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STEM Exhibitions for Beginners

If, like me, you don’t know your atoms from your electrons, being asked to create a science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) exhibition can seem like an intimidating prospect. Don’t worry; I’ve been there. As a social history curator, the thought of creating my first engineering exhibition at the National Railway Museum filled me with dread. It turns out, once you know a few tricks, there’s nothing to be afraid of. In this article, I’ll share what I’ve learnt and help you to create your own STEM exhibition with confidence. I’ll tell you why I think it’s important that all museums help their visitors to engage with these subjects and share some handy tips you can try for yourself. In no time at all, you’ll be doing STEM like the pros.

So why should your museum do a STEM exhibition? Foremost, I believe it’s central to our mandate as civic museums. Science literacy is something that isn’t shared out evenly across society. Often those from lower socio-economic backgrounds fare worst and are unable to take full advantage of all the opportunities STEM presents. If the humanities help us find our place in the world, STEM helps us shape its future. We owe it to our communities to help them take an active part in that.

When thinking about your first STEM exhibition, it’s useful to start with an understanding of science capital. You can think of it like a backpack. If you have high levels of science capital, your backpack is full of ideas and knowhow. When you come across an engineering problem, you’ve got the tools you need to solve it. When you come across an interesting story about the latest scientific breakthrough, you’re able to understand how it will shape the future. With a backpack full of science capital, you’re more likely to feel that science and engineering are useful and important to your life.

But what happens if you reach into your backpack and there are only a few empty crisp packets and an old pair of socks? Chances are you’ll feel uncomfortable with science and engineering. You’re less likely to have confidence when faced with the subject and, crucially, you’re not going to see yourself as the type of person who ‘does’ science and engineering.

One of the ways that you can help visitors get rid of those old socks and increase their science capital is to help them to recognise that they already have some of the essential skills that scientists and engineers use everyday. When I curated Testing at the National Railway Museum, I told the story of how scientists were analysing soil samples along the route of HS2. Lyndsay, one of the technicians I featured, described how the process was just like baking a cake. I loved this idea and we used it as part of the exhibition to show how everyday skills such as cooking are relevant to completing complex scientific tasks. This kind of approach worked really well, especially with our family audience.

When working with families, it’s important to remember that it’s not just the children’s science capital you need to grow, it’s also often that of their parents. Chris Snowden, Eureka!’s STEM and Public Engagement Manager, knows this all too well. ‘It’s the parents attitude towards STEM that has the biggest influence on how their children will see themselves’ he says. ‘It’s really important that they’re not forgotten.’ He recommends what he calls the ‘Pixar’ approach to interpretation. Like the movies, this might be a little joke or a reference that only the adults will get and can be used as a bridge to get them interested in the subject. It could be a little fact or process that they can explain to their kids so that they feel like part of the learning. Once you have them interested, any activity where a group has to work together can be really effective. For example, Chris designed a robot activity that needed other people’s help to be completed.

Above all make sure that you test what you do with your audience. Chris has taken this approach at Eureka! and it has allowed him to be more ambitious with his subject matter. As he explains ‘start small, test it and build from there. You’ll be amazed at what your visitors get if you take the time to talk to them and learn how to explain things in their language.’

The National Railway Museum’s Laura Bootland has been trying out some different ideas to help visitors get more confident with STEM. Her latest exhibition, Brass, Steel and Fire does this by showing that you don’t have to be an engineer to appreciate what makes engineering so special. The exhibition was all about model locomotives and the people who built them. ‘We worked really hard to think how we could connect with all our visitors and get another perspective on the creative process of making something.’ she explains. Yet it was difficult to make the exhibition inclusive when none of the builders were women. ‘That was why we decided to focus on the joy of making as a way in for our family audience’ This allowed her to include interviews with other types of craftspeople such as watchmaker Rebecca Struthers and blacksmith Katie Ventress who related their experience of making back to the models featured in the exhibition.

This inclusive approach is really important. Visitors with low science capital only begin to see STEM as ‘their’ thing if they can see people like them doing it. That’s why it’s really important that you make your stories personal. Put the people doing science and engineering front and centre in your exhibition and let them speak directly to your visitors. I’ve found that simple things like hero images and first person quotes work really well. Including interests outside of their work is another great idea. Why not get them to create a Spotify playlist that visitors can listen to or share a few pictures from their Instagram feed? You want your visitors to relate to your featured engineers and scientists and to leave feeling like they’ve just made a cool new friend. This is crucial because if people feel like they know someone who does STEM, they’re more likely to feel confident with the subject themselves.

Creating your first STEM exhibition needn’t be a nightmare. Find a way of making your subject inclusive, personal and relatable and you’ll have a gallery full of curious visitors in no time. STEM subjects open up a whole new world of possibilities. Have fun sharing them with your visitors.

About the author – Jamie Taylor

Jamie Taylor curates, project manages and produces copy for museums and cultural organisations. He helps museums to tell stories about history, science, art and engineering. From diesel locomotives to dolls house furniture, he turns stories into a meaningful experience that connects museums with their audience. Find out more about Jamie on his website.

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