Less Words, More Learning

Less Words, More Learning

     Visitors at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, CA (Image: Exploratorium)

I spent an afternoon at the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco, California. The architecture is minimalist – a large curving arena, dimly lit overall with bright spotlights on gadgets and inventions.  The gadgetry is very 19th Century - wood, brick, metal – with hand-finished edges and exposed bolts. Almost everything has been worn to a dull shine by thousands of touches.

The overall effect is like being invited to the workshop of a slightly eccentric tinkerer. Everywhere I looked, kids and adults were playing with things, experimenting and trying one idea after another. I watched a guy in a leather jacket with jet-black hair spin a small metal tube on a rotating table and a 3-year-old with a fountain-like ponytail atop her head play with a pendulum.

What I didn’t see, though, was people reading – at least, not much. That didn’t surprise me. Overall, people spend less than a minute at a typical museum exhibit, which isn’t much time to read.

The Exploratorium, though, doesn’t have typical exhibits: it has interactive exhibits. Instead of lots of text and illustrations explaining a scientific idea, people experience the idea through touch and play and draw their own conclusions.

Walking around the Exploratorium with Kua, who designs their interactive exhibits, I learned that people spend more time at the exhibits when there is less for them to read. Kua said that the Exploratorium has, in the past, provided detailed step-by-step instructions designed to guide people toward a specific conclusion or idea. What they found was that people started following the instructions, but usually wandered off before they got to the end. In fact, one set of instructions, built like a flipbook, had a $5 bill taped a few pages, which went unclaimed for several months.

Interactive exhibit at the Exploratorium
Notice: No reading, all exploring. (Image: Exploratorium)

On the other hand, when the Exploratorium provided less written explanation, people spent more time exploring the interactive exhibits. In short, Kua said, people spend more time at open-ended exhibits than exhibits with a set script.

We are developing a new weather exhibit at NCAR.  Based on the Exploratorium’s experience, if we want people to be engaged and spend time at our exhibits, then interactive experiences with minimal guidance are the way to go.

Of course, without a script, people make up their own script - and that can be risky. Instead of learning something new, they may use the experience to confirm something they already know. Worse yet, what they already know may be wrong.  Educational research suggests people often see new information through the lens of what they think they know, and it can be very hard to let go of an old idea, even one that is wrong.  The polite word for this is “alternate conceptions”. 

Also, a big part of why we communicate about science, including through of exhibits, is so that we don’t all have to start from zero and rediscover everything. Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” We may not be giants, but as a national laboratory that studies weather, we should know something that can help our visitors out.

So, we need some way to balance open-ended exploration and the goal of science communication.  Enough guidance to ensure that our visitors learn what we think is important to teach, and enough interactivity to engage our visitors and allow them to learn the things important to them.   We want people to experience the joy of discovery, not the frustration of reinventing the flat tire.

To get this balance right, we need to answer some research questions. This is cool for us, because it means we get to do our own learning. While we know how much instruction is too much, do we know how much is too little? How do we design interactives that allow exploration without confirming misunderstandings?

In the meantime, we will strive for fewer words and avoid dense, information-packed panels of text.  By the fall, when the weather exhibit opens, we hope it engages visitors. We hope that visitors want to linger for far longer than one minute, that they will explore the science of weather, and that they will also be able to learn from the wonderful research that is happening here.  The goal will be to let people discover while being careful about what they discover.