Interactivity has long been associated with engaging young people in learning, but this exciting new project goes one further and actually involves teenagers in the design. In this article from The Guardian, read about Melbourne’s famous Scienceworks museum and how their new exhibition is doing more to promote STEM subjects to young adults. The principle “science is not finished” encapsulates their approach, and is the essence of one of our themes, Learning and play.
Dr Kendall Ackley pushes her fist into the universe: purples and pinks and flashes of yellow, two black holes spin across the screen. As she pushes, the universe responds, concaving inwards. Her fist becomes a “potential well”, its gravity overriding that of the other black holes, pulling them into its orbit.
Ackley was a member of the team of scientists who discovered gravitational waves in 2016. Looking at her work displayed in a tactile, interactive form, she grins: “This is unbelievable. It’s everything that I could’ve wanted to show about how this work goes.”
The display is part of Scienceworks’ new permanent gallery for young adults, Beyond Perception: Seeing the Unseen, which opened on Saturday as part of a $6m funding boost from the state government to encourage young people’s interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem). The exhibition’s objective is to give physical representation to parts of our world that are invisible – such as sound waves and aerodynamics.
The exhibition was developed over two years in discussion with scientists from across Victoria, and a “JBoard” of teenage advisors. Museums Victoria experience developer David Perkins says getting kids involved was essential for the museum to understand the ways they interact with a gallery space. The JBoard met monthly to test interactive elements for the gallery, eat food, talk about science, and teach the curators.
“If we gave them something too straightforward they’d break it,” Perkins says. “Because they’re with their pals and their peers are there, doing anything earnest or creative is a real risk in front of people because if you fail you’ll look stupid.” Instead, the JBoard would find ways to be funny, create feedback loops, or exit out of applications. In response to this, the resulting exhibition is an immersive learning space based on open-ended play.
I think it’s something young people have just a head start on now, because they’re really growing up with [these] technologies at hand
Dr Christy Hipsley, evolutionary biologist
Shaun Crosbie, 13, a member of the JBoard, sits on a giant grey couch, music vibrating from inside the sofa and up through his body, as he explains the science of soundwaves. “The faster the soundwaves travel, the higher the pitch. With these,” he says, shifting his position on the seat, “I think the soundwaves are relatively slow because it’s a low pitch.”
“This isn’t normal science,” he says, looking around the exhibition. “It’s about topics your science teacher might explain in a very boring way, but they are actually really interesting once you look around the exhibit. It just shows how cool science can be.”
Work In Progress
The exhibition has as much an emphasis on the scientists working in these fields as on what they have discovered. Throughout the gallery, scientists narrate the stories of their own work and the applications of their research. Descriptive panels are handwritten; diagrams, graphs and equations are sketched alongside explanations directly quoted from scientists from across Victoria.
The exhibition seems designed to encourage a sense of possibility, a reminder of how what we know is perpetually in flux.
“Science is not finished,” says Perkins. “We expect things to change. New discoveries will happen.” Gesturing towards the sketches, he says: “We want to be able to put a line through something, to correct it, and show [teenagers] that things are still developing and there is work to be done.”
One For All
Moving blocks on a table swirling with mist, India Pacheco, 12, observes the ways these objects affect the movement of the mist, a visual and tactile representation of fluid dynamics. She is studious as she tries to create eddies and patterns. “I liked science,” she says. “And then when I came here my love for it just grew.”
Asked about working with the scientists, she stumbles over the word “astrophysicist”, but explains the concepts of gravitational waves and black holes: “There is no ‘other side’. It is just all sucking in.” Pacheco now dreams of a future as an environmental scientist studying marine biology.
Women make up just 28% of Stem professionals in Australia, but were 50% of the collaborators on Beyond Perception
Stem subject enrolments are at historic lows, and girls are especially underrepresented in the field. For Scienceworks, addressing this has meant ensuring women’s research is visible in the exhibition. Women make up just 28% of Stem professionals in Australia, but were 50% of the collaborators on Beyond Perception. The voices of these scientists are heard throughout the exhibition, and their names are signed on the walls.
“I think a lot of [the JBoard] had that idea that science is just done by white guys in America and there is no place for them in it,” says Perkins. “We’re trying to show them there is still lots of stuff to do, and there are all these different jobs they didn’t know existed.”
Keep It Moving
The exhibition tries to challenge its audience: next to a display where small styrofoam beads are manipulated by fans is an unsolvable mathematical equation that scientists are using to explain aerodynamics. The challenge for the museum will be in making sure audiences are as engaged with these scientific principles as they are with the elements of play.
For evolutionary biologist Dr Christy Hipsley, the exhibition’s demonstration of the living nature of science is crucial, with Beyond Perception displaying research she published this year. Hipsley uses CT scans to study thylacine specimens, technology of today allowing her to discover the mysteries of a creature that has been extinct for over 80 years. She hopes teenagers get “a sense of how quickly these technologies are advancing.”
On a screen behind her, each layer of a thylacine – its skin, its muscles, its organs – are peeled away, revealing the discoveries made by these scans. “Things that we’re doing right now today, even five years ago or three years ago, couldn’t have been done. I think it’s something young people have just a head start on now, because they’re really growing up with those technologies at hand.
“It will be exciting to see where they take it.”