The Missing Link in Learning in Science Centres

University dissertation from Luleå : Luleå tekniska universitet

Abstract: Science centres have been identified as an important resource in encouraging teenagers to choose higher education in science and technology. This is of interest to society, since there seems to be a problem in getting sufficient numbers to do so. And accomplishing this is sometimes described as a fatal question for a nation’s future prosperity and development. Still, there is an international trend where teenagers fail to visit science centres. Through research, little is known about what is interesting or useful to the public, as well as how to reach those who are ‘unengaged’. Considering teenagers as exponents for what distinguishes today’s society makes their apparent unwillingness to participate in science centres interesting to study with regards to what culture, history and ideology these centres were initially produced. Hence, from this point of view, what is missing in science centres that would make them interesting for the young people of today? Many studies of learning in science centres have come to focus on visitors who visit voluntarily and how well the embedded messages in the exhibits have been acknowledged by these visitors. This study focuses instead on teenagers who are reluctant to participate in science centres, with their perspective of science centres as the point of departure, specifically what kind of social activities are formed in their encounters with science centre exhibits. This encounter is regarded as an encounter between the two different practices of the science centre and the teenagers. The applied theoretical perspective is mainly assembled from socio-cultural theories of learning. This research is a microanalytic study of five teenagers who were equipped with video cameras and asked to film a visit to the local science centre, Teknikens Hus. The films were later discussed in a focus-group interview consisting of the teenagers and the researcher. Visual ethnography provided the theoretical framework for this research design. The results showed that the teenagers want to use exhibits to have the authority of interpretations and the possibilities to contribute to the meaning of the activity. At the same time, they want to use the exhibits in a way that the activities become places for developing social identity. To negotiate the meaning of the exhibits there is a need for an openness that may be constrained by too inflexible and limiting exhibit designs. This pattern is described as two different forms of participation in the exhibits; ignoring or extending the intended meaning of the exhibits. Meaningfulness also demands a closeness created by connections between the exhibit and the user’s personal experiences. This pattern is described as two different ways in which the teenagers identified the exhibits; exhibits which they dissociated from or to which they had an ongoing relationship. Providing a space for negotiation seems crucial to inviting teenagers into opportunities of meaningful experiences, even more significant than any specific physical feature in the exhibit. The teenagers’ agenda, in which forming practices where they can express themselves and contribute to the meaning seem to be very important, appears not to be greatly enabled by science centre exhibits. In this situation they learn to not participate. Science and technology represented in this matter show a ‘ready-made’ world that they cannot change. The missing link in learning in science centres is here described as the part of the meaning making process where the teenagers get to re-negotiate the meaning of the activities in the centre and use the exhibits as tools to accomplish this.

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