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Time for Michigan's museums to get even more hands-on

Robin Deits

The Next Idea

The success of Michigan’s future economy will rely on more of our children engaging with science and technology. Their personal futures will depend on it too.

Besides schools, however, there are few places they can turn to find the required resources and creative energy. This is where our state’s museums come in. Right now, museums have an incredible opportunity to expand their role in our communities and become the engines for youth engagement that Michigan needs.

For decades, I have been talking to parents and children around the world in science outreach activities. In countless conversations, I have asked parents if they visit their local hands-on science museums, and frequently the answers are the same: “Yes, we loved going there -- when our children were younger!” 

This is a trend that those of us in museums have recognized for a while now:  When children reach the age of 11 or 12, they tend to disappear.  At Lansing’s Impression 5 Science Center, we’re trying to do something to change this.

From passive to active

In the 20th century, museums moved from repositories of artifacts to places where the public can engage in active learning.  Early museums were "dead zoos" – cases containing preserved materials, stuffed animals, ancient pottery, or walls of Old Masters where the visitor was expected to passively observe as they pass through. 

Active learning museums call upon visitors to observe, interact with (often through hands-on exhibits and programming) and take responsibility for their own learning. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in science and technology museums, many of which have been formed solely to enable young people to gain hands-on experience in a supportive environment. 

Time and again, young people today let us know they are seeking more than passive entertainment and education, that they want their efforts to be meaningful. Michigan's museums have a greater role to play in helping them.

This phenomenon has been tremendously successful, and is now a worldwide movement. TheExploratoriumin San Francisco is one of the pioneers.  Many nations take great pride in their national hands-on science museums.  The Tokyo National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, the Cite des Sciences et deL’Industrie in Paris and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia are a few of the magnificent examples of this trend that I have been privileged to visit. 

We have tens of thousands of parents and children in hundreds of communities who clearly have an interest in science and science education for their children, yet somehow we lose sight of them at the critical age when they are beginning to form their life goals. At the same time, we recognize that young people in Michigan need more motivation and better hands-on skills, both to be successful in a science career and to keep Michigan competitive in the global economy.  Along with schools, museums could be one of the places they can turn to in the community to find the resources and creative energy to transform a budding interest in science into a lifelong passion.  

Access to such a ready-made audience represents a tremendous unexploited resource. Now is the time to build the next generation of museums. 

So what’s the Next Idea?

We have the opportunity to try a potential new solution in Michigan: a true merger of the burgeoning maker community with the hands-on science museum world. 

The maker movement, which is taking hold across the country, is typically centered around community maker spaces that offer access to conventional and high-tech tools such as 3D printers and laser cutters. Anyone can join and learn to use the equipment to design and make whatever their imagination conjures up. Costs to participate range from modest to none.

I have visited dozens of maker spaces and am frankly dazzled by the energy and creativity that they can unleash. I also had the opportunity to participate in OHM 2013, an event at which 3,000 makers came together in a field outside of Amsterdam using largely volunteer labor to literally build a city (complete with  fiber optic cable to everybody’s tent!) and spend five days educating each other on goldsmithing, 3D printing, electronics, food hacking, nanotechnology and dozens of other topics. 

We have initiated the Innovation 5 project at Impression 5 Science Center to combine the amazing energy of the maker movement with the inspiration provided by the active learning in hands-on museums. 

Our vision is to create a dual-use maker space merged with our museum. One user group will be adult community members who can come to the maker space and gain their first experience with designing and creating in a supportive environment. The second group will be visitors to the Science Center, where young people and their families can engage in age-appropriate activities that introduce them to independent making.

We hope this introduction will inspire many to keep coming back as they age and, ultimately, become full-fledged members of the community maker space.

Hands-on science museums are some of the most welcoming places in our communities. As Frank Oppenheimer, founder of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, put it: “Nobody ever flunked science museum.” We want to continue to extend that welcome to our young people as they grow and give them opportunities outside of school to exercise their scientific creativity. At the same time we have the opportunity to serve a new audience of adult community members who are just beginning to explore the maker experience.

Our model may offer more sustainability for museums as well. Maker spaces are frequently self-supporting and can even generate revenue, so they could become as central to a museum’s bottom line as the gift shop.

If we are successful, our model can be extended to other hands-on science museums across Michigan and elsewhere. We can easily imagine how other types of museums, for example art museums, could adapt the same model to attract and retain an audience that is looking for a more authentic, fulfilling experience.

Time and again, young people today let us know they are seeking more than passive entertainment and education, that they want their efforts to be meaningful. Michigan’s museums have a greater role to play in helping them.

Tom Deits is the project director for Innovation 5, a new project at Impression 5 Science Center in Lansing. 

Join the conversation in the comments section below, on Twitter or Facebook, or let us know your Next Idea here.