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Electronic options for communicating from science centres towards the 21st century

Geoff Snowdon
Questacon, The National Science and Technology Centre

Emerging electronic technologies in people to people communication may see science centres in future central to education in science and technology for students, especially in regional and remote areas. Science centres can have important role in teacher in service and professional enrichment programs through emerging satellite technologies. Faxback - fax on demand - systems and on line data bases readily accessible to schools can enhance the resources available to students and teachers significantly.

The science centre industry has in many instances wrestled with inclusion of computers and electronic options in exhibitry. Computers are now more commonplace. The future may see more electronic: communication modes online and reaching out aimed to achieve better the goal for 'reaching all Australians in popularising science and technology'.

The science centre industry is a successful growth industry of recent times. Science centres aim to reach as many people as possible and have developed a wide range of programs featuring mostly hands on inquiry based interactivity. Science centres are usually based in cities or larger regional centres. The enthusiasm to reach everyone with this hands on, inquiry based approach to science and technology has lead to many creative outreach programs. More and more these creative approaches are looking to the rapidly developing electronic and space communications technologies to find 'next' and more efficient ways to get 'this kind of science' to all the people, especially people in smaller regional and even remote areas. The 90s are exciting times for such initiatives. This is not surprising given that many of the technologies involved are still in the research phases and are not yet widely available. Where they are available, high cost factors are of concern and are barriers to be overcome if these technologies are ever to be advantageous to science centre programs. However some exciting possibilities have been trialed. Scienceworks, Melbourne, worked with Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1993 to trial satellite one way television with telephone and fax available for children in classrooms to interact with the presenters at Scienceworks (Jamieson, 1993). This has undoubted potential but presents taxing budget challenges at this stage. The Shell Questacon Science Circus, an outreach program of The National Science and Technology Centre, Canberra, uses 'School of the Air' radio services to reach people in remoter areas. This too has been innovative and effective and uses rather well established technologies.

The cost of electronic options may at this stage be high but undoubtedly there are excitements ahead for science centres based on the emerging technologies for people to people communications. The National Science and Technology Centre has programs which train people drawn from each of the States as course leaders. Electronic options such as teleconferencing and video conferencing, particularly the latter will be of enormous assistance for staying in touch, updating and sharing new ideas. Video conferencing directly to classrooms across the nation will extend the reach fantastically. First hand instruction will always be a 'best' option. However. in the 90s realisations are at last apparent that there are very few people graduating to teach secondary physical sciences in secondary classes across this country, indeed in the Western world. Video conferencing, satellite broadcasting in all its dimensions and a range of electronic options may well be the way to reach teachers and students of the future. Science centres may offer these services.

NSTC is currently exploring faxback systems. An on line electronic fax option for teachers and students which would provide supplementary information and additional ideas for classroom follow up to visits to an exhibition or experiences with a program could become a valuable and cost effective resource. Along with this option, bulletin board services and electronic mail/Internet facilities are exciting possibilities. The science centre of the future may well reach out to regional centres through transmissions down cable networks offering high quality pictures and programs incorporating data from CD ROM and/or laser disks along with computer assisted learning. Classroom virtual reality educational experiences may be popular in 2005! 'Trips' through 'virtual galleries' is already available at some North American Museums through Internet arrangements. Art galleries such as The Australian National Gallery are exploring this concept and The National Museum of Australia reportedly is pursuing it. Given it is available to museums and galleries, then the same options will be available in classrooms, in homes, in the workplace - all over! The reach of science centres will be multiplied many times. The effectiveness of the reach will remain in the hands of the people creating the programs.

The early days of science centres involved little or scant interest in computer or advanced technologies. This is not surprising given the science centre movement began with an emphasis on hands on interactivity using mostly classical science concepts, indeed physics concepts, to engage the public. The approach proved attractive as people flocked to institutions such as the Exploratorium in San Francisco (1968) and The Ontario Science Centre in Toronto in the early 1970s. It was a visit to The Exploratorium that inspired the current Director of The National Science and Technology Centre, Dr Michael Gore, to return to Australia in the late 1970s and to begin planning a science centre for Australia. Questacon opened to the public in Canberra in 1980 under his leadership. The 30 or so original exhibits were very similar to those at The Exploratorium. There were no computers - not even in the administration.

Questacon flourished through the 1980s, so much so that it attracted the interest of the government of the day with Minister for Science Barry Jones prominent. A national science centre could reach out to all Australians to excite people for science and technology. The bicentenary year 1988 made this possible and so in 1985-86 decisions were taken to establish a National Science and Technology Centre. The National Science and Technology Centre opened in 1988. So too Scitech in Perth. There followed in quick succession science centres in Wollongong, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane while some existing institutions such as the Powerhouse, Australian Museum and The Earth Exchange in Sydney found space for some of this hands on, inquiry based exhibitry. The Newcastle Regional Museum had a floor 'Supernova' dedicated to hands on exhibits from the early 80s. Science centres have also mushroomed in New Zealand and around the world the growth of the industry has been quite prolific.

The reluctance to include computer based exhibits in the early days kept an emphasis on mechanical means to present hands on experiences. Science centres to purists were not fun parlours. Science centres aimed to engage people in exploring science, in experimenting, in experiencing 'oohs' and 'ahhs' when finding out something new or in being reminded about something learnt or experienced in days gone by. Science centres aimed to be for all ages and enticed visitors to discover something through the experience of messing around with the exhibitry provided. On the other hand, fun parlours may well have been viewed as being for younger fun seekers in pursuit of recreation providing a less enduring stimulation. Science centres sort to provide their special hands on uniqueness.

Science centres are not funded for their exhibits nor exhibitions nor education programs. They are fee paying institutions and need to seek sponsorships to provide their range of programs. Science centres will need to not only explore the programming potential of the electronic options but the cost recoverable potential as well. Some of the technologies are emerging with cost options in the package. These may be the first for science centres to exploit!

The emergence of computers in the 1980s saw computers as options in science centre exhibitry. The NSTC went from no computers at all in 8 years of Questacon to an opening situation where there was a gallery of ICI Microcosm cyberscopes cleverly driven by computers, and another gallery with 8 robotic dinosaurs with a set driven and synchronised by microprocessors. The Centre now has computers in almost every gallery and almost every exhibition. It may be the future will see these computers and all they offer available through appropriate electronic options. Staff of science centres may spend much time updating and delivering electronic communication options throughout their working day. The future holds, as ever, exciting options.


Jamieson, P. (1993 ). Increasing Access to Science Education: The Evolution of The Scienceworks Distance Education Project. Paper distributed at The IBM Asia Pacific Science Centres Conference, Melbourne, November 1993.

Author: Geoff Snowdon is the Executive Manager, Design and Development at Questacon, The National Science and Technology Centre, in Canberra.

Please cite as: Snowdon, G. (1994). Electronic options for communicating from science centres towards the 21st century. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 316-317. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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