Science Centers and Interactivity

This is the first in the series of three (or maybe four) blog posts about science centers. In addition to this post, I am thinking of topics like science centers and phenomenon based learning, startups, maker movement, and 21st century skills.

Trying to score against Sweden's virtual goalie.

Trying to score against Sweden’s virtual goalie. From Heureka’s Winter Games exhibition.

Bear with me, first a brief personal history of myself and science centers: I moved from a small town to Helsinki in the mid 90s. My parents and my little sister used to come and see me every once in a while. One of our regular places to visit was Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre. I remember the oversized furniture, immersive planetarium movies, optical illusions, and gadgets of all sorts.

Fast forward to 2003. I was living in the Bay Area for the best part of that year. Two places I regret the most not visiting while over there: In-N-Out Burger and Exploratorium. The first serves world’s best hamburgers, I’ve been told, and the latter is the famous science center in San Francisco. It is not the first of its kind in the US, but among the most influental ones. Since its opening in 1969, it has set an example for hundreds of new science centers all over the globe.

FFWD to 2016. My daughter is now 8 years old and we’ve started visiting Heureka again. As it happened, we recently went to Heureka on the same day, but not with each other. She went with her class during the schoolday. I went in the evening for the opening party of the new Winter Games exhibition.

Later that week at home we discussed our visits. I asked what were her favorite exhibits. “Biathlon and curling were great”, she said, “but bobsleigh not so much”. I asked why. “You couldn’t steer the thing but just sit and watch it go.”

(I did not try bobsleigh myself when I visited the Winter Games exhibition so I had to check from Heureka. Apparently you can steer the sleigh so either there was some temporary bug or my daughter didn’t know how to operate it.)

Anyway, that’s when it hit me: science centers are all about interacting with exhibits. It’s the single most important attribute that differentiates them e.g. from traditional museums. We both agreed that riding the downhill simulator was awesome. Sometimes we hit the safety nets but got back up and made it to the finish line.

Science centers have the capability to build complex simulators and other interactive exhibits that do not fit homes or schools. They range from purely physical to purely digital and often find their sweet spot somewhere in between. At best these exhibits exercise both mind and body.


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