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By Kate Davis on

Examples of a science capital approach in action

The concept of science capital gives us an insight into why and how some people participate in and engage with science related experiences and why some do not.

It gives us a framework which can help us reflect on our work so that we can create an environment which is open, welcoming and communicates how everyone is included and part of science.

Putting the research into practice is about changing the way we think. There is no quick fix or checklist; it is about continually reflecting on what we do every day through the eyes of our audiences, and considering what feelings, emotions and experiences about science we want them to take away.

To help us to do this we have created a set of science engagement reflection points which provide practical suggestions as to how we can utilise the good practice that comes from the research in our day to day work.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. We all have different opportunities in our job roles and functions. We need to ask ourselves questions such as:

    • Are we doing all we can to make everyone feel welcome and confident in our spaces?
    • How can the communication methods and language we use help everyone feel that they are part of science?
    • How do our experiences connect and relate to our visitors’ rich and diverse interests, experiences and everyday lives?
    • How do we value and build on the STEM knowledge and experiences that our visitors bring with them?

Below are just some examples of these reflection points in action. Some of these examples come from work that has already been done within the Science Museum Group, and some are examples of good practice that we have found.

Visual language/People

In the slide show presentation for one of our science shows about electricity, Danger! High Voltage, we show the audience images of how we harness renewable energy. Originally the slide looked like this:

 

On reflection, we realised that we were missing a great opportunity to make this more inclusive and to demonstrate the diversity of people who work on and are affected by these technologies. So, we changed the slide to this:

 

Science content knowledge

Pitching content at the right level is key. After working with many scientists over the years, helping them to explain their research to the public, we are very aware of how off-putting it can be for people if content is pitched too high, or low for them. This can be enough to make people feel that STEM isn’t for them.

This doesn’t mean that we need to ‘dumb down’ or remove science content from our experiences or indeed add lots more, rather we need to ensure that we take into account what our visitors already know and build on this. By approaching topics in this way, our visitors will find it much easier to make a personal connection to the content.

The Our Lives in Data exhibition is a good example of this approach. Cyber security might be considered by many to be a rather dry or complex subject, however, by approaching it from the perspective of our lives and the technology we use every day the subject becomes so much more accessible to a wider audience.

Skills

As part of our Building Bridges project, we created the Try This… activity book which aimed to build awareness of the science skills we use every day. It included a ‘You’ve got skills!’ page which encouraged people to reflect on the skills they’d used in each activity. Telling people they have the same skills as scientists and engineers can give people more confidence to participate in science activities.

We have also added a footer to all our hands on activities, which highlights what skills you will use.

Everyday examples

Below are the labels for the Icy Bodies exhibit, the left image was the label in Launchpad and the right side is the new label in Wonderlab: The Statoil Gallery. The original label had a clear summary of the science behind the exhibit, but it didn’t help visitors connect with the content. 

We wanted the new label to show that this isn’t just an experience you can have in the gallery, but that there are everyday practical applications for dry ice. But even this challenged our thinking. The original ‘everyday example’ that we considered was to explain how dry ice is commonly used for creating special effects at the theatre – but we reflected that not all visitors will have had an experience of going to the theatre, and so we changed the example to how dry ice is used for creating special effects on TV or in the cinema as this will be an experience shared by a much wider audience.

A lot of good marketing campaigns hook you in because they feel relevant to your experiences and make you want to find out more about it. The Science Museum ran a campaign back in 2009 called ‘See your world differently’ that focused on everyday things and highlighted some of the ‘science stories’ about them. Seeing how science is part of our daily life certainly inspired a lot of interest and curiosity.

 

People

The Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry included stories from the scientists who were involved in the graphene story, as well as exhibits that revealed information about their personalities, images of them as children, DVD’s of their favourite films and details about their hobbies. This information helps visitors identify with the scientists and see them as real people.

 

Confidence and ownership

People can find museums and especially object-rich exhibitions disorienting. Feeling unclear about where to start, what to do or how to behave reinforces the perception that ‘museums aren’t for me’. Helping visitors understand the ‘rules of the game’ allows them to navigate museum experiences with greater confidence. For example, at York Art Gallery it’s clear what you can touch:

Everyone is different and draws on different experiences, interests and cultural references. Enabling visitors to follow their interests makes it easier for them to make personal connections to science. these displays of trails from the Wellcome Collection gave visitors choice and control over their visit:

 

Promote science talk

Finding a cause and reason to talk about science can be a very powerful way to help people feel more connected and engaged with it. The more you talk and share ideas, express your views, opinions and feelings as well as listening to, respecting and challenging other people’s viewpoints, the more you find personal meaning with a topic.

Some of the labels from the Robots exhibition aimed to provoke people to think and talk about how robots might affect their everyday lives.

 

Extend the experience

A key way that we can help normalise science is to encourage our visitors to continue discussing and participating in science beyond their visit. At the Science Museum, we have included extension ideas in all of our hands-on activities. Each activity includes a ‘Science in your world’ section, which makes links between the science principles at work and their real world applications, and ‘Museum links’ which suggests way to extend the activity during a visit to the Science Museum.

For example, Ear Gongs, an activity about sound, includes information about stethoscopes, something we may all encounter on a trip to the doctors, and encourages people to try making a basic one themselves. The ‘Museum links’ provide ideas of objects, such as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, and areas of the museum to visit to see real world applications of the science principles explored in the activity.

Another example was found at the Horniman Museum and Gardens where they have some great resources encouraging visitors to explore fungi in their local area.

 

Positive reinforcement

By telling all our visitors (adults and children alike) that they are being scientific or thinking like an engineer, we hope to build their self-efficacy around STEM and leave them with the feeling that ‘I can do that’. Being told you are good at something spurs you on and positive reinforcement may help to convince our visitors that science could be ‘their thing’ after all.

Our staff are key. Through interactions with our visitors in hands on galleries, shows and demos we can help provide that positive reinforcement and help make our visitors feel good about their own individual abilities. This example comes from an interaction with an Explainer in Wonderlab at the National Science and Media Museum. She enjoyed writing positive messages on people that would be revealed when they went into the UV area.

Where are there opportunities for you, in your work, to use some of the ideas in our science engagement reflection points?

 

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