Even that positive outcome has another side. “Some people raise concerns about ‘through-put.’ In other words, how many people can do an investigation in one day if the experience is 15 minutes instead of 15 seconds,” says Ellenbogen. “But it is important to value a range of experiences in a museum, keeping depth and breadth.”
From Fink’s and Ellenbogen’s perspective, however, they would like to see the labs accomplish even more. “Right now, we’re succeeding at identity development; it’s amazing how wearing lab clothes helps visitors see themselves as scientists,” says Ellenbogen. “And ownership is built into the experiences; when visitors look into the microscope, they are looking at their own cheek cells. They are highly engaged because they are ‘doing science’ and seeing themselves in a new way. But there is certainly interest in finding a way to make the experience more open-ended and to touch on more of a range of learning experiences.”
Doing that is not easy, however. For one thing, the Lab Companion needs to be updated by a computer programmer, making changes difficult. And there is a fine line between open-ended activities that are challenging but not frustrating, especially for young, inexperienced visitors.
To overcome these obstacles, Fink would like to see museums and science centers collaborate on developing the next generation of wet-lab biology activities. “Sharing activities among museums gives us economies of scale,” explains Fink. Other institutions—the Maryland Science Center and the St. Louis Science Center, among others—are experimenting with more flexible lab benches, “so tweaking them for our institution and sharing them is a possibility down the road.”
Ellenbogen’s and Fink’s insights into the strengths and weaknesses of Cell Lab point to the issues faced by all exhibit designers. A desire to make the experience challenging but not frustrating, and open-ended but with opportunities for success built in are widespread goals throughout the informal science community. Figuring out how to realize these goals was a major goal for Exploratorium designers in their development of Active Prolonged Engagement (APE) exhibits.
Unlike more traditional exhibits, which typically present a phenomenon, provide visitors with an opportunity to observe or interact with it in a prescribed way, and then explain what happened in the label, APE exhibits strive to be more open-ended. Their goal is to give visitors more choices about how to approach and