Night at the Smithsonian: What Do We Learn in Museums and at IMAX Movies?

Night at Smithsonian topped the Box Office this Memorial Day weekend with a smash opening of more than $70M outpacing Terminator Salvation which scored a $43M debut.

Museum directors and science educators are sure to be looking to ride the movie's success with efforts to broaden their reach in terms of attendance and community engagement. Yet the adventure and the joy of a museum experience, captured so well in Ben Stiller's "Night at..." fantasy series, leaves open the question of what we exactly learn about science when visiting a museum and just as importantly, how we learn.

That was among the key questions addressed in a recent National Academies report on Learning Science in Informal Settings. The report is well worth reading. In particular, I was interested in the report's emphasis on the importance of framing when it comes to communicating complex scientific ideas and issues, especially when it comes to local community engagement. From the news release for the report:

The report also offers recommendations for those on the front line -- the professional and volunteer staffs of institutions and programs who interact with the public about science. In discussing new science concepts, they should draw on learners' experience and knowledge by using everyday language, referring to common cultural experiences, and using familiar tools.

The report's recommendation that museums and institutions actively involve lay citizens in the collection of science data was also of interest to me. The report concludes that this involvement in the collection of scientific data is likely to have the co-benefit of motivating and empowering greater participation in decision-making about issues such as environmental policy.

I would go a step further and also connect this recommendation to the potential for new models for participatory science journalism, creating news communities at the local level that involve a mix of professional and lay contributors.

As I have written recently and describe in a series of forthcoming articles, these digital news communities would involve partnerships between foundations, government agencies, public media organizations, libraries, museums, and universities to provide a locally-focused source of news about science and the environment.

Part of the content would be professionally produced news, other parts of the content would be user-generated content in the form of comments, blogs, discussion boards, videos, and other materials. And another part of the content could be the release of scientific information from the local university on, for example, the localized impacts of climate change. Importantly, citizens could participate in the collection, sorting, archiving, and even analysis of this data by way of the digital news community platform. There would also be an active conversation about what to do about these localized impacts.

Universities, libraries, and museums could be "real world" sites where "citizen journalists" and "citizen scientists" could be trained on how to report on environmental and science issues, how to contribute to the digital news community, how to collect and report observations and data, or as places for face-to-face discussion and civic planning.

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America's successful public science institutions already conduct many outreach activities as their budgets allow. Many of these do have very active volunteer groups, some of whom have been asked to shoulder increasing burdens as financial constraints affect their sponsoring institutions.

I think that the list of informal settings should be expanded to include such things as National Parks, conservation areas and wildlife refuges as well as governmental research agencies.

The report cited here does seem to effectively summarize the importance of public engagement, as well as the need for soliciting the participation of traditionally underrepresented groups.

The report is quiet lengthy, and I have only read some of the introductory portions as well as the conclusions and recommendations. I hope that this report is able to reach leadership in both the science institution and educational communities.

I do have some concerns about how increased citizen participation in such activities can be adequately supervised and advised. While many of the citizen volunteers do have considerable expertise in their subject areas, mentoring would be crucial. There are special interest agenda groups, such as Creationists who already run their own programs utilizing these public facilities.

I do believe that it is conceptually excellent to look at all of these science related institutions wit a view towards creating united framework as to how the public's knowledge of and involvement in science can be expanded.

As stated in conclusion 10: Partnerships between Science-rich Institutions and local communities shows great promise for fostering inclusive science learning. Developing productive partnerships requires considerable time and energy.

And I would add, money.

This report does aim us in the right direction.