Saturday, December 13, 2014

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events

The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?

Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.

Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.

We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines.  Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.”  We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.  

There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role--as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit--in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?

We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?

We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.

Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest” in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.  

We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook---that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.

You can join us by...
  • Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
Participating Bloggers and Colleagues
Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons
Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum
Aleia Brown,
Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities
Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching
Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum
Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities
Nina Simon, Museum 2.0
Rainey Tisdale, CityStories
Jeanne Vergeront  Museum Notes

Monday, December 8, 2014

Early Engineering Thinking

Julian engineers gravity (at Explora!)
There are few museum master planning or strategic planning projects I have been part of, national grant proposals I have seen, or exhibit projects I know of in which STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) or STEAM (STEM + Arts) are not areas of focus. Given the national priority on STEM and the call to both businesses and educators from science and engineering industry leaders to help make the sectors more diverse, a focus on STEM is not surprising. Museums see themselves as integral to the national learning infrastructure with a valued role to play in STEM learning.

Of the 263 museum projects recently awarded support by IMLS, 25 explicitly mentioned STEM or STEAM in their summaries; many more implied a focus on science. Described as “engaging,” “dynamic and hands-on” and including computer science, proposals came from nearly every type of museum: aquarium, arboretum, children’s, cultural-ethnic, history, natural history, science, university, and zoo.

In spite of all this talk and IMLS project focus on STEM, engineering gets little actual attention in museums. I have yet to hear discussions among exhibit developers, designers, and educators about engineering thinking skills, optimizing solutions, and adjustments to subsystems as they plan experiences. Assumed to be as represented in STEM as science and technology, engineering’s actual presence in museums and science centers is light. For younger children, say 10 years and under, the absence of engineering experiences is especially noticeable. Yes, there are contraptions and roller coasters and exhibits with pulleys and other simple machines. In many of these experiences, children are trying, practicing, acquiring, and building on engineering thinking.

The Silent E in STEM
Engineering is the silent e in STEM. Confusion about engineering seems to be widespread. The head of the National Association of Engineering is keenly aware that the image of engineering is off in the US where more people associate “engineering” with “train operator” than with “invents” or “creative.” In museums, “engineering” is likely to refer to engineering education, a career, the end products of engineering, or a design process. In some cases engineering thinking is the focus.

Whether it is an image problem or simple confusion, engineering doesn’t seem to be well understood. Less about following blueprints (hardhats and operating trains), engineering is about transforming our world. It is solving real problems elegantly that satisfy constraints such as cost, weight, size, reliability, safety, ergonomics, repairability, etc. William A. Wulf of the National Association of Engineering defines engineering as, “design under constraint” where constraints are the laws of physics, materials, and physical space. 

Obviously we will not all become engineers, but we will all have to navigate an increasingly complex, dynamic world where engineering thinking is required. And like any type of thinking, engineering thinking does not occur as a by-product of teaching engineering content. Without understanding what engineering thinking is, we are unable to cultivate the essential 21st century mindset and we miss promising opportunities for encouraging it.

As much as I value doing (making, building, unbuilding, etc.), a focus on the engineering thinking that accompanies it is critical. We must start by recognizing the early engineering thinking in young children and not wait until elementary or middle school. Those coasters and contraptions we like to put in exhibits, however, are not the same as  experiences deliberately and intentionally planned to encourage and build on early engineering thinking and acting.

We don’t have explain to children how to build. We don’t need to add constraints because laws of physics, the properties of materials, and physical space are always constraints on designing, making, and building. Piaget noted that even infants have been observed to notice the governing principles related to shape, weight, and texture (friction). Children naturally investigate and modify the world around them to satisfy their needs and wants–as engineers do.

I am cautious, however, when we refer to children as “natural” or “little” engineers.” Typically that shifts credit from what children are doing competently as agents of their own learning to conferring legitimacy because they are like “real” engineers. We veer towards encouraging children to be more like engineers rather than seeing what they are doing and understanding how they readily make physical and conceptual connections all the time. This is rich information, indeed, for creating experiences that build on and encourage their engineering thinking and making it visible to them, educators, their parents and researchers.

Focusing on Early Engineering Thinking
Recently there has been interest in and activity related to early engineering in K-12 education, academia, and informal learning. A lack of learning standards for engineering prompted a 2009 study of K-12 engineering education efforts (see citations below) resulting in general principles for K-12 engineering education. The 2012 Next Generation Science Standards integrates engineering design throughout the science standards. These reports support a process-oriented, developmentally appropriate approach and consideration of engineering habits of mind that are consistent with 21st century skills and learning in museums and informal learning environments. Engineering design, an approach to identifying and solving problems that is highly iterative, is highlighted as a useful pedagogical strategy.
Approaching this area from another perspective are 4 studies (see citations below) at the intersection of human developmental science and engineering education. Set in early childhood classrooms and museum settings, they have explored engineering thinking among young children as young as 3 and 4 years old to build consensus on "developmental engineering" and precursors of engineering behavior. 

Children’s engineering thinking and design is currently occurring spontaneously in many early childhood and museum classrooms and in museum exhibits through block structures, ball runs, and ramps. When they design and build intricate, complex structures or construct pathways and ramp systems, children are thinking about stability, balance, spatial reasoning, numeracy, and material properties. They are exploring force and motion and working with relationships among steepness and speed, weight of objects and distances rolled. Their explanations of ideas and predictions are reasoned and detailed. This is especially true in experiences in which parents scaffold and in which children engage in over time, experiences extended and repeated in camps, programs, and museum preschools.

An inclination to conflate content with learning lures us into thinking that if we simply put out blocks, contraptions, and ball runs we will meet our engineering learning goals for children. Their natural aptitude for engineering thinking, however, is just a starting place, and fortunately a very strong one. The four studies suggest where museum educators, developers, and designers, and floor staff will find direction and cues to shape activities, add materials, extend explorations and optimize what young children are already doing through their explorations. They provide insights and guidance into how we might get beyond over-used questions such as, “Can you do that another way?” Or invite us to think about how me might encourage children to pay attention to the points of failure in their structures because we ourselves are paying attention to them. In short, these studies point the way to making children’s engineering thinking visible to them, educators, their parents and researchers. Four insights seem particularly helpful in sharpening our understanding of children's engineering thinking.

Children’s engineering behavior can look different from adults’. Adults, for instance, identify engineering design steps (i.e. ask, imagine, plan, create, improve) and are inclined to follow them sequentially. Children, however, don’t necessarily explore them in sequence. Rather they are likely to merge steps and enact them simultaneously and are especially likely to create as they imagine and to revise as they design.

Early engineering is fueled by children’s self-motivation and interests. Children are motivated to satisfy their needs and wants in modifying their world–perhaps more than youth and adults. Compelled to investigate their own questions, they are likely to discover other interesting questions to explore along the way. Children set self-imposed challenges and incorporate additional goals to accomplish, such as using all the blocks. They add additional context to their activity such as naming or labeling their structures.

Developmental factors inform children’s engineering thinking and acting. Evidence of developmental forces at play is strong and pervasive. The closely related domains that are characteristic of early childhood are apparent in the importance of first-hand experiences and manipulative objects and artifacts as vehicles of active engineering thinking and activity as well as in the natural interdisciplinary nature of children’s questions, strategies, and the addition of context. Children also readily embrace the social domain to enlist the help of others in getting their designs to work. Through collaboration they invite others’ ideas, knowledge, and capabilities, offer advice, and give encouragement.  

Engineering thinking occurs through play. Children engage with engineering ideas and engineering activities through both child-directed and curriculum-structured play. Through play, they develop an understanding of material properties and the laws of physics that govern them, the constraints Wulf highlights. Often children engage in creative problem solving that involves balancing multiple constraints to achieve an appropriate solution in their play, whether they are constructing a bridge, building a ball run, investigating spatial relationships, or transforming an object into another.  
When we focus so intently on what engineering looks like as a career or in teaching older students, we miss everything that is happening prior to grades 10 or 12. We even miss what is meaningful to children at 7 or 8. We certainly miss the interests, skills, and dispositions that children at 3, 4 and 5 years old already have and eagerly bring to engineering activities.

Engineering Education

Studies on Early Engineering Thinking

Engineering Museums, Centers, Exhibits, and Programs
  • The Works Museum in Bloomington (MN) whose mission is, “to inspire the next generation of innovators, engineers, and creative problem solvers 

  • Spark!Lab at Lemelson Center, National Museum of American History,  Institution

  • Be A Scientist, a program to connect underserved families directly with scientists and engineers with the aim of inspiring participants to see themselves as innovators and inventors
Related Museum Notes Posts

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gratitude in and for Museums

I am thankful for dog parks...
Last year my niece and her children made the crescent rolls for Thanksgiving dinner. Our large family hungrily reached for the bowl of rolls while the buffet remained temporarily off limits. A few of us heard and registered the caution to break the rolls apart carefully. Some of us did so, unlayering the rolls, finding the edges of buttery paper and gingerly pulling them out. Others noticed and became curious about the fortune cookie-looking strips of paper. Readers rather than eaters, we scanned the rolled up gratitudes in each roll, silently at first and then for others to hear. With no names included on the strips of paper, it was natural to try and guess who wrote this one or that. Who was thankful for toys? (Harper) And who was thankful for CRUMBS? (Henry, the Lab) Who was grateful for a niecea niece and Great niece who think of all these great little ideas that make our family closer at special times of the year”? (Tom)

Some were harder to decipher than others. A few syllables of gratitude had been eaten (and swallowed) before read. I at Wis in "..consin Badgers and the S in "..allie Walker and Papa John" from the middle of Ian’s gratitude. In the spirit of gratitude, he forgave me. Family was mentioned often as was friendship, humor, health, patience, peanut butter, and chocolate. A thoughtfully provided master list provided clues to a few truly mysterious entries and corrections for some mismatches. 

What has stayed with me over the year besides memories of a full heart and insights into family members (who knew my millwright brother was so sentimental?) is a growing awareness of the many ways and places that gratitude is expressed. Not limited to Hallmark cards, I notice displays of gratitude in ordinary moments and extraordinary ways. With the amount of time I spend in, with, and for museums, feeling gratitude for them, staff and friends, and for their place in society–all year through–is not difficult at all . My thankfulness for museums begins with an appreciation of them as welcoming places, empathetic and compassionate places, and as places of joy.

1.     Museums opening to more and larger parts of the community through free and reduced admission, access and inclusion strategies. National programs like Blue Star Families at more than 2,000 museums; field-wide programs such as Museums for All; pay-as-you-will policies; and hours and events that accommodate audience groups with special needs and abilities at more and more museums express an intention to lower, if not eliminate, barriers to visiting and enjoying museums.  
2.     Staff and volunteers prepared and ready with just-in-time support and understanding. Reuniting a separated child andparent, greeting visitors in the parking lot, giving helpful directions to a nearby restaurant, offering suggestions for must-see exhibits, or making a simple repair to an exhibit, museum staff–especially front-line staff–make the complex choreography of a visit to the museums work smoothly and with patience, kindness and a smile.

3.     Museums as refuge from storms–meteorological and metaphorical. Relief from rain, snow, hail, heat, and cold draws families, couples, friends, and individuals into museums to wander, pass time, connect, visit, or find solitude. In any weather, stepping into a museum can offer a reprieve from pressing duties and sorrows and a moment of time-out-of-time with the possibility of renewal.

4.     Colleagues compelled to experiment, push boundaries, and take risks. The curious, the friendly provocateurs, those who challenge complacency and easy assumptions create waves that move us all forward. Thanks to their appetite for authenticity, penchant for "what if?", and straightforward questions, my thinking is inspired and challenged as are others in the museum field.

5.     Museums reaching out to help one another. Museums are a far-flung community well acquainted with ways to help and support. They step forward to help after events such as Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy, 9.11, and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Strong and caring connections among museum colleagues are expressed in mentoring younger colleagues, offering support through difficult professional transitions, easing times of organizational uncertainty, and softening personal loss.

6.     The privilege of glimpsing visitors’ thinking and ideas. Listening to, observing, and being attentive to children and adults, their language, gestures, interactions, and creations open up and give clues about what is fascinating to them, what they know and are figuring out, what they imagine and hope for, and all they can do with their strengths and resourcefulness.

7.     Wholehearted expressions of joy. Years ago, I watched a family hurry into the Jump To Japan exhibition at Seattle Children’s Museum and towards the grinning CatBus from the animated film, My Neighbor Totoro. In great delight, they recited dialogue, gestured and assumed poses, bringing the film to life as a family. Joy is also expressed in a family reading together, all piled on dad; sisters seeing themselves in a Degas painting; and 5 year old practicing her new found skipping skills, leading her family to the admissions desk.

8.     Uncontained expressions of the human spirit. Museums hold and share art, beauty, ingenuity, natural wonders, and discoveries from around the world and across time through which we are able to experience the wondrous, the truly awesome, the sublime, and the extraordinary in the ordinary. In these moments and masterpieces we find  inspiration for new possibilities.

9.     The promise of more to come. More museums to visit and learn about; generous colleagues to learn from and be inspired by; new ones to connect with; and museums’ potential to favor the friendly exchange of curiosity and creativity.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Do We Want of Parents?

This past summer’s blog post by Marianna Adams during her summer residency at the Gardner Museum provided just the right additional thoughts to some threading through my mind. In writing about what museums convey to adults when they engage families in programs, she wrote about how we sometimes keep doing the same thing over and over, neither questioning the underlying assumptions nor paying attention to what’s actually happening.  Soon after that, a query on CHILDMUS (9/26/14) asked if any museums have figured out how to discourage parents from using their cell phones excessively while at the museum. It went on to say, "We get a lot of complaints about parents not supervising their children and typically it's because parents are on their phones.” A few weeks later, the agenda for an IMLS project advisors’ meeting I attended included engaging adults. The nature of the comments shared about parents and caregivers was all that was needed for me to wonder: What do we want of parents in museums? 

Comments and complaints about parents and caregivers are surprisingly consistent across museums: parents sit, talk on the phone, ignore their child, and take over their child’s project. Staff members are preoccupied with keeping parents off their cell phones and not wanting them to take over their child’s activity which Susan McKay at The Opal School at Portland Children’s Museum aptly characterizes  as a bipolar preoccupation with parents: too involved and not involved enough with their children in museums. There’s a whole lot of territory in between. What do we want parents to do?

Adults often comprise 50% of a museum’s visitors. It follows that museums have every reason to think that, if  these adults have chosen this museum as a place that provides an experience they value for their child, then what can the museum do to ensure a great experience for them. 

When museums have expectations that contradict one another about an audience group, are so vague they aren’t actionable, or are not shared among front-line staff, security, educators, and designers, it's a problem. The fact is, museums need parents and caregivers to meet their audience goals, goals for families, and goals for children. And while every museum does not want the same thing for parents and caregivers who visit (nor should they), every museum should have a shared framework for understanding parents and caregivers and how to serve and engage them.

True: Not all parents appear ready to be engaged
Serving an audience group well starts with understanding who they are. In this case, they are parents, step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts; teachers, daycare providers, baby sitters, and nannies; group leaders and day camp counselors. First time and frequent visitors, they may range in age from 20 to 50 or 60 to 90, when grandparents and great grandparents are included. They may accompany a child ranging in age from newborn to 12 or 15 years; operate solo with one or multiple children; or be in a clutch of three relatives hovering over a new grandchild.
Parents and caregivers serve as chauffeur, chaperone, pocket book, navigator, coat holder, stroller pusher, diaper bag holder, referee, and occasional tie-breaker. They are readers, navigators, coaches, role models, and timekeepers. Museum goers in their own right, they are likely to be a learner, a co-learner, or a player. They may be tired, charged with energy, craving coffee or distracted by a problem on the home or work front. Clearly one definition cannot possibly stretch to cover parents and caregivers nor will a single strategy for engaging them serve all.

While every museum intends to serve parents and caregivers well, being prepared to do so goes far beyond good intentions. To offer a positive, supportive, engaging experience for parents, a museum needs a planned and organizational approach, developed over time, actively supported and valued, and renewed and refreshed. An ongoing process, a museum may begin by fielding a series of discussions among staff across the museum around four questions.  
  • How Do We View Parents?
  • Are We Building on Parents’ Strengths?
  • What Do Parents Want?
  • How Do We Support Parents? 
How Do We View Parents?

How a museum views the parents and caregivers it wants to serve influences how it shapes experiences and engagement strategies for them and their children. A museum may see them as friends and allies or as foes and obstacles in serving children. In some cases, parents are more or less invisible or incidental to the experiences museum offer. Parents and caregivers are both individuals with interests and preferences as well as adults engaged in a life-long relationship with their children. Is the museum prepared to both engage them as adults as well as in their parent role? Does it intend for them to be active participants in museum experiences or bystanders? 

To address the underlying assumptions about parents and caregivers that are inevitably diverse and complex, a museum needs to make explicit its view of parents and caregivers for its staff. Does the museum see them as learners, co-learners, facilitators, playmates, or tour guides? Perhaps an invented name for the role best captures the image and fits the museum’s experience style and brand: co-creator, play-and-learning partner, or explorer. Or museums may ask parents to name the roles they feel they are playing. A name for the role or cluster of roles brings into focus other attributes of parents and caregivers a museum wants to encourage and engage.

Are We Building on Parents’ Strengths? 
Our contradictory and sometimes negative ideas about parents and caregivers can overshadow the assets and strengths they bring to the museum with their children. Their love and commitment to exposing their child to varied and engaging experiences walks through the doors with every one of them. They bring an invaluable understanding of their child’s interests, skills, and previous experiences that is integral to children benefiting from the rich exhibit and program experiences. 

An essential question is whether the museum is recognizing parents’ competence and valuing that they want to do their best on behalf of their children? Sometimes, a change from a negative to a positive image is necessary. Recently General Mills produced a You Tube video, How To Dad. In this video the awesome dad image replaces the stereotype of the dumb, inept dad familiar in commercials and TV shows. A museum doesn’t have to produce its own video, but it may want start looking about and noticing what parents already do well; and where, for instance, the museum unwittingly gets in the way of parents playing their best role. Museum staff may want to learn what, for instance, parents are doing with their cell phones. Perhaps they are photographing or making a video of their children’s or families' experiences to revisit later, something many museums would encourage.

What Do Parents Want? 
Increasingly museums work to engage their visitors in dialogue through focus groups and visitor panels to learn what they want. The studies and plans I am familiar with, however, ask parents about family visits, overlooking the opportunity for critical information about what parents and caregivers want for themselves in a visit. While parents do consider the needs and interests of their children, they are not unaware of their own needs and interests at the museum.

If parents and caregivers pay more attention to their cell phones than their children, museums might ask if what they are offering is more interesting than  cell phones. Listening to what they want will help attune the museum to parent concerns. Do we know what parents want to get out of a museum visit? What they want for themselves? What signals to them that their participation is encouraged? What does support and encouragement look like to them? Where might a parent want to be during a demonstration or a story? What works for parents as her child climbs through a tree house or ant tunnel? In developing a new exhibit, does the museum ask what interests them about the topic, materials, design, or objects?
How Do We Support Parents?

A shared view of parents and caregivers, built on strengths and shaped by their input requires support in many forms: the physical environment, staff interactions, materials and design. Every museum engages in practices in all of these areas, but they are not necessarily aligned. A shared view can guide museum staff in assessing and tweaking existing practices and cultivating new ones that reinforce a guiding image of the parent and caregiver. How, for instance, does this view and what parents and caregivers say they want translate into:

·       Staff prepared to greet, support, and respond to parents and caregivers as they arrive, get involved, make choices, and, eventually, prepare to leave. Besides a museum’s own customer service training, a program like Wakanheza can prepare staff to support parents handling a difficult moment with their child in public. How does staff scaffolding experiences for children draw parents in? What, as Mariana Adams ask, does having parents stand at the back of the room with their children seated in front tell them about participation in a family program?

·       Environments, exhibits, and programs that take into account what parents and caregivers are concerned about like safety and security, comfort, easy visual access into and across spaces. How does the high climbing structure that invites children up and away from their adults assure adults of safety and offer them a way to interact?

·       Tools like the Adult Child Interaction Inventory serve as a tool for exhibit development and evaluation and are related to the adult's role in exhibits.

·       A consistent message delivered in a positive, respectful tone across multiple platforms: greetings, text panels, announcements, publications, wayfinding, and program activities. Parents, like the rest of us can tell when they are being talked down to or are not included.

·       An approach to cell phone use and devices that is informed, realistic, and in the spirit of what the museum hopes happens for the parents and caregivers it serves, for their children, and for staff.  

Related Museum Notes Posts