Thursday, October 26, 2017

Thinks and Links: Reflecting on the ASTC 2017 Conference

The 2017 ASTC (Association of Science-Technology Centers) Conference just wrapped up in San Jose, California.

As you might expect, given the audience of science-minded folks hunkering down in the heart of Silicon Valley there was much discussion of tech, but I was also left with the feeling that the Science Center field (and perhaps the entire museum and cultural sector) is in a time of introspection and re-evaluation.

Saturday, October 21st, the first day of the Conference, got off to a bit of a rocky start with the looongest opening keynote ceremony ever --- clocking in at over 3 hours!  Despite the mind (and butt!) numbing duration, there were some bright spots including outgoing Board Chair Linda Conlon giving an impassioned speech entitled, Scientific Evidence Is Proving No Match for Emotionalism

The opening ceremonies concluded on a high note --- a conversation with Brendan IribeCEO at Oculus VR, who shared his early experiences and inspirations designing exhibits for the Tech Museum in San Jose. He also discussed his initiative called Virtual Science Center.

Sessions on Saturday continued this tech/society trend with topics ranging from how to use digital games as audience engagement tools to "smart exhibits" to environmental sustainability actions in museums.  I especially enjoyed a practical session called "Under Pressure" all about demonstrations with air.

Paul Taylor shows off the Giant Eye/Air Pressure trick.
Saturday night ended with a smashing party courtesy of our hosts, The Tech Museum of Innovation.  (where we saw The Tech's newest exhibition, Body Worlds Decoded.)

Sunday morning dawned with an interesting experiment, The Distributed ASTC Conference.  This was a live conversation with speakers in San Jose, as well as four Science Centers in the Middle East on the topic of how truth and science have intersected and diverged over time --- a true mix of technology and society!  I applaud ASTC for giving new formats like this a try.

Sessions on Sunday continued a broad range of tech and public-focused topics including STEM Community Partnerships, The Power of Narrative, and Using Role-Playing Games to Build Community Disaster Resilience.

I was fortunate to moderate a set of "Flash" (10 minutes or less) Sessions on "Public Engagement with Scientific Methods" showing creative ways to help communities engage with scientists and data.  One of the presenters, Rik Panganiban from the California Academy of Sciences, provided this helpful link for tips on setting up a Science Game Jam at your museum.

Another new Conference approach this year was a "Side Talks" area set up near the registration desk where session presenters or conference attendees could sign up for blocks of time to discuss current topics of interest with like-minded attendees.  Our Flash Talks presenters moved to the Side Talks area with many attendees from our session to continue the conversations.  I think once ASTC Conference attendees get used to the idea of Side Talks, some very fruitful conversations will happen here. (As we all know, the learning happens outside sessions as well!)

On Sunday afternoon I was delighted to be one of the presenters on panel on Digital Exhibit Fails & Wins.  A great range of wins and fails were shown, but I was struck by three commonalities in all the "winning" examples of digital exhibits and interfaces discussed:

1) Testing and iteration with visitors produced the best digital exhibits.

2) Digital exhibits that promote interaction and conversation are the most popular and memorable.

3) Novel/Surprising Interfaces. (Think non-screen and iPad approaches.)

Dave Patten from Science Museum London shows a slide with the Queen's
Security Detail trying out a new interactive before a Royal opening ceremony.

As is often the case at conferences, there are so many good choices for sessions that you can't get to all of them.  That was certainly my problem on Monday the 23rd.  While I enjoyed the session I attended on "Creative Ways to Engage the Public with Climate Change" (see resource links in the image below) I also would have wanted to attend "Happy Birthday Frankenstein!" about using the 200th anniversary to explore the science and the world behind the classic book, as well as "Closing the Play Gap for Social Change." (Can any ExhibiTricks readers who attended these sessions share some thoughts in the "Comments" section below this post?)

The Closing Keynote Session on Monday provided a dialogue on how Science Centers can better serve their communities and what that really means.  I was especially struck by the challenges presented by Emily Dawson's research (as she Skyped in from the UK.)  

Check out Emily's Twitter account, and also her paper "Social justice and out-of-school science learning: Exploring equity in science television, science clubs and maker spaces."

Emily Dawson Skyping in from the UK

One of my favorite sessions on Monday was headed up by Tom Rockwell of the Exploratorium and dealt with the notion of "hybrid" organizations.  Tom brilliantly illustrated the audience discussion as a wireless microphone was passed around.  (You can see the end results below.)

I managed to finish up my ASTC trip to San Jose by zipping over to San Francisco to see the Exploratorium and SF MoMA before my redeye back to New York.  It was great to see some of the exhibit developers and "shop rats" while at Explo, and none more so than the ever-enthusiastic and resourceful Tom Tompkins who shared one of his latest finds, with me.

Did you attend #ASTC2017?  If so, feel free to share some of your own thoughts and takeaways in the "Comments" section below!

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