If you peruse the STEM hastag in Twitter, you’ll be struck by the extent to which those who buy in to the STEM concept seem put an almost obsessive emphasis on ‘active learning’, coding, hacking, ‘making’ and a general sense that every STEM thing is fun and generally awesome. The emphasis is overwhelmingly on the ‘T’ in STEM. To some extent this is understandable because Twitter users probably have an in-built bias towards all things ‘tech’.
The ‘active learning’ bias also tends to dominate in modern science museums like Belfast’s W5 which I visited recently. Here the emphasis is on encouraging youngsters to ‘engage’ with all sorts of ‘fun’ exhibits. Sure enough, the kids were having lots of fun (the noise was incredible!) but it looked to me like they were actually learning very little and it is hard to see how they might be inspired in any way. They all appeared to be suffering from a sort of sensory overload and they were jumping, rapidly, from one exhibit to another, playing around with random phenomena without pausing to think about the scientific concepts that the various displays were meant to demonstrate. In fact they couldn’t possibly do so because they didn’t have the necessary knowledge in their heads to make any sense of what they were observing or doing. Chaos theory or electromagnetism or the venturi effect doesn’t mean a whole lot to eight year-olds and because they lack basic knowledge, they are unaware of the deep connections that exist between seemingly unrelated phenomena. Although aimed at the under-twelves, W5 and similar museums would actually be far more beneficial to college students who have a bit of background knowledge.
Every now and then I bring my son to the Natural History Museum, known affectionately to Dubliners as the ‘Dead Zoo’. It’s quiet, free from gimmicks, and everyone moves through the exhibits at a much slower pace than they do in places like W5. Kids and their parents stop to pull out drawers and peer closely at insects or sharks’ teeth or crabs or whatever. Of course, kids are naturally drawn towards animals so it’s not quite the same but you do get the sense that if we want to inspire kids with science, we really need to create spaces that encourage them to stop and think and wonder. Isn’t that how most of the great scientific discoveries have been made; by people stopping to think?