March 28, 2011

Are science museums teaching ideas or just definitions?

A few weeks ago, I took my daughters to a program for girls at Argonne National Labs, a legendary facility near Chicago whose gates I’d never crossed. The half-day of tours and activities culminated in a terrific lecture-demonstration that set me thinking (not for the first time) about what it feels like to really get a science concept.

The Argonne scientist who gave the demonstration, Dr. Deon Ettinger, ran through the greatest hits of schoolroom science: the inflated, tied balloon that shrinks down to its uninflated size when you submerge it (gently!) in liquid nitrogen, then magically reinflates as it warms up; the rubber ball that bounces at room temperature but, when you go to bounce it after cooling it in liquid nitrogen, shatters like glass, startling eight rows of middle school girls wearing lab goggles.

That shattering ball would have been enough to make me think of Richard Feynman, the bongo-playing, lock-picking, Nobel-winning physicist, since Feynman’s big public moment came at the televised congressional hearings on the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1987, when he dipped a rubber ring—like the infamous O-ring that had failed on the shuttle—into a glass of ice water then snapped it in two. (The point: it was too cold to launch the shuttle that morning.)

But something else about the Argonne demonstration would have put me in mind of Feynman anyway. As I sat with the other parents watching the show and listening to Ettinger’s rapid, Socratic back-and-forth with the girls (“Do molecules stay still, or do they move around?” “Move around?”), I tried to figure out why this felt so fresh and exciting. Then, somewhere in the middle of his explanation of why he couldn’t squeeze the inflated, room-temperature balloon into a smaller sphere with his hands (“With all those molecules zinging around in there at three to four hundred kilometers a second, what happens when they hit the side of the balloon?”), I realized what was throwing me off, in a good way: the utter lack of scientific jargon, even the kind of jargon you define as you go. He wasn’t using scientific terms. He was just describing, in simple, everyday language, what was going on. The balloon example was all about air pressure, but he never used that phrase — it was all molecules “banging into each other.” Yet he explained air pressure so vividly and naturally that I got it in a new way.

This wasn’t “dumbing down,” or even talking down. If anything, it was a heightening of pedagogical aspirations: he wanted those girls to get the concept. The terms, the definitions, would come later.

And that priority (learning concepts before definitions) was a pet concern of Feynman’s. In a 1966 talk to the National Science Teachers Association, he distinguished between attempting to figure out how things work and learning what those things are called. The former is science, says Feynman; the latter is often just a false sense of intellectual security.

There is a first grade science book which, in the first lesson of the first grade, begins in an unfortunate manner to teach science, because it starts off on the wrong idea of what science is. There is a picture of a dog -- a windable toy dog -- and a hand comes to the winder, and then the dog is able to move. Under the last picture, it says "What makes it move?"

The answer the book is looking for is that “energy makes it move.” But for Feynman, saying so is a dodge. “[T]hat’s only the definition of energy; it should be reversed. We might say when something can move that it has energy in it, but not what makes it move is energy.” He continues:

If you ask a child what makes the toy dog move, you should think about what an ordinary human being would answer. The answer is that you wound up the spring; it tries to unwind and pushes the gear around. What a good way to begin a science course!

Feynman tells the science teachers something that should be obvious, but somehow, in science education, bears repeating: that they’ve taught the concept only if the student can say what’s going on in her own language. “Without using the word ‘energy,’ tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion. You cannot. So you learned nothing about science.”

You might think that this approach — engage people in the concepts, and let the definitions come later — would be the hallmark of informal science education, as opposed to the formal, classroom kind. After all, direct sensory encounters with natural phenomena are what science centers and science and nature museums are all about. ...

But listening to Ettinger channeling Feynman at Argonne (unknowingly, as it turned out; I asked him later), I remembered a label that I’d copied down the last time I visited the Exploratorium in San Francisco. You’ve seen the exhibit in a dozen places: the bike wheel with short handles through the hub, which you hold while the wheel is spinning. Try to turn it and you feel resistance. Turn it while sitting on a loosely swiveling stool, and you find the stool turning. The exhibit label begins with the perfectly Feynman-like question, “What’s going on?” (It’s also a perfectly Frank Oppenheimer question. Oppenheimer, another physicist, founded the Exploratorium in 1969 and, like Feynman, had worked on the Manhattan Project, which his brother Robert Oppenheimer directed.) But look at the answer the museum gives:

As soon as you spin the bicycle wheel, it gains angular momentum (the combination of the wheel’s mass and spinning speed). The more angular momentum the wheel has, the harder it is to change its direction.
    You experience this resistance, caused by the law of conservation of angular momentum, when you sit on the stool and tilt the spinning bicycle wheel. You, the wheel, and the stool all combine to form a system which obeys the law of conservation of angular momentum. As you tilt, or torque, the rotating wheel, you change its angular momentum. The wheel resists that change by pushing back on you with an equal and opposite torque. The opposing torque pushes you and the stool in a circle, creating angular momentum in the opposite direction.

You can almost hear the bullet-point objectives in the NSF grant application. (To be fair, the label may have changed since I made these notes a year or two ago.) To me, it fails the Feynman test more or less utterly; try repeating what you’ve learned without using the phrase “angular momentum.” And the resistance is “caused” by the law of conservation of angular momentum? Feynman would say it’s the other way around: the resistance is described by the law. But what causes the resistance, in simple, everyday terms? You won’t find out from the Exploratorium’s description, although you will learn when and how to use the words “conservation of angular momentum.”

This is an old complaint, with roots in Aristotle’s distinction between nominal and real definitions. But it raises some very contemporary questions about how informal science learning works. You can read the whole 2009 tome from the National Academies on Learning Science in Informal Environments and not come across advice like Feynman’s, or even any acknowledgement of the question. Yet some science educators, within and outside of the museum world, do share his belief that the real science lives in the idea, not in the language we use to talk about it — and his confidence that if you start with the science, the definitions can follow.

And isn’t that a better way to engage and inspire newcomers to science, which is what museums hope to do? Starting with the definitions keeps people at one remove from what’s really going on, from where the sparks of understanding can fly. “For the very first lesson,” Feynman asks, “is that not possibly destructive?”

How would you rewrite the Exploratorium’s label on the gyroscopic wheel? Does your science museum convey concepts, definitions, or both?

Kathleen — March 29, 2011

Fantastic post, Peter. We've been asking ourselves these same questions-- though less about exhibits and more about how we can talk about science (through NOT talking about science) outside our museum walls. Do you have any exampes of studies or evaluation instruments related to this? Also-- I'll be in SF next week and will check on that label for ya!

Cheryl Slover-Linett — March 29, 2011

And it's not just informal education. It's what should be happening more with science education in elementary schools. Yes, there's a greater focus on getting kids interested in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) to ensure the US's competitiveness etc. But much of this is the same old "teaching to the test" so schools meet No Child Left Behind standards. That's probably geared toward teaching the definitions, which are more readily "testable" than the concepts. And most science museums follow school curricula pretty closely. So it's a long road ahead, but worth the challenge!

Peter Linett — March 29, 2011

I wish we did have evaluation findings to back this point up, Kathleen, or even some instruments. But nobody's ever paid us to study it. Know any science museums that might commission such a study?

And Cheryl, that's right -- Feynman was talking to science teachers, probably mostly high school teachers, and in any case I think he would have been impatient with the distinction between formal and informal education. To him, it's all the same thing: it starts with curiosity and is driven by doubt and skepticism. Brian Greene (another physicist!) has written similar things about teaching what's exciting to kids first, even if it isn't the simplest stuff and defies the usual order. But tell that to the curriculum-and-standards crowd...

Erika — March 31, 2011

I have recently been thinking and lamenting about the (awful) term "dumbing down" and the problematic mindset that may be behind it. Why does it come up when talking about greater accessibility and audience-centeredness? Science museums generally get it -- they have a specialized language that the rest of us museum people are aware of but not fluent in. Art museums seem slower to acknowledge that most of us don't toss around juxtaposition, materiality and praxis in our daily speech. Not because we are dumb but because it is industry specific, just as the genus of a spider is in biology or catalytic converter is in auto mechanics. I completely agree, it is about the idea not the lingo -- that can come later. Often the idea is actually compromised by the terminology.

Of course this has its own name in the art world: "art speak," much lampooned, most recently and effectively by Steven Colbert:

Matt — April 19, 2011


Beautifully understood and expressed.

There is another thing that I think increases the chances that science museums make exhibits that are less useful and compelling than they might be: in the meetings and reviews that lead to the exhibits, no one wants to look stupid by saying "I think this is too difficult."

I've seen it happen hundreds of times.

We sound erudite, intelligent, and informed when we say, "Well, I really don't want to simply explain the fundamentals of the base pairs and the helical structure. I think many of our visitors will be very interested in how the PCR process works, and how dye-tagging is used."

And we run the risk that people will think we're stupid if we say, "I don't know. I think most people have a hard enough time just wrapping their heads around the whole twisted ladder thing."

Then someone leans back, furrows their brow, and says, "I really don't think we should dumb down the content." For those of us who make our living trying to help visitors have meaningful experiences, it's the rhetorical equivalent of taking the baseball bat of intellectualism to the baby harp seal of communication.

The way out of this impasse is, as you guys know better than anyone else, research. When a quick study at our museum showed that nearly a quarter of our visitors thought only humans had DNA, we had a powerful and compelling argument for scaling back the degree of complexity that our scientists had hoped to explore.

(When we reviewed the survey outcomes with our lead curator, it was one of the few times I have actually seen someone's jaw drop.)

Thanks for a great blog, Peter.

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