1. Determine exhibits.
From your pre-planning, select the exhibits you plan to feature. Be sure to create a variety of large exhibits that multiple people can play with as well as individual exhibits for one. You can create your exhibits on a theme, on a set of badge requirements or any other cohesive grouping. You can also choose to do a “crazy science” center where you have a collection of fun exhibits without a theme.
NOTE: Many feel that the 1/3 rule applies to science centers. This means that one-third of your exhibits are original to your Science Center, 1/3 are purchased from a vendor and 1/3 are “off the shelf”. Keep this in mind as you work thorough the steps below.
2. Themes or specific branch.
A theme or limiting yourself to a specific branch of science can help tie your exhibits, experiments, fundraising efforts and more together. This also helps limit the cost as you won’t be trying to develop exhibits that “just don’t fit.” Some themes might include:
- Healthy bodies
- Get moving (activities to stay healthy)
- Gardening / nature
Check out the Science Center X badges that go with this set to find themes within each badge program as a starting point.
3. Tell a story.
Your exhibit should use words, photographs, artwork, audio clips, videos, props and more to work together to tell a story. Start with the main idea, research possibilities and then use your exhibit to tell your story.
4. Educational goals and experiences.
The story carries you through the exhibit. You want educational goals included in it. What do you want your visitors to learn / experience while at your exhibit? Do you want to challenge what they already know? Do you want them to control the entire exhibit or a small portion? Be sure to meet the challenge to inform and entertain at the same time.
You may find that the traditional ways to do things don’t work with the story, goals or experiences you want to share. You may need to rethink the purpose, function and operation of your exhibit so that it communicates with your audience. Think through your exhibit. Start questioning yourself with . . . “What if . . .”
6. Preparing exhibits.
For each exhibit you plan to create, make a list of materials you need. Also include the instructions for creating the exhibit and how you think it will work. From the individual exhibit lists, create a list for all items you need to acquire. Use this list for requesting donations of items, sponsorship, volunteer efforts or as a basis for fundraising.
If you plan on moving, sharing or storing your exhibits, you want to track the pieces. Create a list of everything included in the exhibit as well as special items it may need such as access to water or electricity. Also, be sure to note the people / person who worked on it in case you need something repaired or replaced. If you have sketches, drawings or schematics, include those as well.
8. Reusable or replenishable.
You can plan on having all of your exhibits reusing the same resources. This would work for items like building blocks, bubble wands or mirrors in a light exhibit.
Some exhibits may need to be replenished. Making bubbles might require someone to refill bubble solution. Chemical reaction experiments might require not only the chemicals refilled but also disposal of the final product. If you plan on having non-reusable experiments, be sure to have enough materials on hand for each person who will be visiting your center.
9. Permanent or traveling.
You may want to make some of your exhibits permanent and some portable and available for travel. Portable ones can be exchanged or moved to give different experiences on return trips. They can also be borrowed by teachers or youth group leaders. Lastly, a traveling center can bring the same experiences to multiple schools or groups without going on a field trip. Keep this in mind as you work through your exhibits.
The goal for this is to create a low-cost center that can be used by more than one group. You can offset the cost by asking for donations, fundraising, support and volunteers. As you work through your exhibits, examine the cost of materials as part of the approval process for each exhibit. Be sure to examine items that need to be replenished in the cost.
You might find someone who is willing to allow you to borrow an exhibit. Yeah, it might sound crazy, but teachers, homeschoolers and others may purchase items for instruction they’d be willing to part with for a short time. Look into this as a way to minimize costs.
Many people collect items. Some are more science-based than others. Think bugs, shells, pressed flowers, leaves, fossils, rocks, etc. With collections, you may get the owner to volunteer to explain his collection to others. Also, you may have it for a limited time. Check with local groups and organizations as well as those helping you with your Science Center to find if there are any collections you can borrow.
13. Make it yourself.
If you’re handy (or someone you know is), you may find a way to make some of the exhibits and items yourself. For example, a photo booth as an extra fun activity (say with the moon behind the subject) can have props to add to the experience. You’ll see specific examples in the different themes presented in the other badge programs with this set.
14. Map it.
If you have a confusing layout or multiple items in different locations, you may want to provide a map. This might be handed out to each visitor or placed strategically at exits. After all, if an outdoor habitat trail is part of your center and everything else is indoors, it might be missed.
Examine Each Exhibit
Will the exhibit you’ve chosen be safe? Not only do you want to make sure the activity is safe, but the actual area itself. Sharp corners, open edges and the like are bad for little fingers. Watch out for glass containers and other items that might be close to an edge. Chemicals require safety goggles. If you cannot make the exhibit safe, explore ways you can or find a new exhibit to take its place.
NOTE: You may find having someone stand by the exhibit is necessary as part of your safety protocol. If so, be sure the exhibit cannot be used if someone is not there.
Look at your exhibit with the critical eye of someone just walking in to view it. You want your exhibit to grab attention and communicate with your visitor. Can you adjust the exhibit to be more enticing?
Communication also includes the steps or directions to complete the experiment. Ask yourself what will your visitor take away from the exhibit. This can be a great starting point to work backwards to a final exhibit design.
Inviting an expert on a subject in your exhibit allows you to have a pair of knowledgeable eyes look over it and let you know if anything is wrong. Experts are also passionate about their field so that will carry over as they talk to your visitors.
One way to stop your visitor and grab their attention is interactivity. If there’s something to do, read or examine, they are more likely to engage with it. Have you made your exhibit interactive? If not, what can you adjust to do so?
19. Chart it.
Sometimes asking a question can be made visual by creating a chart. For example, if you want to ask how many visitors had a glass of milk in the last 24 hours, counting and telling them the number back works. Putting that number of cows on a felt board is more interactive — you can even have an assistant help you.
Charts can be used to track the weather, number of visitors who participated in an exhibit and more. Explore how you might include charts and graphs in your exhibits.
You may not need the most eye-catching design. It is one way to draw people into the exhibit. Be sure to draw your visitors eye with staggered heights / angles of items presented. Add texture and color for more visual interest. Look at your exhibit. Do the items carry your eye around the item(s) presented?
All materials must be readable. Are the fonts easy to read and consistent? Is the copy easy to understand? If you need an explanation, can you limit it to a paragraph or two? The longer it is, the less likely it will be read. Look at the design of your exhibit. Does your design work with it? Can you adjust it to make it better?
21. Inquiry cycle.
You’ve provided information, made an attractive and interactive exhibit — is that enough? You need to provide an inquiry cycle which guides your visitor through your exhibit. The exhibit will allow your visitor to engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate. You may also want to allow ways for them to change the ways they engage and explore so they can go through the cycle again.
Check for the following pitfalls that can weaken your exhibit and your visitors’ experience.
- Accessibility — physical, sensory, intellectually
- Overwhelming features or choices so visitors are unsure what to do
- Unclear directions, priority of steps — have someone test what they’ll do / learn
- Simultaneous users can be handled or note limitations
- Controls that don’t follow standard conventions
- Effects that are not obvious
- Interaction that isn’t limited / mundane — like just turning something on / off
What other pitfalls might decrease the effectiveness of your exhibit?
If you’re doing activities / experiments, just doing them is not enough. You need to explain why they worked. This might be with signs, diagrams, audio, video, volunteers or even the adults that are coming with their kids.
The first time you test should be when you’ve outlined what you want your exhibit to be. Testing and tweaking should be part of the exhibit creation process.
However, before you open, be sure to test each exhibit. Ask people who haven’t worked on the exhibits. Instruct your testers to ask questions if they don’t understand. Watch as others explore your exhibit. Make a note of anything that they seem to have difficulty with so you can fix it. Also, ask what they experienced. Is it what you wanted them to experience? If not, this is your chance to fix that as well.
No matter how much you test, there is a chance that you’ll miss something. By asking your visitors before they leave about their experiences, you’ll get great feedback. Be sure to read it and determine if you could do a small tweak to improve your exhibit. For example, if you’re showing stages of growing crystals and the sugar crystals are presented against a white background, it might be hard to see. Someone pointing it out might indicate to you that simply adding food coloring could help make it more visible to your visitors is a quick fix to improve your exhibit.
26. Cleaning and maintenance.
Not only are you going to need someone to clean up, but checking to make sure the exhibits remain safe can be a full-time job. Determine a schedule for cleaning and maintenance.
No matter how hard you try, things break. For this reason, be sure to keep information on everything you did for each exhibit. If you made something, keep the pattern / instructions with the paperwork. Found a great supplier for materials? Be sure to keep their contact information in there as well. You can also share this information with others who might be interested in making their own Science Center.
28. Science Center X.
A small group of “Science Center X” badge programs will focus on some different themes you might use. You can mix and match these, so don’t feel you have to use each of these as presented. They are just a starting point. Feel free to adapt these to your own needs.
You’ll notice that a lot of ideas come to mind as you read through them. As I worked on this badge set, I realized there was no way I could cover everything. I only hope the Science Center badge set inspires you.
If you feel a theme needs to be added, let me know your thoughts at larajla gmail.com.
Sites to Explore
To download a PDF of this badge program, click here: EP_SC02_Exhibits