Don't tell people what to do, says Ian Simmons.
In an age where virtually limitless quantities of information are at hand instantly to anyone holding a smartphone, the established style of hands-on science exhibit that tries to inform users about an aspect of science is becoming dated. Instead, there is potential for a new kind of hands-on exhibition grounded in the natural behaviours of science centre visitors.
People take away impressions, iconic experiences and inspiration from exhibitions, much more than facts and information. Using this, we can encourage them to develop the core skills of science without setting up barriers to participation. This is what we have attempted at the Centre for Life with our recent Curiosity Zone .
To develop this exhibition Life recognised that people construct knowledge for themselves, rather than passively absorb what’s fed to them, and they learn to learn as they learn. We also acknowledged that people need physical activities that engage the mind as well as the hands to learn; they need to talk to learn, and need the time to play with and ponder new ideas.
In taking this route we were inspired by work done at the Exploratorium  in San Francisco, where their APE (Active Prolonged Engagement) project looked deeply into the nature of people’s interaction with hands-on exhibits. They produced a series of principles for improving this interaction to give users a more engaging experience that increases the time they spend interacting with exhibits.
This also chimed in with the Reggio Emilia approach to education , developed in Italy, which sees people as the protagonists of their learning, not just passive receptacles. Its practitioners believe that learning is best done in a group setting so people can share views and experiences and where they have the opportunity to make, and learn from, their mistakes.
For schools, this approach had clear connections to the English National Curriculum section on the process of science. It also takes on board the work done by researchers such as Alison Gopnik  at the University of California, Berkeley, and Natasha Kirkham  at Birkbeck College, London, on scientific behaviour in very young children. Another inspiration is an ongoing longitudinal study (the ASPIRES project ) at King’s College London into children’s motivations and aspirations around science.
We also considered audience research from science centres across the world, such as work from Explora  in Albuquerque, New Mexico about the use of partitions to enhance engagement.
Communication by appearance
Building on all these sources of inspiration we did not start with some scientific concepts we wanted people to learn. Instead, we created a list of skills and behaviours that we wanted our exhibits to encourage. They included observation, exploration, pattern recognition, experimentation, mental modelling and hypothesis making.
We also wanted the exhibits to be able to communicate what they do by their appearance, so that they could function without instruction labels. This is partly because visitors rarely read exhibit labels anyway, but also because we wanted to emphasize the fact that the inspiration for what people should do should come from the users themselves, rather than being instructions handed down from the official voice of authority. You can’t empower people by telling them what to do.
Life opened Curiosity in our Temporary exhibition space for a beta test last summer, and it has now moved to a permanent location at the entrance to the centre. Visitor behaviour and preliminary evaluations suggest that it is living up to expectations, with users routinely exploring an exhibit for 10 or even 20 minutes at a time and giving Life visitors a whole new perspective on science. As one said, ‘As a non-scientist I felt I was working parts of my brain that had remained dormant since school. It’s sort of an exhilarating feeling.’