Learning about learning: engaging education at the Science Museum

My recent silence is down to the fact that I’ve been immersed in some learning of my own lately, including taking a long-awaited trip to the Science Museum with my brother. I had reckoned on only needing a couple of hours to get our fill of the museum – Harry may be a typical 10 year boy in that he soaks up facts like a sponge and enjoys discovering all kinds of weird and wonderful things so that he can one day appear on QI (maybe not quite so typical!), but don’t most 10 year old boys get bored of museums fairly quickly?

I also assumed that it would mostly be aimed at his age group so, while he would learn all kinds of trivia to spout at the dinner table for the next few months, it wouldn’t teach me much I didn’t already know.

Turns out that I was wrong on both counts! Harry decided that we’d start our trip in the ‘Who Am I?’ gallery and the very first game we played showed me that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did… (who knew spiders don’t have a complex enough nervous system to count as being conscious, or that scientists aren’t agreed on whether dogs (despite being able to recognise human emotions) are conscious or not?).

We’d planned to visit a few more rooms after ‘Who Am I?’ but ended up spending our entire two and a half hours in that little gallery alone. Harry was completely engrossed, making sure we circled the room three times in total just in case we’d missed anything the first time. A whole range of topics is covered – from recognising emotion and body language to how memory works, gender identity and DNA analysis – but each and every one is tackled in an enjoyable, interactive (and mostly ‘e-’) way.

It’s a real hands-on, engaging learning experience that absolutely proves learning can be fun – Harry dragged me straight through the rooms about the cosmos and flight but he queued up to take a photo of his own eye and examine a close-up of his iris; we were so intrigued by the ‘do you think like a man or a woman?’ quiz that we took it twice; and so frustrated and fascinated by the seemingly simple challenge of putting together a police-style photo-fit picture that we had three attempts.

Every so often Harry would pipe up that ‘this place is so weird!’ – not at all what he expected from the Science Museum! I pointed out to him that it’s not so dissimilar to what I do – finding enjoyable, interactive ways to help people learn about things that might at first seem difficult, irrelevant or boring. I definitely learnt a lot, not just about what makes me ‘me’ but also about engaging and effective instructional design – I came away with a lot of new ideas that I’m just itching to put into practice!


2 thoughts on “Learning about learning: engaging education at the Science Museum

  1. anniems1

    I have taught online classes for several years at a community college. Recently I decided to go back to school to pursue a degree in Instructional Design and Technology. I decided to do this because I realized a lot of training and education is going more technical. As an online instructor, I have never developed interactive lessons. Mainliy the activities are self directed through reading, tests, homework assignments, and discussion boards.

    Over the years, I have seen a lot of the publishing companies put out a lot of Internet based supplemental activities for students. A recent project peaked my interest in the field of instructional design.

    I am curious about the ideas you took away from your museum experience. What kinds of activities do you think will translate well into e learning?

    1. stephaniededhar Post author

      I think the main thing is the exploratory element, encouraging visitors to have a go for themselves before telling them anything very much. This has the benefit of engaging them with an interesting, hands-on activity that will capture their curiosity and make them want to learn the theory, explanation or context around the activity.

      To give you an example, one of the activities was focused on memory and what our brains notice first (more or less; that’s a very non-scientific description!). Rather than just using text, images, animations and so on to describe how the memory works, the exhibit made it into a game. We were shown a picture of a magician on stage surrounded by a variety of props and we were told to memorise as much as we could. The curtains closed and when they re-opened things had changed. The first time, they were fairly easy things to spot – large objects that had moved or appeared, for instance. Each time, the changes became harder to spot – the final change was that the magician’s shadow had altered. As the activity was aimed at children, the game was followed by a brief analysis of the kinds of things that our memory stores over and above others.

      If I were creating an e-learning course for adults on a similar theme, I’d take a bit further and ask the learner to do the analysis – do they think they noticed some things and not others due to size, position, perceived importance and so on – before confirming or correcting their instincts.


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