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Exhibits about Phenomena and The Process of Discovery
Written by Bernie Zubrowski
The success of Tools and Bubbles led to the design of other phenomenon-based exhibits during my last years at the museum. Adopting a pedagogical approach similar to that used in the development of Bubbles, new science exhibits such as Raceways, Tops and Yo-Yos, Salad Dressing Physics, and Waves found their way to the museum floor. Each of these exhibits focused on one phenomenon, used a limited number of materials, and was made as interactive as possible. Salad Dressing Physics was the least interactive because of the nature of the materials. We had to constrain the manipulation of the containers of liquids since there was always the possibility that some visitors would break the containers spilling very messy liquids on the floor.
In addition to simple exploration of the phenomenon itself, simple experiments or comparisons of visitor behavior could be done in some of these exhibits. In Raceways, for example, the golf ball could be placed on different parts of the tracks. Activities were deliberately designed on two parallel tracks in order to prompt the visitor to make comparisons. At the exhibit's Ski Jump and Loop-the-Loop, the visitor could place the ball at different parts of the track to see what would happen when they flew off the end of the track. By placing buckets at the end of the track, this became a type of game in which the visitor could take up the challenge of sending balls into each of the buckets. In Tops and Yo-Yos, visitors could compare the spinning of four different kinds of tops, or tops of different diameters but same weight, or two different tops of same diameter but different weights. Likewise, they could compare yo-yos of different diameters or weights. In Salad Dressing Physics, visitors could compare the properties of density and viscosity in five different liquids, and the collection of stations in that exhibit in effect presented an example of how one could investigate properties of liquids overall. In the Waves exhibit, visitors could make soap film wave or vibrate several different ways and in the process discover how a surface reacted to these vibrations. So, in most of these exhibits the implicit message was not just information about this or that scientific phenomenon but how a phenomenon could be investigated.
I had been a student of nonverbal behavior for a long time while developing activities in community afterschool programming and in the special school programs at the museum. I had always been interested in designing experiences that required a minimum of verbal directions or written instructions. The challenge in exhibit design was how to design the materials or devices to take advantage of the visitors' intuitive responses to the way things are designed. This is related to the design of everyday things about which designers and environmental psychologists have written reams about responses to the physical environment. Placing two tracks alongside each other is one example of the way in which the physical design of an exhibit subtly directs visitors to explore and experiment. Making some of the activities into games is another way to use the physical layout to prompt behavior.
Another example of designing the materials to maximize interaction occurred in the Tops and Yo-Yos exhibit. When Tops and Yo-Yos was first installed I noticed that visitors were not doing much with the yo-yos at one station at which four yo-yos hung from hooks. One pair of yo-yos was composed of a two plastic plates, each six inches in diameter; the second yo-yo pair was made of two plates each twelve inches in diameter. Each yo-yo pair weighed the same, but one yo-yo had washers bolted in the middle while the second one had washers bolted on the diameter. The question was: Did these yo-yos behave differently when they moved up and down on the string because of the placement of the washers? Which one of the pairs would move longer? Since visitors did not seem to be readily making the comparisons, I decided to anchor the yo-yos on a bar that extended from the wall. Now the visitor could easily roll up the yo-yos side by side, release them at the same time and see what happened. This slight alteration of the exhibit design led to a change in visitor behavior: now more people manipulated the yo-yos in attempts to make this comparison.
The fact that all of these exhibit phenomena were played out using simple or familiar materials suggested that similar investigations could be carried out at home or school. Some visitors appeared to get the idea. When videographer David Smith taped visitors using the Tops and Yo-Yos exhibit, two people explicitly commented on this implicit message. One woman, a teacher, said that when visiting the museum and exploring exhibits such as Tops and Yo-Yos she got ideas for science activities in her classroom. A man noticed and commented on the fact that simple materials were used in Tops. He noted that one could go home and easily duplicate these activities in some way. Many classroom teachers used scientific phenomena-exploring exhibit like Tops as either the starting or ending point for their class visits to the museum. Students could visit the museum, become intrigued by the science they "played with" there, and then go back to their classroom to do more investigation. Or, a visit to the museum could be the culmination (or reward) for science work previously done in school.(See videos of Tops and Yo-Yo exhibits in Related Media.)