Goals Achieved, Trade-Offs Made

Cell Lab illustrates how the key principles of learning can be incorporated into museum exhibits. The experience itself is interactive; all the stations give visitors an opportunity to use materials to learn something new, such as the structure of cheek cells, or to test their ideas about common household products. Because the labs vary considerably, visitors also are presented with multiple ways to engage with different science concepts.

The strands, too, are reflected in the experiences offered at Cell Lab. Having the opportunity to use scientific equipment motivates visitors to explore the different stations (Strand 1). By conducting the experiments, visitors are both adding to their understanding of scientific content and knowledge (Strand 2) and fine-tuning their ability to engage in scientific reasoning by asking questions, developing hypotheses and checking them against experiments, and continuing to push their thinking by asking increasingly complex questions about the world (Strand 3). In this setting, there are numerous opportunities to share ideas, ask questions, and become familiar with the ways that science involves searching for explanations of an event or phenomena (Strand 4). Using the tools of science, such as microscopes and fluorescent assays, and conducting the experiments in the context of a science museum, surrounded by other science learners, visitors become, at least temporarily, part of a community of scientists (Strand 5). And by donning a uniform of science—lab coat, goggles, and clothes—as they engage in scientific experiments, visitors further identify themselves as scientists (Strand 6).

Despite Cell Lab’s strengths, the exhibit designers note that there is room for improvement. For one, they point out that to ensure that the experience is engaging and accessible to visitors of all ages and backgrounds, certain compromises were made.

“By design, the lab is more of a step-by-step wet-lab experience than an open-ended exploration or investigation,” explains Ellenbogen. “This allows visitors to be consistently successful in completing an experiment that they would not typically be able to access.”

Fink concurs, noting that having a hands-on experience and a chance to “be a scientist” is very appealing to visitors. In fact, visitors become so engaged that nearly everyone stays and completes at least one investigation, which takes about 15 minutes. Sometimes visitors will complete multiple Cell Lab investigations while visiting the museum. Spending that much time at one investigation, let alone multiple ones in the Cell Lab, is an extraordinary difference from a typical interaction with an exhibit, which may last only 30 to 60 seconds.

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