The opportunity to try things out hands-on (rather than the push buttons and glass cases of conventional science museums) allows our visitors – the Explorers – not only to appreciate how moving models, mechanisms or whatever work, but also to discover conditions under which they do not work – and so the range of conditions in which things work or phenomena occur. For by active trying out and playing, optimal conditions can soon be discovered and tested – which is the basis of learning any skill. By optimising conditions we gain the kind of understanding which may be non-verbal but which underlies all manner of skills.
By optimising conditions for making things happen, we learn how carefully or well something needs to be done, and what can be left to inattention or chance. This is important, for saving time and effort by restricting attention to where it is most needed frees the attention, in a well learned skill, for noting (and perhaps going on to explore) alternatives – even occasionally for inventing something new or a new way of doing it.
2 Good humour, tolerance, challenge
Essential for the enterprise is an atmosphere of good humour and tolerance, combined with an element of challenge. Young animals and children learn by play, so it is strange that many educationalists still think of play as a trivial activity. In the Exploratory, many of the Plores should be fun, as games are fun. Many indeed can be games: games played with friends and (as science is) games played against nature.
There is a place here also for some jokes; for Jokes are surprising juxtapositions that jolt the mind, perhaps into higher energy orbits with new potentials. Humour can be in the Plores themselves and in their captions; though restraint is needed, for humour can trivialise.
Some Plores should be surprising. These attract particular attention. And by showing up the Explorer's failure to predict correctly they at once reveal gaps in his or her understanding. For example, blowing air between the suspended balls of a Bernoulli demonstration is surprising, in the right kind of way, as most people expect the balls to separate, instead of coming together. By playing around with the air jet it is easy to discover the range and limits of the phenomena.
The practical importance of this curious effect can be demonstrated in the lift of the upper surface of aircraft wings – to show that our failed predictions signal gaps of understanding or intuition, which can make us miss highly significant facts and ideas. This practical implication may be needed for some people to justify the jolt of surprise by failed prediction. (This signal to look further and learn more is an alternative to correction by teachers which has obvious advantages; for example that surprises, but not teachers, are always available.)
There should not however be too many dramatic surprises or the Exploratory will be confusing. It is reassuring to get things right – so some initial hypotheses should be confirmed!
4 Make the hidden, visible
Several of the Plores should be designed to reveal hidden features of the world; especially features that cannot normally be sensed. This can be done in two ways:
5 Not all Plores need to be completely understood to be successful
Some, indeed, should raise very difficult questions, to which perhaps no-one as yet has a complete answer. Setting up interesting questions may help people to enjoy living with questions. Puzzling Plores, especially Plores that please, may help to reduce the, surely, too-common fear of questions. It is an important point that Puzzling Plores may be simple and familiar.
A good example is the question: Why does a book, or oneself, appear horizontally but not vertically reversed in a looking-glass? (Is the asymmetrical reversal, from the symmetrical mirror, due to optics; to a cognitive or 'mental' reversal; to something Kantianly odd about space – or what? Many philosophers and scientists get this one hopelessly wrong.)
Another example is 'Newton's bucket': this shows, incredibly simply, the puzzling Mach's Principle, which is a basic issue for Relativity Theory. Though we may all be familiar with what happens to the curved surface of water in a spinning bucket – how many realise that it poses fundamental questions of relative or absolute motion? In both these examples it is important to make the context, and what the problem is, clear – without being intimidating. We have a lot to learn to do this well.
6 Make links between science and technology
Some Plores should show how physical principles are combined in novel ways in technology, to produce (generally though unfortunately not always) desired results. Where results are undesirable, it may turn out that the new problems can be solved by applying science with further technology. These may, indeed, be spurs to invention rather than grounds for pessimism.
7 Capture people's imagination
The Exploratory is primarily intended to capture people's imagination; it does not have to be anything like as thorough or complete as a School or a University. Topics and individual Plores can be chosen and designed to evoke interest and stimulate curiosity without the necessity for a complete account. Explorers will be encouraged to fill gaps by thinking for themselves and seeking further information – which is richly available though largely untapped. Once people's interest is aroused they will surely make far better use of the available libraries, television programmes – including the Open University courses and programmes – and so justify more fully the National expenditure on these resources.
8 A sense of history
Although history is not the main aim of the Exploratory, sequence of development and invention are helpful for understanding – and they give a structure in human terms which is highly appealing. To get a feel for the processes of invention it is essential to have some historical sense.
We generally think of museums (which the Exploratory is not) as Time Capsules, protecting precious objects of the past from damage, or up-dating, by their glass cases. In the Exploratory, time-travelling can be far more rewarding than simply by looking at old things, for here we can touch and use, and play and experiment with the kinds of tools and toys that were familiar in the past. We may measure the speed of sound as Newton did by clapping his hands to the echo; measure the speed of light, and of nerve impulses, with the increasing accuracy of new techniques and instruments, as they were in turn invented. This will bring out clearly and dramatically (as the past is re-lived) the intimate relation and the mutual gains of all manner of techniques, tools, and instruments with science.
For an example of hands-on 'time-machine' exploring: one can carry out Galileo's experiments with weights rolling down inclined planes, with the methods then available for observing and timing their fall, just as it was done early in Galileo's and Bacon's Seventeenth Century. So here we may come to appreciate, by our own experiences and difficulties, what past science and technology were like – and how we have advanced and may now move further on.
There is no obvious limit to this approach from the past to the present, to anticipate and invent our future with creative intelligence guided by understanding Science and Technology.
Adapted from: The Exploratory Interactive Science Centre, Plan for Action 1, February 1983 and The Exploratory Interactive Science Centre, Plan for Action 2, February 1985.
© 2000 The Exploratory