Partner Spotlight: Ontario Science Centre

Ontario Science Centre’s Director of Science Communication - Kevin Von Appen (left) with Lorrie Ann Smith - Director of Education (right), in front of DGDL’s stand at the Maker Place, Inventorium 2.0

Ontario Science Centre’s Director of Science Communication - Kevin Von Appen (left) with Lorrie Ann Smith - Director of Education (right), in front of DGDL’s stand at the Maker Place, Inventorium 2.0

Alexia Economou of Daily Goods Design LABS (DGDL) sat down with the Science Centre’s Kevin Von Appen (KVA), Director of Science Communication, and Lorrie Ann Smith (LAS), Director of Education, to learn more about the Centre’s 50th Anniversary events, discuss DGDL’s Inventorium 2.0 collaboration, and much, much more…

DGDL: Tell us why the Ontario Science Centre is unique?

KVA: The Ontario Science Centre is where science meets your life. It offers an environment where you can encounter science and technology and make connections through enjoyable family-based science experiences. That’s what makes it unique for general visitors, but it’s also an equally unique environment for the 200,000+ students who come to school visits every year. 

LAS: It’s safe place to play and experiment. You can ask questions and not feel like a dummy. You can learn from a real person or you can experiment and try something on your own. For our students, it’s a unique place where you can do stuff that you can’t normally do in your classroom.

DGDL: You also have a special program for kids in high school…

LAS: Yes, the Science School. It’s for Grade 12 students from across Ontario, who come here for one semester, every day, to study their science credits. We second teachers from the Toronto District School Board and Catholic School Board to teach Physics, Math, Chemistry and Biology. We’re essentially a satellite campus of a local high school. Then, we also have a unique, integrated studies program called the Innovation Project. Students over the course of the semester, work in small groups on an iterative project design that goes on the floor of the Science Centre. It can be a research project, an exhibit, an exhibit extension, or it can be a demo. They work with the experts at the Science Centre to help fabricate and prototype their ideas.

DGDL: I’ve not heard of a program like this before…

LAS: It's been running since 1985 and it started out as a pilot experiment here. It’s one of the earliest examples of a Museum-School partnership in North America and, I believe, it’s the longest running one. Students not only get to get to do all of their course work in the setting of the Science Centre but they also become Science Communicators whereby they have to do a certain amount of hours on the floor to earn their lab coats. They wear distinctive red lab coats. They work for our Hosts, they become Hosts, they have opportunities to work here afterwards… in fact, some of the permanent, full-time staff here were past students. And the rest have gone on to do other wonderful things.

KVA: Also, we are recognized globally as one of the first innovators of a new kind of Science Museum where visitors could touch things. The Ontario Science Centre is a point of origin for what is talked about as a Science Centre Movement. In the 50 years that we’ve been operating we’ve inspired, directly and indirectly, thousands of science centres to use [this hands-on] approach, worldwide.

DGDL: Interactivity has become much more desired - not only in exhibition and museum settings - but for Millennials and Post-Millennials, who are seeking out experiences rather than passive display. It’s amazing that the Science Centre tapped into that approach so many decades ago and, since it is the Ontario Science Centre’s 50th anniversary year now, you have a lot going on. Tell us about some of the upcoming highlights…  

KVA: Beginning in June, the Science Centre will pivot towards talking about aspects of science and space. Called The Summer of Space, the theme will be explored throughout the Science Centre, with what Canadians, in particular, have contributed. It will culminate around marking the anniversary of the first human landing on the moon - July 20th.

We’ve a got a major exhibition that is going to debut in September which is an exploration of the human experience of the mind. Not so much physiology, but how we experience or live with what we call our minds. It’ll be experiential, not didactic.

Also coming up in September is our actual birthday that will be celebrated over a weekend. The Science Centre will be free for anyone who wants to come. We are expecting thousands of people to take us up on it.

DGDL: How does Inventorium 2.0 build upon Inventorium 1.0 and specifically, what is unique about this year’s exhibition?

LAS: The first Inventorium was our Ontario150 offering. At that point we were looking at developing our strategic plan for what the next 50 years would look like for the Science Centre. And so we were really playing with the idea of co-creation, collaboration and 21st century learning. The idea was to bring in as many partners as possible and to have a lot of the activity happening on the floor driven by them. It was an experiment: it was rapid, it was cheap and cheerful, rough and ready.

What we learned from Inventorium 1.0 was that we were able to rapidly iterate and be responsive to what the visitors were doing. It kept being extended (due its to popularity). Then, we re-evaluated everything about it to inform Inventorium 2.0.

What you see on the floor now is still the Maker Place, Maker Bean Café and the Gorilla Store but we also have a partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art. The focus in the first part of Inventorium 2.0 is on the ‘A’ in STEAM: science, technology, engineering, ART, and math. How does art connect those things and how does art fit into them? What you see is the ‘design thinking’ aspect, the ‘making and iteration,’ we’ve got the loom on the floor which ties into other exhibits, and the wonderful art that comes from our artists-in-residence at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Toronto).

In June, we’ll be doing more design-thinking around space challenges and wonderful things which will amplify what is happening around the Centre over the summer and Summer of Space. There will be events, and programs and demos and lots of thing to make and do.

DGDL:  Art often gets left out in the promotion of STEM, why was it important to feature STEAM activities in the Inventorium?

KVA: One of the experiments we did in Inventorium 1.0 was the TechArtFair. It wasn’t that art was entirely new, in fact, the Science Centre has been engaging with art throughout its entire history. What we saw, ‘though was the addition of a creative, artistic perspective from multiple partners who would not necessarily has seen themselves at a science centre. It created some really interesting experiences for visitors.

Why does the ‘A’ in STEAM usually get left out? It is because culturally - and usually in the world of science centres to some extent - we’re catching up to the fact that these areas are integrated with art and that our audiences perceive them seamlessly. Indeed, if we want people to get excited about science and technology, critical thinking and collaborative skills, and all of the 21st century skills we are talking about, we have to create critical pathways for them to explore. Art and artistic expression is a very powerful human pathway for exploring anything and living life.

DGDL: Art and Design-thinking is a different from the traditional ‘logical’ approach, so we’re heartened to hear that the Ontario Science Centre sees these two different processes as integrated and foundational for learning.

LAS: From a pedagogical perspective, STEAM is catching up to that. There is an official position on STEM through the educational system because it is a drive towards people getting jobs – feeding that pipeline. There have been a lot of studies recently, a famous one from the Rhode Island School of Design in the US showed that math students that take music score higher on SATs and that sort of thing. The importance of the ‘Art’ is in teaching the ‘whole child’ - and that idea of the whole learner and being learner-centered - is a trend that is emerging. So, I think that yes, art is a vehicle to explore these ideas. But, also, it contributes through the design-thinking process; when thinking about user-centred design; through aesthetic; design prototyping; innovation and inventing, it is very important. Inventorium 2.0 is all about that. Rather than just churning out people for jobs, we are churning out good citizens that are used to thinking in a more well-rounded way about how to access these complex ideas.

DGDL: A generation ago parents couldn’t understand what could be done with an Art education, but now there are so many more fields that you can get into like animation, sciences and medicine…

KVA: And that’s a core insight – that the jobs that our youngest visitors are going to do, they are going to invent themselves. The jobs that many people are doing now are being disrupted. So, overall, it’s really the skill set that builds resilient humans who can work in groups, take risks, innovate, make unexpected connections, fail, and keep trying. Those skills matter a lot more than a job description.

DGDL: I saw you both involved in the activities over March Break. One of the parents remarked how impressed she was that the ‘top brass’ were so hands on in working with the public, why do you feel this is important?

LAS: I’m fairly new to the Science Centre, I’ve only been here two years, but I’ve worked in museums and cultural institutions my whole career and I’ve never experienced what happens at the Science Centre. During our busiest times, such as March Break when upwards of 70,000 people visit over a week, everybody pitches in. Our CEO is on the floor in a lab coat handing out maps and, of course, talking about science. It is a core value here and I was asking Kevin, ‘How did it start?’’ because he’s been here a lot longer than me.

KVA: We recognize, in our bones, that the fundamental visitor experience is the point. That’s been true from the start. The message is, ‘this is your place and we’re really happy that you’ve come.’ I like it that the CEO - and previous CEOs as well - see it as a fundamental value to connect with people rather than to be just another person in a lab coat.

About 20 years ago we started to pay more systematic attention to the peaks and valleys of our attendance. We realized that if we all went out on the floor during the busiest times, we could really enhance the visitor experience and, at the same time, get insights into our visitors that were impossible to get any other way. It’s always been a compelling and often humbling experience for me to connect directly with visitors. They’ve surprised me with all the things that they know. They are often way smarter than us. And we get a real sense of what they care about but also we get re-energized seeing how much impact we have.

LAS: We’re the ones making the decisions about what ultimately happens on the floor, and so to not have that connection and understanding would make us unable to effectively make those decisions that are going to be best for our visitors. It helps that everybody knows what that experience is like, so that we [can say], “Ya, let’s give this a try.” 

DGDL: We were very happy to hear, early on, that members’ really liked the Daily Goods Design LABS Future Devices exercise - what specifically did they like about? Also, you both have seen the exercise in action, what did you find appealing about this activity in the wider context of Inventorium 2.0 and the Science Centre?

LAS: It’s been great having an activity about the design-thinking process. We didn’t have a thoughtful activity that was designed to be about how you go through the steps of making something and not necessarily about the object at the end. Particularly, it’s been great to have people say, “I’m going to think about what I’m making first,” and being really purposeful about it.

When I was on the floor over March Break, there was a young girl about 8 or 9 years old, who spent over 40 minutes making her device. We explained DGDL’s activity to her and she chose the device template. She thought about it a lot and kept coming back to us asking questions like, “If I wanted to do this, what would it be?” Turns out that her device was a portable X-ray machine, so that if you were on the highway and there was an accident, and you needed to assess someone right away, and set their leg really quickly or whatever, you could do it using this device. She had it all written out with labels of what everything did and why it did it.

We were really excited about her invention because of the process she went through to consider how she was going to make that happen. She really got the purpose of that activity - even amongst the chaos during March Break at the Science Centre - she was just so focused.

Some kids need that contemplative activity to move them from, “I’m really going to think about this; and then I’m going to think about how to design it so that it’s easy for another person to use; so that it can go in your pocket, etc…” They are invested in that process and the activity that [DGDL] have created. I think that’s amazing.

KVA: The activity that Daily Goods has created, I think, is especially powerful because it starts with something that people can immediately connect with. It’s connected with their lives. Then, DGDL invites them to take that step forward and to make it their own, and to imagine the next thing that that thing can do. That’s a very powerful experience, especially for younger people who see these devices all around them but don’t really feel they’ve got a handle on them yet. It makes it theirs. I think that’s really powerful.

DGDL: DGDL and the Ontario Science Centre share a desire to educate and inspire all genders into pursuing STEM careers… how have you seen this change over the years?

KVA: When arguably, the most powerful and sophisticated exploratory body that humans have every created misses the step that there are women up here now [alluding to the news story that NASA had to cancel the first all-female spacewalk because their space suits weren’t designed to fit women], there is a real need for pushing on the boundaries of user-centred design, design thinking, accessible design and design that is democratic and that empowers people rather than limits them. There is a group of women, that couldn’t go on a space walk today because that thinking was incomplete.

DGDL: So there is still a long way to go, but have you seen an improvement?

KVA: Oh, very much so. Just from the arc of time I’ve been with the Science Centre, which is over three decades, I’ve seen the Centre move from a place where people were coming to get answers, to instead a place where people could explore questions. I’ve seen us move from being a place purely of really cool phenomena, to a place where the phenomena is still there but you have entry points for exploring that you’ve never had before. This mirrors larger societal changes about emerging democratic technologies, the rise of access to all the information, all the time, everywhere, for everybody from anything. All of those things have really accelerated in the last 10-15 years, but they are part of a larger trend where information and answers are easy. Exploration is where the real opportunities and challenges are. There’s been a dramatic shift in science museums globally. We’ve gone from interactivity to participation, and from audiences to co-creators.

DGDL: Are you seeing more girls interested in the sciences?

LAS: Definitely. Our Science School, for example, is around 70% female identifying – pretty consistently -  and it has been for the last 10 years or so. It’s not because we are recruiting more girls, it’s because it is basically an alternative school and there’s a different way of learning here.

Yet, you still have girls dropping out of science. There’s been lots of studies recently as to why, and it isn’t due to a lack of role models. The only thing proven that really affects people’s decisions is to address the gender stereotyping that happens in the sciences. Calling attention to that, at an early age is important. We lose a lot of girls in grades 6,7 and 8 - at that age when they are making [career path] decisions - and we’re trying to address that leaky pipeline. If you have a teacher who isn’t as inclusive or isn’t thinking about different ways of learning, or different entry points for that subject matter, then why would you keep with it after grade 9 or 10, when it is no longer compulsory?

We’ve been doing a lot of work around trying to build science capital - which is the same as cultural capital. How do we, as the Science Centre, fit in the ecosystem of learning so that we are supporting and keeping up the excitement about science and different ways of learning about it? We are supporting teachers in their work as well. It’s not only in school where you can learn. Informal science learning is having a resurgence. If you’re interested in a science concept you can learn about it online, on your own… you can find multiple entry points that maybe wasn’t the case when we were kids. So, definitely there are more opportunities to learn ‘system-adjacent’.

DGDL: Thank you for taking the time give our readers an insight window into the Ontario Science Centre. I’m sure they will now have a better appreciation of all your good work - I know we do.

KVA & LAS: Thank you! Sometimes you clarify things in the act of trying to articulate them. These questions were really helpful.

The future of learning is a much more exciting place thanks to forward-thinking institutions like the Ontario Science Centre. If you would like to know more about Inventorium 2.0 and DGDL’s workshops at the Ontario Science Centre click on these links or read more on our Blog.

The Science School’s student Science Communicators in their distinctive red lab coats. Photo courtesy of the Ontario Science Centre .

The Science School’s student Science Communicators in their distinctive red lab coats. Photo courtesy of the Ontario Science Centre.

The portable Emergency X-ray future device.

The portable Emergency X-ray future device.