in corners huddled over their iPhones. And that’s a shame.

It’s a shame because it presupposes that adults have nothing to learn in a science museum. Given the state of most people’s science education, that s a big leap. Most of us can learn a lot from a science museum, even if it’s only to crystallise dimly remembered forced science lessons.

It’s a shame because the best way for a child to actually learn something is to have an engaged adult help explain it. Museums can’t afford to have a demonstrator stationed at every exhibit, sadly, so the next best thing is for a child to bring their own.

It’s a shame because the best way to show a child that science is fun and interesting and engaging and useful is not to make it into a playground. It’s to have their parent demonstrate those things, to model the interest we hope for from our kids.

I’m not saying that the demonstrations should not be fun – we all like fun – but they also need to be educational and engaging at a level beyond an six-year-old. And that was the other noticeable thing at the science museum on the weekend – how few teenagers were there with their parents. If you pitch the exhibits at a pre-school or primary school level you not only lose a major part of what should be your audience, you lose a really important audience. Capturing the attention of teenagers who are at the point of beginning to focus their educational choices ought to be a major goal of any institution dedicated to science.

Making a science museum that works for older children, young adults and adults is important. It’s harder to do because the exhibits need to function as more than a playground, but the pay-off when it’s done well is very real. Science  museums should not just be for kids – they should be for every engaged member of the community.

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