Why are hands-on science centres needed?

Science and technology have throughout history gone hand in hand, raising us from our biological origins to make man a unique species, with a life and a culture of his own which has no parallel in nature.

Whatever their shortcomings, science linked with technology are the most successful of all co-operative human endeavours. Their discoveries and inventions are incomparably useful (though unless we understand them, correspondingly dangerous) and they are uniquely intellectually satisfying while always leading to new questions and further possibilities.

But for too many people, surely, science and technology are remote and even hostile, perhaps because they seem too difficult even to begin to understand. We believe that the facts and fancies of Science can be made accessible to most people children and adults and that the best way to do this is by exploring for oneself; with help, a minimum of hassle, and a lot of excitement and fun which will be found in the Exploratory.

The Exploratory is to attract and introduce people to principles of science and technology. One might ask is this necessary? It is, for most people are blind to the explanations that science offers and do not appreciate how even their own possessions work. For example only very few people can answer questions such as: 'What is an electron? a Proton a Molecule?' Or, 'What holds the Moon up?' 'Why is the sky blue and why are bubbles coloured?' 'How long does light take to reach us from the sun? From the most distant object visible to the naked eye (2,000,000 years)? Or 'What is 'Natural Selection?' Or 'How are ball bearings made accurately spherical?' 'Why are we right-left reversed in a mirror?' 'Why is a refrigerator cold and a flame hot?'

Although few educated people can answer such questions, or use the methods of science for evaluating evidence, there is general agreement that this is unfortunate. A Gallup Poll (published in New Scientist, 21st. Feb. 1985) reports that 86% of the general population thinks that, 'Everyone should have some science education up the age of 16; and 76% that, 'Politicians should know more about science and its applications.' It seems, however, that there is considerable fear of science, for even apart from military applications, 73% think that, 'Scientific discoveries can have very dangerous effects.' And opinion on whether 'science and technology do more harm than good' is about equally divided.

Undoubtedly science is dangerous; but so is lack of it, and so is ignorance. Here everybody loses, and administrators lacking appreciation of technical issues can lose their way, to run into dangers of losing their firms and the rest of us an awful lot of money, and perhaps worse disaster. And 'merely' academically' the culture in which we live becomes distorted unless the contributions of science and technology are appreciated. Much of recorded history is distorted by 'filtering out' technology and its effects, as happens for many historians are blind to their significance; even though science and technology are ratchets, producing hopefully 'upward' irreversible changes. By contrast, most of recorded history is more-or-less random movements across essentially arbitrary political borders, yet this claims far more attention than the human-long dramatic saga of discovery and invention.

Even stranger: most of us, as adults, cannot answer the simplest questions of science, or of how things work, though children continually experiment, while playing. They learn a wonderful lot in a very few years including, most miraculously, language. But generally this learning slows and almost stops at adolescence, when for many people curiosity is dulled. Why this is so is mysterious and of course it doe not apply to everyone. How many of us, though, know how the most familiar gadgets work? For example, how their front door key turns the lock and only with their key and not thousands of others looking almost the same. Ways of making locks recognise particular keys is a technology known to the Romans; yet few of us appreciate how locks and keys work, though we use them every day, which is surely a pity as mechanisms are much more than bits-and-pieces of metal: they embody principles of nature combined by human intelligence to solve our problems. Largely unnoticed, they are our richest inheritance.

If we know how to look we can see for example in a humble lock and key not only mechanical processes of bearings, levers and stops but also more abstract principles, such as general statistical principles, which apply to the courtship behaviour of birds (and perhaps people) and to the immune system (which goes wrong with AIDS), as well as the immensely difficult pattern-recognition problem that, though we are unaware of it, confronts the eye every moment of the day. Then, in a device such as a lock, there are all sorts of manufacturing solutions such as dimensional tolerances; for if the key were a precise fit it would never work, as it expands with the heat of one's pocket, and the critical parts wear just slightly every time it is used.

So, in this one example it is possible to see a wealth of design principles as laws of physics, and of statistics, all brought together in a simple mass-produced package which is designed to fill a human need. But to see how it works, it may be necessary to open the lock and play with it, and take it to pieces. This is the essential point of the hands-on interactive approach to presenting science and technology in the Exploratory to continue children's exploration of the world and themselves into adult life so that the adventure of discovering never ceases.

There is plenty of evidence that our abilities to see and understand which are closely linked develop from infancy by actively handling and interacting with objects. Also, by playing games, and accepting challenges of new possibilities. A dramatic experiment showing how we see depends upon active touch was carried out at the end of the last Century by an American psychologist, G. M. Stratton, who turned his world upside down with reversing goggles. He wore these every day for several weeks. After a week or two, he found that his brain would correct for the reversing goggles, but only when he actively touched and handled objects. Unexplored objects would remain upside-down for many weeks. Then there are cases of people born blind, or becoming blind in infancy, recovering sight when adult by operations on their eyes. In some cases they can see, immediately after the operation, things they already know by touch. They remain effectively blind to untouched things for many months or even years. These they have to learn to see with great difficulty. To appreciate the importance of learning-by-doing imagine learning to ride a bicycle which is in a glass case, and can only be controlled by push buttons! One has to fall off, to learn.


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.




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