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Direct engagement at the Science Museum

Felicity Paynter watches science come alive

The Science Museum is carrying out a Live Science programme which provides visitors with an opportunity to actively engage with real science and scientists. 

Live Science

Live Science gives scientists an exciting opportunity to conduct high-quality academic research with some of the annual 2.7 million visitors to the museum. Live Science hosts scientists for up to three months to give them access to a wide range of participants, a rich source of data to inform their own research, and the chance to enhance their public engagement skills.

Live Science is part of the Who am I? exhibition, an interactive exhibition which aims to help visitors understand genetics and brain science, and also what science can tell us about ourselves. Therefore, research chosen for Live Science focuses primarily on perception and identity. The programme aims to help visitors find out more about who they are by taking part in real scientific research. It supports the exhibition in communicating ideas about the process of science to the public, and provides an exciting opportunity for visitors to contribute to meaningful scientific research.

Michelle Phillips from the Centre for Music and Science at the University of Cambridge is one of over 20 scientists who have conducted research in Live Science since 2000. Her experiments with Museum visitors earlier this year examined how we perceive time when listening to music, and the impact of music on our ability to estimate time.

Real interaction

The redevelopment of the Who am I? gallery in 2010 gave us an opportunity to find out more about what Live Science brings to participants and the Museum’s science research partners.

A total of 866 museum visitors took part directly in Michelle’s research, and over 300 more engaged through watching the experiment and talking to her. Participants were recorded spending up to forty minutes discussing the experiment with Michelle, posing questions and offering anecdotes.

Evaluation of the project demonstrated that participants valued highly being able to contribute to real scientific research and they welcomed the first-hand ‘authentic’ experience. One young adult commented: ‘We experienced a live scientist and were part of an experiment, which made it come alive!’  Many participants felt that the experiment deepened or inspired their interest in science, increased their knowledge of what scientists do and made them think differently about aspects of their identity and topics related to perception.

Most of all, participants valued the interaction with scientists themselves, the personal feedback and time for discussion. Through this experience, scientists could be imagined as approachable people with relevant stories to tell. Overall our visitors found this experience to be memorable and thought-provoking.

Benefits for scientists

For Michelle, the research provided a wealth of data for her PhD: ‘I gathered more data than I could have hoped for and with a wider range of the public than would have been possible without the museum programme. We’re usually limited to academics and students on campus because the public are difficult to attract.’

Conducting research in the Science Museum improved Michelle’s belief in her ability to communicate her research to people who know very little about science, as well as to other academics: ‘I feel more confident going to my supervisor and in offering to present than I would have done. I’m now well-versed in explaining my research. The data collection made my research focus more definitive and it helped to open up new areas of interest, such as considering the impact of having musical experience on someone’s perception of time. It has made me feel like my research is worthwhile and that it has an impact. To know that the public find it interesting and can relate to it is brilliant.’

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Felicity Paynter
Felicity Paynter, Audience Research and Advocacy, Science Museum.
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