Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back to Basics: Reflecting on the ASTC 2011 Conference

Over 1700 people from around the world converged on Baltimore recently for the ASTC (Association of Science-Technology Centers) conference.  It truly was an international affair with delegates coming from Africa, Asia, Australia, Latin America, the Middle East, and North America.

I was fortunate to attend and be part of two sessions, so here are some of my takeaways on this year's get-together:

If there has been one overarching conference "theme" (there was an official conference theme, but I couldn't tell you what it was ...) that I've been thinking about since I've returned from Baltimore, it's "Back to Basics".

Many of the sessions, conversations, and most striking things in the Exhibit Hall really seemed to be getting back to science center "fundamentals" like exhibit development, evaluation, community engagement, and pure scientific phenomena.

Starting with the science phenomena first, the folks from the Superconductivity Group in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Tel-Aviv University were demonstrating what they called "Quantum Levitation" using powerful magnets and thin sapphire wafers coated with a very thin ceramic layer of yttrium barium copper oxide cooled with Liquid Nitrogen.  You can see the YouTube video below.  If you think it looks amazing in the video I can tell you it was really AMAZING in person, and it was the hit of the Exhibit Hall.  (Also the video has gone viral with over 3 million views!)

One of the other popular areas in the Exhibit Hall was the NASA area.  Even though the last Space Shuttle has left the launchpad, NASA is doing incredible science, and is quite willing to share their educational resources with museums and the public.  (I like to imagine all my tax dollars going to NASA and NSF instead of some the less beneficial and interesting things the government does ...)

As far as sessions, it was interesting to note the sheer volume of presentations geared toward engaging the public with "real" scientific information and research (as opposed to "bogus" information like immunization conspiracy theories.)  One of the best examples of this was the keynote presentation by author and reporter Michael Specter. 

Mr. Specter delivered many of his talking points from his recent book "Denialism" and provided a vigorous defense of both science and reason by excoriating everyone from Michele Bachman and her irresponsible statements about the HVP vaccine to "raw" milk fanatics. Good Stuff!

As for the conference sessions, I really enjoyed the "nuts and bolts" topics the most.

I participated in the "Knowledge that Works for Small Science Centers" session where the entire range of operational concerns like evaluation, fund raising, education, marketing, and exhibits for small(er) museums was addressed.  Some common threads were that museums need to build sane and sustainable operations, while continually thinking about how to increase their internal capacity.  The double session was well-attended and judging from the comments and conversations, there is a real need for this type of info.  (You can download our session notes and resources from this web page.)

The other session I participated in was entitled "Exhibit Evaluation: Useless bureaucratic hurdle or valuable tool?"   As you might gather from the title, there was lots of frank discussion and audience participation.  How can you not love a session that name checks Mary Poppins, Frank Oppenheimer, and The Spanish Inquisition?

From my perspective, the good news is that people are passionate about figuring out what "works" in exhibit and education programs in museums.  The bad news is that there are many different ideas about what makes for useful and effective evaluation, and it seemed that many of the evaluation folks felt that the exhibits folks just "don't get it."

All that being said it was interesting and spirited. Emily Schuster from ASTC gave a fair and detailed recap in this blog post from the ASTC website.

One of the last sessions I attended "Are Your Exhibits Safe? A Walking Workshop" was an important look at an often neglected topic --- that of safety.   Exhibit fabricator extraordinaire, Charlie Shaw (pictured below) took us on a "walkabout" through the Maryland Science Center where we took apart and opened up exhibit components to study both the good and bad design features in regard to safety. A super important topic and usually not something that comes up at an ASTC conference --- so kudos to the presenters!

Off course, like most conferences, many interesting conversations happened outside the "formal" presentation times (did I mention there was a Tinkerers' Ball at the American Visionary Art Museum?)  I'll certainly be mulling over my ASTC 2011 experiences to share in future ExhibiTricks postings.

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