Go visit a (science) museum

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11 May 2015

Last week, I encountered throngs of students and patient chaperones at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History on my way to visit with the Smithsonian Press publishing team. This annual ritual of field trips, from the first hint of the cherry blossoms until the June graduation ceremonies, reminds me of what a superb resource museums and science centers are for all aspects of our culture. It is true that our school systems lack resources—we lament over the shortage of properly trained science teachers and insufficient teaching resources that can make science come alive when students see and touch real fossils, charge up their hair with a Van de Graaf generator, or get bedazzled with a planetarium show showing our galaxy in a way that can’t be seen during the day. Tapping into the troves of museums and science centers can make a big difference. 

When I was a growing up in the 1950s, people had to travel to a major city like Washington, DC, or New York to experience a well-appointed science museum. I attended high school in a southern New Jersey rural suburb school system with few resources to kindle my science interests. Fortunately, I could hop on a bus bound for Philadelphia to spend many afternoons at the Franklin Institute. My teachers would often grant me an extended pass for the day . . . as long as I kept up my grades. I loved this museum, and it fed my appetite for science and technology until I left for college. It is still true that our big cities host the best-resourced and most famous of science museums, but now there are nearly 400 science and technology museums throughout the country. 

In 2013, the Association of Science-Technology Centers estimates that 73 million people visited its 394 member science centers and museums in the United States.[1] This volume easily surpasses professional sports game attendance for American football, basketball, soccer, and ice hockey combined. Baseball still has the museum business beat, but, all told, it’s clear that Americans have a healthy appetite for science.[2] 

On Tuesday night, May 5th, the National Science Board (NSB) bestowed its 2015 Public Service Awards to two of the most outstanding science centers: the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the National Center for AMNHTechnological Literacy at Boston’s Museum of Science. The centers are celebrated for their excellence and effectiveness at reaching millions through their rich programs for the public, students, teachers, and science researchers. Millions of US residents, particularly those in the mid-Atlantic corridor, enter their doors each year, but extensive outreach programs enable these establishments to extend their impact to the rest of the country and worldwide. 

The American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, was recognized as one of the world’s most prestigious institutions in its class. Last year it educated and entertained more than 5 million visitors with 45 distinct exhibits. Traveling exhibits, web exhibits, and even smart phone apps succeeded in doubling its reach. The museum also supports graduate studies in many subjects aligned to its collections and mission, and in 2012 it became the first museum to offer a doctoral program. 

The National Center for Technological Literacy (NCTL) at Boston’s Museum of Science (MOS)  was recognized for bringing engineering and technology demonstrations and exercises to middle schoolers for more than a decade. NCTL/MOSNCTL’s dynamic founding (and current) director, Ioannis Miaoulis, started its engineering program in 2003 with eight teachers and 200 students and grew it to serve 80,000 teachers and 80 million students today.

AIP invited the Museum of Science to participate in the 2014 Assembly for Society Officers. Larry Bell, Director of the MOS Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network, discussed how to engage students in middle school, a critical age for developing interest in science, through informal science education. See Bell’s presentation on the AIP website. 

I encourage you to visit one of these award-winning institutions—or any one of the other science museums across the country—to enjoy the wonders and beauty of science and engineering that supports our existence. Better yet, bring along a friend.

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[1] 2013 Science Center and Museum Statistics, Association of Science and Technology Centers. http://www.astc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/2013-Science-Center-Stati...

[2] The spectacle of sports, The Economist, June 5, 2014. http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2014/06/daily-chart-2