Equity and the meaning of science learning: A defining challenge for science museums

Saturday, July 1, 2017
Resource Type:
Peer-reviewed article | Research Products
Environment Type: 
Public Programs, Museum and Science Center Programs, Exhibitions, Museum and Science Center Exhibits
Administration/Leadership/Policymakers | General Public | Educators/Teachers | Museum/ISE Professionals | Scientists | Evaluators | Learning Researchers
Education and learning science | General STEM
University of Wisconsin-Madison

There is a vein of democratic idealism in the work of science museums. It is less about political democracy than epistemological democracy. As a one-time museum educator and a researcher who studies science museums, I have always thought of it in terms of an unspoken two-part motto: “see for yourself–know for yourself.” Although this strain of idealism has remained constant throughout the history of science museums, it has been interpreted differently in different eras, responding (in part) to the social upheavals of the day. In the late 1960s, for example, a new generation of self-described “science centers” captured the wave of populist irreverence by trading glassed-in collections of natural specimens and scientific instruments for interactive exhibits and participatory demonstrations. In the process, they introduced a new interpretation of what visitors were supposed to see, and what (or perhaps how) they were expected to know.

I believe that the crisis of educational inequity—by which I mean the painful and unjust disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes—requires a transformation of similar scale. I use the word “crisis” cautiously, because educational inequity is a very old problem. At this moment, however, science museums seem to be newly concerned with educational inequity, and with their role in making the situation better or worse. Their concern has grown in parallel with a broader interest in informal science education, and with a burgeoning respect for the educational value of science museums and other “designed spaces for science learning” (National Research Council, 2009). Some scholars have even suggested that science museums are a key part of the solution to entrenched educational inequities (National Research Council, 2009).

The bitter reality is that science museums almost certainly make inequities worse. This is a logical consequence of the fact that science museums, as a category, disproportionately serve the same demographic groups who have access to well-funded schools, well-trained teachers, and all manner of other science enrichment resources (Dawson, 2014a). Until and unless this changes, science museums will continue to be part of a vicious cycle in which unequal distribution of today’s resources compounds the injuries and inequalities of the past (Ladson-Billings, 2006). 

Funding Program: 
Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 
Publication Name: 
Science Education
Page Number: 

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