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Science centres and world wide web: The interactive challenge

Brenton Honeyman
National Science and Technology Centre
Questacon - The National Science and Technology Centre is one of several interactive science centres around the world using World Wide Web as a strategy to provide virtual tours of their exhibitions and information about their programs. Some centres, including Questacon, are developing web sites with a difference - after all, they are centres which encourage hands on approaches and as much interaction as possible. This session will demonstrate ways in which centres like Questacon are developing interactive approaches on the web.

A question of interactivity

More and more science centres around the world are issuing an invitation for people of all ages to enter the fascinating world of science and technology through their computer. Science centres are discovering that the Internet - in particular, World Wide Web - provides a rapidly escalating opportunity to reach a wider audience, thereby promoting a greater public understanding and appreciation of science and technology and their impact on our everyday lives.

The capacity of web browsing software to integrate text, images and sounds has attracted many science centres to the idea of establishing a presence on the Internet. However, those science centres which emphasise hands on, interactive experiences, are looking forward to developments in web browsing software which will achieve far greater Interactivity' in contrast to the more passive, page turning experiences that today's web users are familiar with. Such developments may then provide an experience which is genuinely interactive, where users encounter science phenomena in engaging ways, manipulating devices and data to test and develop their understanding.

The interactive approach

During the 1980s, interactive approaches to learning began to attract more widespread attention among education researchers and teachers. An interactive approach to learning science, according to one group of science education researchers (Biddulph et al 1986), has an emphasis on 'identifying learners' present ideas and interacting with them to help them to modify or extend their ideas... nudging their thinking as far as possible to enable them to make better sense of their world'.

At the same time, the rapid growth of science centres produced an additional community of science communicators and educators developing exhibition and program experiences also defined as 'interactive'. When visitors interact with hands on exhibits and activities in science centres, they are able to test their understanding of ideas as they interact with phenomena and with each other.

When the physicist Frank Oppenheimer founded the Exploratorium in San Francisco, he felt concerned that people were becoming information rich and experience poor. He wrote (Oppenheimer, 1968)

On the whole, people have very little opportunity to have any direct experience with the separate elements of nature or technology. They watch ocean waves, but have never been shown how to observe the way waves pass through each other, bend around corners or bounce off cliffs. In a science museum, one can provide these direct experiences with the behaviour of light, sound and motion. One can set up these experiences in such a way that they not only generate, but partially satisfy curiosity. Science is not just a process of discovering and recording natural phenomena; it is a process which develops our ways of thinking about nature and which enables us to find the connections that simplify and at times enrich our comprehension and awareness of nature.

Designing for diversity

Visitors to science centres bring with them great diversity in terms of their previous knowledge and experience, their assumptions and their expectations. as well as their ways of thinking and learning. Science centres expect this diversity and design their exhibits and programs accordingly - as open ended opportunities which provide flexibility in the manner and level of investigations individuals and groups may wish to undertake. Some visitors will want to explore a phenomena in depth - and may find out things which were never intended by the designer! Others will spend only a few seconds with an activity before proceeding to another - rushing to experience as many activities as possible (albeit superficially) in the time they have.

Feher (1990), in an article about the role of interactive science museums in studying how people learn, refers to an excerpt from a Grade 4 textbook which states 'Light is energy that you can see. Light travels through space in the form of waves.' She goes on to relate how statements like this are abstract and uninteresting because '...there is nothing you can do with it. There's nothing to go home and try out. There's no experience of nature. The problem is endemic in our schools: teachers teach abstractions, definitions and explanations of phenomena that, for the most part, students have never explored, or, worse still, that students may not even know actually occur. If schools so often put the cart (explanations) before the horse (first hand experience of natural phenomena), modern science museums reverse the process'. Science centres '...present natural phenomena in the form of exhibits that are interactive and manipulable, exhibits whose express purpose is to enable visitors to explore and experiment'.

Visitors to science centres have an opportunity to test their understanding as they interact with science phenomena through exhibits and activities - the more compelling the experiences, the more likely learners will develop their understanding of the phenomena.

A recent article in American Scientist describes how many science centres are now delivering hands on experiences direct to the school or home via the Web. 'Although some of the science centre Web sites lack any useful information beyond museum hours, location and so on, many of them offer enriching experiences, almost like making a real, rather than a virtual, visit.' (May, 1995).

Questacon's Web site

Questacon - The National Science and Technology Centre was established in Canberra, Australia in 1988 to promote understanding and appreciation of science and technology. Through its interactive exhibitions and an array of public and school programs, the Centre has become one of the major science centres in the world. Each year, over 350 thousand people visit the Centre in Canberra, and more than a million people are reached through Questacon outreach programs. Questacon is active in touring exhibitions and conducting programs beyond Australia, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

In May 1995, Questacon launched its World Wide Web site. Here you can take a virtual tour of Questacon's six galleries to see some of our hands on exhibits, find out how to organise a group visit and obtain information about the Centre's programs for schools and the general public across Australia. Many web sites provide information like this, but Questacon has been developing a site with a difference - after all, Questacon is a centre which encourages hands on approaches and as much interaction as possible! Hence, you will find much more than information on the Questacon Web site. On a rainy Saturday afternoon at home, or to liven up the school classroom, have some fun and learn at the same time by trying some of the hands on activities on Questacon's web site. The activities use readily available materials and provide plenty of fascination for all ages. Practice your problem solving skills in Puzzlequest. Try an intriguing experiment, and explain how it works. Questacon's Web site can be located at http://sunsite.anu.edu.au/Questacon/ [Ed: current location http://www.questacon.edu.au/ verified 7 Jan 2001]

Hands on science centres worldwide

A useful place to begin your search for science centres and the various programs they are establishing on the Web is a directory of hands on science centres worldwide, located at http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~mwm/sci.html [verified 7 Jan 2001]

The future

With the arrival of Java, a new programming language developed by Sun Microsystems, and similar software development initiatives, the web will feature considerably increased levels of interactivity. Java, for instance, is designed to interact with the user, providing not only the text, images and sound that current users are familiar with, but also software 'exhibits' or 'lab benches' on which experiments can be set up and simulated, regardless of the user's computer operating system. With Java's multi-threading feature, we can look forward to better interactive responsiveness and real time behaviour - at least to the level that the underlying computer operating system will permit.

Questacon is currently developing some trial activities utilising features of the new version of Netscape 2.0 incorporating Java. These activities provide a much higher level of interactivity - users can manipulate objects in order to experience and explore scientific phenomena.


Biddulph R., Osborne R., Faire, J. & Duncan, J. (1986). Using interactive teaching to help children develop their ideas. Primary Science Education in Asia and the Pacific. NIER, Japan.

Driver, R. & Bell, B. (1986). Students' thinking and the learning of science: A constructivist view. School Science Review, 67, 443-456.

Feher, E. (1990). Interactive museum exhibits as tools for learning: Explorations with light. International Journal of Science Education, 12(1), 35-49.

May, M. (1995). Scientific surfing for children. American Scientist, November-December 1995, 568-571.

Oppenheimer, F (1968). The role of science museums. In Larabee, E. (Ed), Museums and Education. Smithsonian Institution Press.

Author: Brenton Honeyman
Manager, Education & School Programs
The National Science and Technology Centre
King Edward Terrace, Canberra ACT 2600, Australia
Tel (616) 270 2816, Fax (616) 273 4346
Email: Brenton.Honeyman@Questacon.edu.au

Please cite as: Honeyman, B. (1996). Science centres and world wide web: The interactive challenge. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 184-186. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/ek/honeyman.html

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