Museums: Teaching with Tech

Across the country, museums are tapping technology in hopes of revitalizing young people's interest in tech, science, and math

Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is about to kick off a study that she hopes will lead to a better understanding of the causes of cancer. She will lead a rotating team of researchers observing zebra fish infected with retroviral vectors.

The aim is to identify early developmental mutations that lead to cancer. But the research will be groundbreaking for another reason as well: The research team will include middle- and high-school students, and their lab, the MIT Museum.

Seeking Relevance

This year, a whole new exhibition floor of the museum will be dedicated to highlighting ongoing research projects at the university, and students and other visitors will be invited to join the learning process. "We're trying to bridge the gap between the current research itself and the science that's done and dusted," says museum director and MIT professor John Durant.

MIT's experiment is part of an effort underway at museums across the country to revamp how technology is presented. It reflects a larger reevaluation of the ways young people are exposed to technology as the U.S. loses ground in science and math test scores and suffers a decline in the number of students entering and graduating from degree programs in engineering, math, and science (see, 12/5/05, "Science Grads, Where Are You?"). The U.S. ranked 14th in math and science compared with more than three dozen other industrialized nations in the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics & Science Study.

In an age of Google's (GOOG) YouTube and Sony's (SNE) PlayStation, museums have to work a lot harder to make subject matter culturally relevant to young people. Besides Hopkins' zebra fish project, MIT's museum will include exhibits on robotic underwater exploration and a compact urban concept car. The museum's "public soapbox" events give MIT researchers a chance to discuss current issues and solicit involvement in studies. Researchers asked visitors to gather atmospheric data in their own backyards for a study on climate change.

Nontraditional Visitors

Other museums are well aware of the need to make technology more tangible. The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, lets visitors relive their museum experience long after they've left. Guests are given a wristband that keeps track of visited exhibits. Once home, the museum-goer can log on to the museum's Web site and download congressional speeches, activist rally posters, and other exhibits they encountered at "The Tech." "The big challenge in a science museum is to explain the technology," says Peter Friess, the museum's newly hired president. "You may have one subject, but that subject has many different stories to be told."

The museum is currently enlisting the help of graduate students and others to build a virtual reality museum in Second Life, a destination that will act as a proving ground for new exhibits. The topics of environmentalism and energy resources will be a major focus as the museum evolves and expands. The efforts appear to be paying off: The museum expects 500,000 visitors this year, compared with 325,000 last year.

Another museum widening its repertoire is the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y. The institution was founded in 1988 to document and educate the public on the history of film and television, but now digital media is competing for space on the exhibit floor. Visitors can create their own movie soundtracks; play Space Wars, one of the first video games ever made (it predates Pong); and encounter the Yoda puppet from The Empire Strikes Back. "We don't rely on a museum-going audience to come to our museum," says the museum's deputy director and curator of digital media, Carl Goodman. "The nontraditional subject brings in nontraditional visitors."

Back to the Future

The Museum of the Moving Image is careful not to overdo presentation, says Goodman. "If you make the appeal of the interactive experience rely too much on the novelty of technology, you're bound to go out of date very quickly," he says. So while some museums make spectacles of cutting-edge tech to lure audiences, the Museum of the Moving Image tries to find simple, intuitive ways of engaging directly with the subject. Visitors won't find any IMAX screen, for example, because the museum is "more likely to have an exhibit explaining the underlying technology behind IMAX."

Out-of-date technology is standard fare at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. There, visitors can tour some 13,000 artifacts of the computer's past, including the 1944 ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which houses 18,000 vacuum tubes; German enigma coding machines used in World War II; and the Cray-2 supercomputer, built in 1984 and used for nuclear weapons research by the U.S. government. The newest addition, "Mastering the Game: A History of Computer Chess," features chess consoles and a portion of the storied Deep Blue chess computer. And while the technology speaks for itself and calls for little in the way of interactive presentation, says Assistant Curator Chris Garcia, the museum is nonetheless investing heavily in its Web presence. Job one: creating an online inventory of every artifact.

What will the museum of the future look like? When Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications reopens after a four-year hiatus in a new downtown building, the world may get a glimpse. Visitors will make their first stop at the Media Café, where individual computer consoles will help sort through 85,000 hours of radio and television content dating from the 1950s. When visitors tune in to an area of interest, they may proceed to one of eight exhibit areas divided by genre—comedy, drama, music variety, children's shows, talk shows, news, sports, and game/reality shows—to discover artifacts, supporting audio and video material, and functioning radio and TV studios.

Click here to see a slide show of the best high-tech museums.

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