Our world is largely shaped by science and technology. (Consider television!) The pace of such science-driven change is astonishing–and accelerating. Today’s young people will face a world we can barely imagine, and to do so successfully, they must be comfortable with and knowledgeable about science and technology. But are they?
Comfortable, maybe, but knowledgeable? Hardly. In fact, young people are turning their backs on science. Enrolment in university science courses is declining. A study in an Ontario university showed that more than three times as many students select a liberal arts program as a science program.
Science is perceived as hard, boring, or irrelevant. A lot of high school students don’t take science because it requires a lot of homework–and once you’ve missed those high school science credits, you’ve pretty well closed the door on taking science in university. (I should know: I chose not to take high school physics, and thus effectively also chose not to become a scientist or engineer–and I don’t even remember why!)
Yet meeting the future’s economic, environmental and other challenges will require more and more scientists and engineers–and an informed public (and politicians). But right now, neither the public nor its politicians really understand science and technology.
One response to this problem has been the science centre movement. Science centres exist to make people more aware of and appreciative of science and technology.
At the Saskatchewan Science Centre we try to keep science from being intimidating by presenting basic scientific principles in a “hands-on” fashion, providing the means for people to conduct experiments and directly experience the results. Then, through the exhibit copy and our demonstrators, we place those results in a larger context, showing how these basic principles underlie familiar experiences.
For example, we have a thing called a Bernoulli blower, basically just a fan blowing air up through a tube. The blowing air supports a beach ball. When you pull the beach ball partly out of the airstream, you feel a force trying to push it back in. The exhibit copy explains that the force you’re feeling is the same force that lifts an airplane into the sky.
The science centre philosophy is that you learn best by doing. After all, that’s how we learn almost everything in our early years–we touch, taste, sniff, hear and see things, and from that hands-on experience we learn about the world around us. Science centres try to provide new things to touch, taste, sniff, hear and see..
It’s simple, really, but also a bit subversive, considering how many people feel about science. Nobody who visits the Science Centre says that they’re “experimenting;” they always say they’re “playing”–and that’s how it should be. When you’re having fun, your defenses are down. You’re not thinking, “This is science. I hate science! Yuck!” You’re just enjoying yourself–and yet, you may leave with new insight into how an airplane flies, or how your eyes can be fooled. But more important than what is learned (because no science centre in the world can cover more than a fraction of scientific knowledge) is the fact that science now carries a new connotation: not boring, but fun!
Having fun has an interesting side effect: it unlocks the imagination. A child playing with a toy is also playing with her imagination. At the Science Centre, that imagination is focused on science. If the child leaves with her imagination in high gear, turning over new ideas and questions, that’s more important than whatever facts she may have turned up, because science isn’t just facts, it’s a creative process that always begins with questions.
Do science centres really work? There’s no objective way to tell. There are no tests to be passed, and nobody is graded on their visit to the Science Centre (another plus!). The best we can do is go by what we see happening–people’s faces lighting up as they understand something for the first time, children writing us letters telling us how much they enjoyed the Science Centre and making comments like, “I used to think science was boring, but not any more!”, and the positive response from educators to our programs.
However many future scientists and engineers take up those professions because their interest in science was sparked by a visit to the science centre, we can already tell from day-to-day reaction that people are deciding that maybe science isn’t so inaccessible after all, and that can’t help but benefit our society.
Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, principle architect of the hands-on science centre movement and the founder of the San Francisco Exploratorium, once said, “If people feel they understand the world around them, or even if they have the conviction that they could understand it if they wanted to, then and only then are they also able to feel that they can make a difference through their decisions and activities.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.