Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Questioning Science at Every Turn

A hair-raising experience. Photo courtesy of ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum

At the ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum in Ashland, Oregon, science isn't just an academic subject that you learn about in school: it's a full sensory experience that affects every aspect of daily life. With nearly 100 interactive exhibits, visitors can explore a buzzing beehive, a solar-powered nursery, a bubble room, optical illusions, a xeriscape (low-water) garden, and even a community weather station. We talked to ScienceWorks Executive Director Chip Lindsey by e-mail about the role of his museum in the community, the overlap between art and science, and why this week, he's all about bubbles.

NEA: A lot of people think of science as something that exists in textbooks or laboratories. How does the museum counteract that notion?         

CHIP LINDSEY: ScienceWorks strikes out to make science available to every visitor by creating exhibits that make you stop, look closely at a phenomenon, investigate with every fiber of your being, communicate with those around you, and reshuffle the way you think about yourself, your world, and how you interact with it. Traditionally we confuse hearing about a historic experiment as “learning science.” Here at ScienceWorks we know that learning science involves doing science, being scientific, and changing the way you think about how the world works. Here, “science” is a verb. Sometimes it involves a secondary source like a book, or historic account, but primarily we want people to behave and think scientifically.

NEA: The museum’s mission statement is “To inspire wonder and stimulate creative exploration through fun interactive science and the arts.” How do you view the overlap between art and science? 

LINDSEY: The division between “art” and “science” is a rather recent, and largely arbitrary, division. If you look at the behaviors necessary for either, you run into the same primary skills of relentlessly questioning the world while being brutally honest to your senses and reflecting on experiences to provide new models to communicate your thoughts in a provocative manner. You get at what Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence at play.”

NEA: The building that houses ScienceWorks was initially built for the Pacific Northwest Museum of Natural History, which closed its doors after only three years. What is behind ScienceWorks’ wonderful success? 

LINDSEY: The Pacific Northwest Museum of Natural History was 100 percent complete as its doors opened in 1993. Even now after ten years of success, our ScienceWorks exhibits alas are only 50 percent complete. Now the visitor interacting with the exhibit makes it complete. Each exhibit changes with each new individual that uses it or with each group that talks about it. Oh, and of course we have different exhibits that come in, refreshing the experience base once or twice a year. The changing exhibit experience keeps members joining, visitors coming back, and the school buses lining the parking lot all year long---oh and by the way, people are learning science in a way that inspires, informs, and engages them.

Children outside the museum. Photo courtesy of ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum

NEA: The museum has some really unique forms of community interaction, including the weather station and the telescope-lending program. How do you view the role of the museum in the community? 

LINDSEY: In much the same way that our exhibit experience is in the space between the exhibit and the visitor, the success of ScienceWorks is in the space between the shell of the building and the communities of the region. We belong to an invisible infrastructure of education that exists outside of the traditional school system and outside the family. Libraries, zoos, clubs like the FFA or scouting, and all the other places we engage and are transformed by science belong to this loose collection of teachers. We need these informal science providers to come alongside our beleaguered schools and enrich scientific literacy for the entire region. ScienceWorks is looking at how we can be an organizer within the infrastructure of non-formal science institutions. One of our new programs, Inspiring Minds, is looking at entire school campuses as partners in bringing non-traditional, museum-going families to ScienceWorks with their teachers and administrators. This holds promise to create science-rich leisure options for families with their children, build stronger relationships between schools and their families, and encourage return visits to the museum on weekends, summers, and holidays.

NEA: What is your personal favorite part of the museum?

LINDSEY: For me this week? Bubbles! They are simple, disarming, and profoundly beautiful. They model concepts in math, and biology, are tiny laboratories for chemistry and physics, and whether you are six-months-old or 99 you can enjoy and become a scientist through them.

NEA: Why did you decide to participate in Blue Star Museums this year? 

LINDSEY: We are passionate about changing our world for the better. We want to recognize and pay the deepest respect for families in the armed services that make it possible for us to pursue our efforts to build stronger communities through science learning.

Add new comment