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While a traditional museum can offer an interesting display of cultural, natural, and historic artifacts, visitors often don’t retain the information from this experience.  Science centres offer something different, enriching the visitors through interactive displays that make it a more enjoyable experience and enhances the learning experience.

Traditional museum displays: Museums typically display labelled cultural and natural artefacts, and visitors are expected to take the initiative to examine the displays and read the labels. In most often they ignore the labels and walk away only taking in the visual component, having missed out on a learning experience altogether. This tradition has continued for centuries even though research has indicated that show-and-tell teaching methods in museums, and schools, typically result in 20 to 30% of the content being retained by the learner. In contrast, the interactive, learner-driven teaching methods used in science centres, result in a much higher retention of learned information, up to 80% in fact.

Modern science centre displays: Science centre staff have for decades been liaising with researchers on learning experiences and mental cognition. By emphasizing the direct engagement by the visitor with the display, the learning experience imprint a lasting message. With this focus on direct engagement, science centres can offer the opportunity to simplify complex issues and make them understandable to young people and the general public. The overwhelming consensus has been that direct engagement by the visitor with the display is the one of the best ways to teach.

Building on direct engagement, a method that is even more efficient, is for a visitor to teach another visitor using an interactive display. This occurs frequently in science centres both between peers and across generations. A common and gratifying sight in science centres is seeing a child explain a scientific principle to his/her grandparents using an interactive display.

Hands-on, hearts-on, minds-on displays: Soon after introducing hands-on displays that engaged the visitor physically, science centre developers realized that deeper engagements could also be achieved. Engagement that would imprint information and messaging at the emotional and mental levels. Furthermore, research has shown that activities and learning that are coupled with intense emotional experiences are more readily recalled than those coupled with everyday experiences. Focus is now being placed on developing displays that engage visitors physically, emotionally, and mentally.

In order to achieve this, it was realized that dramatic imagery and the use of multi-media visuals and sound, the portrayal of relevant artworks, and the use of music, song, and dance in concert with science, all increase the emotional and mental appeal of displays.

Where can we find this type of display?

A display that stimulates a visitor’s full mental capacity is Mind Ball, invented by Swedish technologists in 2003. Mind Ball is a competitive game played by two people wearing wired headbands with sensors that pick up the electrical signals that are sent out by the brain. The aim is to move a small ball along a runway between the competitors into a ‘goal’. This works through neurofeedback using your ‘brain waves’. The ball is moved back-and-forth along the runway through neurofeedback with the player who is most focused and relaxed better able to score a goal. The game is counter-intuitive in that the electrical signals of a relaxed but focused person move the ball faster than that of a tense but unfocussed person. counter-intuitive.

In the Bahrain Science Centre, we took ‘hearts-on’ to another level by mounting a display of the heartbeat. Visitors stand in front of a giant model of the heart and hold a bar in front of them with their hands. Their heartbeat is indicated on an LED screen and a drum beats out a rhythm that is perfectly in sync with their heart rate! We were also able to conduct experiments to measure the impact of different activities on the heart rate. If the visitor ran on the spot for a few minutes while holding the bar, their heart rate increased, and then recovered quickly if they were reasonably fit. If a pretty girl walked by, the boys’ heartbeats increased significantly! These displays and experiences make science fun.

Conclusion: One of the primary goals of interactive science centres is to use immersive and engaging displays to make science accessible to everyone. Science centre developers are therefore constantly on the lookout for the most efficient ways to communicate complex messages in an understandable way.

Traditional museum displays have served their purpose for several decades but new technologies using multi-media, proximity sensors, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robotics and the metaverse have now brought about a paradigm shift in the ways in which science centres interact with their visitors.