Science Buzz

Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Liza Pryor

Published on July 24, 2008

  • Description and goals

    Science happens all around us, all the time. Multiple-award-winning Science Buzz grew out of an initiative to develop and test ways to tell stories about “current science” and make it relevant to visitors. (The definition of “current science” has shifted and expanded over time, and now includes science behind the headlines, emerging research, and seasonal science.)

    Why? Because science is an essential literacy for full civic and economic participation. Visitors might not ever need to create a recombinant vaccine or a clone, manipulate quantum dots, or generate a stem cell line, but they’re asked to make sense of issues surrounding those techniques and products with every election, trip to the grocery store, or visit to the doctor’s office.

    The exhibition as it stands today is a thematic thread throughout the museum, blending up-to-the-minute science news (using digital feeds) with more traditional interactive experiences, graphics, and object-based displays. Everything works through the use of templates—a library of portable, reusable furniture pieces, graphic formats, digital components and programs, and conventions for structuring content—that allow the project team to identify a story, create some experiences, and deliver the final product to the exhibit floor very quickly. The digital templates use an array of techniques—RSS, tagging, XML, VXML, and an open-source content management system—to deliver content to displays, computer kiosks, and the website. By aligning current science stories with the topics and content of our galleries, we extend and deepen the value of the basic science exhibits by connecting new meaning to them. A happy byproduct is that scientists, other content experts, museum staff, museum visitors, and web visitors are all able to contribute content (from full stories to comments and questions, to simpler interactions such as voting in a poll) to the exhibits and the website. Evolving social technologies have allowed us to revolutionize our exhibit development process, creating rapid change in each of SMM’s galleries, while giving museum visitors, both physical and virtual, a new way to discuss science issues.

  • Development process and challenges

    A six-month pilot project funded by the Bush Foundation allowed us to prototype some interactive “template” components designed to allow quick and easy content changes. During the same period, we also performed a front-end audience research study across four different institutions to get insight into visitors’ awareness of, perceptions of, and interest in “current science.”

    The initial templates drastically reduced time spent in development, design, and fabrication, but a full turnaround (content change on every exhibit component) still took about four months. And we didn’t have the ability to take advantage of existing web resources or to post/respond to breaking stories in real time. The front-end evaluation also revealed that while visitors expressed similar interests in and perceptions of current science, and they had reasonably strong interest in the general idea of seeing current science at the museum, their interest in any particular topics is not so high unless they immediately see the relevance to their everyday lives. While more than half of visitors said they follow stories about science in the news at least weekly, they don’t feel knowledgeable. Further, visitors don’t think of museums as places to learn about up-to-the-minute research or the scientific issues around a story that was on the news last night. (Even when they come across that information at a museum, they’re convince themselves that they must have seen it somewhere else!) So we’re constantly fighting that perception; we have to be responsive, fast, and change frequently. Showing how compelling science is happening all around us every day is our constant challenge.

    We needed a way to create content and get it onto the exhibit floor even faster, and we needed to emphasize, somehow, that the information is current and always changing. The NSF funding allowed time and latitude for research and development. In the end, our three strategies were 1) a library of flexible, portable, and reusable furniture pieces; 2) graphic templates and conventions for structuring content; and 3) the continuing development of a community-created website that we integrated into exhibit components.

    With the three strategies, the pace of content turnover has greatly improved. Some components can be refreshed in minutes, and no piece takes more than a week or so to produce. The approach is slowly increasing the pace of change in other SMM galleries as well. And with the increased pace of change comes a shift in visitor perceptions: the majority (61%) of visitors said that “science in everyday life” is the theme of Science Buzz, they tell us that the exhibit is about current events in the news, and 57% of visitors to SMM now say that the museum “addresses current or recent developments” vs. 27% during our planning study.

    While SMM has developed a number of websites to accompany traveling exhibits or Omnifilms, integrating a website INTO an exhibit, and formatting the output so that it looks like a conventional multimedia experience, was a first for us. Similarly, we are trailblazing, in some ways, with our policy of letting registered users post content to the website with no moderation.

    Within the profession, some developers and designers see enormous opportunities to empower visitors with the rising popularity of Web2.0 and mobile, screen-based technologies. Including their voices, questions, and comments in a raw way, with opportunities for multiple contacts, means we can encourage scientific habits of mind, inquiry and critical thinking, and allow a community of learners to develop relationships with scientists, museum staff, and each other. Other museum professionals are leery of screen-based exhibits, and many have limited or no experience with emerging Web2.0 technologies. It’s challenging to create experiences that blend the best of digital technologies with the activities traditionally associated with museums: things that are social, real, hands-on, and that you can’t do anywhere else. We’re still trying to find a balance.

    And we’re finding that, within the profession, while we all appreciate real objects and compelling interactives, there is a split at some level between people who believe that our job is to educate by presenting information—packaging it and pushing it to visitors—and people who think we should educate by engaging in dialogue—allowing visitors to co-create knowledge.

    We’ve also discovered some NON-challenges. Moderation has not been a problem. We have a clear set of guidelines explaining what we won’t post, and we otherwise post just about everything except for comments of the “Yo, yo, this is Tiffany! Big shout out to all my peeps!” variety. Comments from registered users aren’t held for moderation at all. Anonymous comments are published several times a day. We have a SPAM filter, and a bulk delete tool, so all we have to do is publish the good stuff as quickly as possible and delete the rest on a weekly or so basis. Four people moderate the comment queue, and we estimate it takes less than three hours per week, total.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    It’s primarily the experience that matters, and only then the content. No matter what topics we put on the quiz show or the newscast, those two components are always popular. Kiosks, stanchions, and topic-specific interactive experiences are more dependent on visitors’ interest in the content. We have to be editorial and use our best judgment about which topics to present and how.

    As we invite other institutions to join a potential network and collaborate on content development, we need to completely eliminate technical bottlenecks. If developing a piece of content requires assistance from a skilled coder, everything stops until the web developer can tackle the work. But we can build “dashboards” and “templates” (as we’ve done with the Buzz Blog) that allow anyone to create features.

    It’s surprisingly difficult to change our practice.

    • While some developers have learned to create quickly and use free digital resources in an agile way, other developers are more resistant. Some people find the templates liberating (it’s easy to structure a story, and you know how many images you have to track down and words you have to write, and the web is infinitely changeable, so it’s easy to incorporate changing content). Others agonize about whether or not an extent template is the best way to tell a particular story, or they hesitate to add details that may change with a developing story.
    • Some museum professionals have been uncomfortable with giving up control over stories. They worry that some posted information will be wrong, that curators and others will lose control of the message, or that conversation will venture into areas beyond our expertise. Others recruit experts as needed, treating any posted information as a springboard for dialogue that raises the level of “science talk” across the board.
    • Some museum professionals worry that, with our minimal level of moderation, visitors will post inappropriate stories or comments. Or that visitors’ comments will be interpreted as representative of the museum. Others take a wait and see approach, responding to situations as they unfold.

    Expanding the number of contributors will make the experience richer and deeper for everyone. We’re looking at growing Science Buzz in two directions:

    • The GE Foundation has funded an initiative to help mentors of teens develop familiarity with and interest in science, technology, math, and engineering in their students using the Science Buzz website as a springboard. (They’ll be contributing comments and content on a regular basis.) 16 pilot mentoring programs will begin using the new Mentor Buzz portal to the website in the early fall.
    • Science Buzz kiosks focused on specific topics (“health,” “natural disasters,” “water,” “nanotechnology”) have been incorporated into permanent and traveling exhibitions produced by other institutions. (See “collaborating institutions.”) The furniture and screen design can be customized (to some extent) to match the design of the exhibition, and content can be targeted. We’re interested in growing the network and making it as easy and inexpensive to participate as possible. Contact me if you’re interested, or check out the wiki to learn more.

    There are not enough ISE institutions participating in Web2.0. Until a few years ago, if you googled “science” and “blog,” one of the top hits was the blog for the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Science and natural history museums, for the most part, were just not in the game. Similarly, if you google the name of your institution or search for it on Flickr, you’ll find that a cyber conversation is already going on about your place. You can’t control it, but you can participate in it. And you should. Get out there!

    Museums are NOT thought of as being timely. Visitors trust us, and they invest us with a tremendous amount of authority. We are, in some ways, more trusted than other media. But they don’t see us dealing with up-to-the-minute emerging research, science news, or controversial content. Science Buzz is fighting that perception and social media helps us do that.

  • Exhibition Opened: 2003

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: Saint Paul, MN, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $1,000,000 to $3,000,000 (US)

  • Size: 1000 to 3,000 sq ft.

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. ESI-0337389

  • Other funding source(s): Bush Foundation

  • Website(s):

Latest Comments (2)

Looking for CONTEXT

by Liza Pryor - July 28, 2008

Hi, all.
We’re working on our summitive evaluation, but we don’t have anything to compare our data TO.

We’ve got the data from the Pew internet study, but it’s not too helpful.

I’m particularly interested in studies of online communities. What’s a decent participation rate? Any way, without resorting to discourse analysis, to figure out what people are learning?

Any suggestions?

Any evaluators out there particularly interested in this problem?

Love to hear what everyone’s thinking.

Science Buzz since 2008

by Wendy Pollock - September 08, 2011

What have you learned during the 3 years since you posted this wonderfully honest and thorough case study, Liza? You mentioned that there wasn’t any data to compare your results to – but that’s changed now. Any other reflections and insights you can share?

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