There are a number of ways that we do this.

Real Things

The access that we provide to real objects, real phenomena and people coupled with our skills in science communication and learning facilitation, can lead to experiences which trigger and sustain an interest in science.

With a collection of over 300,000 objects, the Science Museum holds one of the world’s largest collections of science, engineering and maths objects which tell very human stories. From the humble light bulb through to the Apollo 10 capsule and the Pilot Ace computer, these iconic objects represent a history of ideas from across the globe and tell the stories of how science has shaped the world we live in.

The Science Museum – and science centres – provides the opportunity for visitors to actively explore science phenomena. The Science Museum’s Launchpad gallery is packed with over 50 interactive exhibits that promote open-ended exploration by children, their teachers and parents with the world of physics. The gallery is supported by highly trained staff who act as positive learning role models, helping to prompt visitors’ curiosity and deepen their understanding of science. The gallery, together with the high-energy science shows and demonstrations run within it, provide experiences of science that our visitors can’t get in the classroom or at home.

The Launchpad Gallery (c) Science Museum
The Launchpad Gallery (c) Science Museum

The Science Museum also provides visitors with opportunities to directly engage with scientists and engineers – breaking down perceptions of what scientists are like, and increasing understanding of the work they do. In our ‘Who Am I?’ gallery, which deals with genetics and brain science, visitors have the opportunity to take part in real science experiments and talk to the researchers about their work. Taking part in these experiments help visitors to gain an insight into the scientific process, while researchers gain from being able to collect data from a much broader section of the public than they would normally. This was shown in a recent project conducted by Great Ormond Street Hospital – where visitors volunteered to have their photograph taken with a 3D camera, providing the researchers with valuable data to increase their knowledge in order to improve facial reconstruction surgery. In total over 12,800 visitors contributed to the database – and had an informative learning experience whilst doing so.

The past, present and future

The stories we showcase at the Science Museum aren’t just about the past. They are also about the present and the future. Not only can engaging with a history of science help our visitors understand the science we have today, for our visitors science is about the present and the future. The Science Museum is a place where visitors can access the very latest scientific thinking and technological innovation. Over the past year the museum has showcased exhibits ranging from the cutting-edge rescue capsule that saved the Chilean miners in 2010 through to the world’s first complete Bionic Man. Later this year, the Museum will tackle particle physics with an exhibition about the Large Hadron Collider.

As Osborne (2007) highlights, contemporary scientific and technological advances can pose difficult political and ethical dilemmas and resolving these issues needs both a knowledgeable and a critical disposition to engage in public debate. The Science Museum can help people make sense of the latest scientific developments through thought-provoking exhibitions, events and talks aimed at families, education groups and adults.

For example, exhibitions such as our award-winning ‘Atmosphere…exploring climate science’ gallery engage large numbers of the public with important and challenging areas of science. In its first 12 months, over 737,000 visitors came to this gallery despite research beforehand showing that people found climate science difficult, dull and overwhelming. In this contemporary science gallery, the Museum helps people make sense of the science that shapes their lives by providing access to the scientific evidence, real objects used by scientists and engineers, and interactive exhibits where visitors can actively engage with the underlying science fundamentals. This gallery has helped our visitors to understand areas such as the carbon cycle, the role of greenhouse gases and geoengineering– empowering them to make up their own minds and giving them the confidence to join in the dialogue.

Intergenerational Learning

Academic research shows that attitudes of young people towards science are not just shaped by school but are also influenced by their families. Museums provide wonderful spaces for families to engage together. As well as being the most visited museum by booked education groups, the Science Museum welcomes over 1 ½ million family visitors each year. We are able to create inspiring, memorable and shared learning experiences promoting discussion between intergenerational groups.

The 'Building Bridges' Project (c) PA/Science Museum
The ‘Building Bridges’ Project (c) PA/Science Museum

A project launched this year by the Science Museum – Building Bridges, aims to bring together the different learning contexts of young people in order to raise students’ science literacy and engagement with STEM subjects. Building Bridges is a three year project involving work with teachers, students and their families. Science Museum staff visit schools and bring teachers and students into the museum to work directly with scientists and the museum’s collections. At the end of the year, participating students, together with their families and friends are invited to the museum to celebrate their work.

Inspiring young people

Despite a rich scientific heritage, in 2013 there remains a shortfall of scientists, engineers and mathematicians in the UK and a recent study by the Royal Academy of Engineering indicates that currently demand for engineers outstrips supply and is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future, and there is still a lower uptake of science and engineering careers amongst women and amongst those from more socio-economically deprived backgrounds.

Why is this? Recent research by Kings College London in their ASPIRES project indicates that a young person’s attitude towards science as a career is influenced by social background and family attitudes, and they cannot imagine themselves in science based careers. Another issue is that many young people have a very limited understanding of the career fields available beyond the traditional occupations of say science teacher or doctor. Therefore, there is a growing need to broaden horizons and help introduce young people to the incredible range of careers that science and maths can lead to – from pure research through to games design.

Organisations such as the Science Museum can help open young people’s minds to the wealth of opportunities within the world of science. We can do this through our contemporary science programme, through our live research, through our on-the-floor staff and through exhibitions and events that tackle subjects that fall outside of the curriculum. We can also play a role in keeping young people engaged with science at key points when engagement is likely to wane or attitudes towards science crystalise.

The contemporary science programme opens minds (c) Science Museum
The contemporary science programme opens minds (c) Science Museum

However, learning about science shouldn’t be limited to those studying it or seeking related careers. Science and technology underpin our whole quality of life and the nation’s future prosperity so there is a greater need than ever before to spread ‘science literacy’ across the population at large.

Lifelong engagement

The joy of visiting a museum or science centre is that they are open to everyone – you don’t have to be a child or be in formal education to have an enjoyable learning experience. The Science Museum welcomes 1 million adult visitors per year and the success of our monthly Lates evenings reflects the growing popularity of science among the 18-35 age group.

The Chilean Miners Capsule (c) Science Museum
The Chilean Miners Capsule (c) Science Museum

Science museums and centres provide lifelong engagement by providing access to to real things – objects, phenomena and people; through creating shared, engaging and memorable learning experiences for families and adults. They also provide experiences that benefit teachers and complement school science lessons.

As well as being enjoyable places to visit, Science museums and centres provide opportunities to deepen understanding and join in some of the biggest debates happening in science today.

Reference: Osborne, J. 2007. ‘Science Education for the Twenty First Century’. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 2007, 3(3), 173-184

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