January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Informal Science Learning with Space Shuttle Endeavour – California Science Center / Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center

Posted: Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

by Kenneth E. Phillips, Ph.D

Learning inside and outside the classroom:

Museums and science centers offer a unique opportunity for learning across generations and age groups. Unlike formal classroom environments in which 5th graders, 10th graders, and graduate students learn separately, great exhibits engage people of all ages around a topic of common interest. Rather than being an exception, learning together is the rule in science centers! This means that informal learning (or free choice learning) involves entire families that encompass a wide range of interests and familiarity with the subject matter. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge with the former being the chance for entire families to explore the world of science together and the latter being the challenge that confronts curators, exhibit designers, A/V specialists and others to create something that is both challenging and accessible by everyone—no small order, indeed!

Of course, STEM learning encompasses both informal and formal settings with the latter being the structured classroom environment with which we are all familiar. The difference isn’t subject matter; rather, it is more a matter of breadth and time. In the science center guests can experience a wide range of subjects in an afternoon and learn a great deal by selecting their own pathways through the subject matter delving in more depth into those areas of greatest interest. In the classroom students have the opportunity for protracted periods of inquiry-based learning but usually within a structured and, often, linear presentation. The two methods of learning are not in conflict but compliment each other remarkably well if each is executed appropriately.

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California Science Center 25-year Master Plan:

With the award by NASA of Space Shuttle Endeavour on April 12, 2011, the California Science Center entered the third phase of its 25-year master plan to interpret a world of science through four themes. The first two areas, Creative World and World of Life, opened together in 1998 with Creative World addressing the human-built environment offering hands on learning in the areas of structures, communications and transportation. The second area, World of Life, addresses the five common processes shared by every living organism whether a single-cell life form or a trillion-cell human being.

Phase 2 of the master plan, Ecosystems, takes guests on a tour of eleven different regions of the world. Although each of the 11 has a different theme, the exhibit highlights the common features among ecosystems that appear very different at first glance. This area opened in 2010 and is an innovative blend of hands-on interactive experiences and living collections including many species of animals ranging from desert tortoises to dozens of species of salt water fish. The curator of the salt water tank, Dr. Chuck Kopczak, is experimenting with the growth of live kelp in a captive environment.

Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center:

Science center 1With Endeavour’s arrival the Science Center has embarked on its most ambitious project to date, the 2018 opening of the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center. It will feature approximately 200 exhibits, 100 artifacts (including Endeavour) and 10 simulators distributed over three galleries (Air, Space and Shuttle) and four physical levels. This $250-million campaign will result in 70-thousand square feet of exhibit space and the opportunity for numerous informal learning opportunities. Chief among the exhibits is the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Displayed in launch configuration with gantry and circular ramp, guests can ascend the entire length of the vehicle and walk 360-degrees around the vehicle while on the launch pad.

Exhibit Development for Informal Learning:

The process of exhibit development begins with a clear definition of the key education messages that define the gallery along with those education messages that accompany individual exhibit experiences. Conceptual designs capture the experience itself and show how a particular scientific or engineering concept will be interpreted to facilitate learning. For example, see the concept development drawing (left) that shows a science center visitor looking through a mockup of the aft flight deck of a space shuttle orbiter while operating the robot arm that is used to maneuver payloads in and out of the orbiter’s payload bay. Science Center 2Science Center 3This exhibit reinforces education messages about the use of robotic devices to help humans in space. The experience itself requires dexterity and teaches the participant how to manipulate the payload within a three dimensional coordinate system. The drawing on the right is a design development rendering that provides guidance for prototyping the experience to assure that it actually works and communicates its intended education message. The primary education message is the same but the prototype rendering helps designers make the right selection of the robot and assure that its range of motion and lift capability will support the experience.

The difference between this informal experience and a more formal learning environment is the means by which the participant learns about the functioning of the robot arm and what that implies for a 3D coordinate system. The informal learning experience is under the direction of the participant who must map the movement of the payload to the direction in which the joystick moves. Through a fun, hands-on experience and a little practice the participant will develop a familiarity with the 3D space through which the payload moves and can thereby mentally construct this space without the need for a formal treatise on coordinate systems and how shuttle robotics perform.

Of course the ideal experience would blend the science center learning opportunity with STEM learning inside the classroom. For example, students might modify the robot’s design or otherwise change its capability as part of a structured curriculum with formal lesson plans. Again, the difference is time and breadth as opposed to subject matter with the science center offering a kinesthetic experience combined with an actual flown spacecraft so students can learn basic science concepts through hands-on learning and links these to real world applications using flown artifacts.

To learn more about the California Science Center and the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center visit www.californiasciencecenter.org. Be on the look-out for field trip options to see Endeavor during the 2014 NSTA Long Beach Area Conference – in Collaboration with CSTA.

Kenneth E. Phillips, Ph.D. is the Curator for Aerospace Science and was invited to contribute to CCS by CSTA member Jill Grace

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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