I would like to dedicate this post to Alan Friedman, who passed away on Sunday. I wrote this blog post last week before I heard the news of Alan’s illness. In retrospect, it seems absolutely fitting that I honor him by telling the story of how I went from someone ambivalent about science to someone who now sees science as part of my everyday experience. I’m quite certain that what I describe below is at least partially the result of all the work Alan did in the field of informal science education, for which I am deeply grateful.
As an evaluator, I am typically working with a museum around the idea of outcomes—the results they intend for their visitors. Sometimes, through the research process, we discover a museum has achieved outcomes it didn’t necessarily intend, but is delighted to have done so nonetheless. These are usually referred to “unanticipated outcomes.” In life, unanticipated outcomes happen all the time for lots of people in all kinds of circumstances.
I’ve experienced my own unanticipated outcome through my work at RK&A. As a consultant, I have the privilege of working with all types of museums all over the country. A typical result of my work is learning something new in the areas of art, history, or science. Over the years, I have learned the mostly unknown story of the hospitals at Ellis Island, how the book The Little Prince was written, and what a watershed is. These are just three of hundreds of examples. I guarantee, if it weren’t for my work, I wouldn’t have these learning opportunities. These examples are isolated and discreet, but one big unanticipated outcome has slowly become a part of me and how I see and experience the world—I have acquired an appreciation and understanding of science, especially the scientific process, that I didn’t have before and maybe never would have had, had I not pursued a career in museum evaluation and research.
It isn’t that I disliked or wasn’t curious about science before becoming a museum evaluator. My primary interests were more in the area of art, history, and culture. Prior to becoming a museum evaluator, I visited art museums and historical sites, not science centers or science museums. Science just wasn’t part of my everyday life. Thus, I’ll never forget my first project working for RK&A—I was to do a front-end evaluation for an exhibition about materials science, which I quickly learned involved concepts like atomic structure! I remember I stopped at Barnes and Noble on my way home that night and gave myself a crash course on atoms and how they affect the properties of different materials (this was in the Internet’s infancy, so I couldn’t simply Google “atomic structure and material science”). Through my preparation of the interview guide and activities, conducting interviews with visitors, and analysis of data, I learned more about atomic structure than I may have ever learned in school. I gained a true appreciation, based on understanding, for why certain materials are brittle and others are flexible, for instance. More than anything, and simply put, my work on various science projects over the years has sparked and nurtured a curiosity in observing the physical world around me and asking, “Why is that the way it is?”
The other day, I had a conversation with my nine-year old daughter that helped me realize that, over time, this unanticipated outcome has become deeply embedded with who I am today and has carried over to others in my life. I was telling my daughter about a new project at a natural history museum and casually asked her if she knows why scientists study fossils. She provided me with a pretty accurate and relatively complex response, saying that fossils are clues to the past and help us understand what happened thousands of years ago. I was kind of blown away and asked with genuine curiosity, “How on earth do you know so much?” Her response: “Because I have a mommy who works with museums, of course.” I realized then that my (new) interest in science had become so much a part of who I am that it had, of course, rubbed off on my daughter (and my son too, actually). I now have two kids who beg me to stay up late Sunday nights to watch Cosmos. I’m sure they were probably born with an interest in science, but I am fairly certain their interest wouldn’t have been nurtured to the extent that it has if it weren’t for my own unanticipated outcome working as a museum evaluator.