A message from the Director of the New York Hall of Science, Dr Alan
Science-technology centers like the New York Hall of Science have enjoyed
a near monopoly on providing the public with hands-on science learning experiences.
In the 1990's, however, commercial playgrounds are calling themselves "Discovery
Zones," and theme parks are offering curriculum guides. "Edutainment"
has become a common descriptor of computer games and simulations, and CD-ROMs.
The pitch of the edutainment industry is similar to that of any science-technology
center: "Come and have a great time and learn a little something too."
Despite the apparent similarities, I believe there are deep, underlying
differences between a science-technology center like the New York Hall of
Science and our edutainment competitors.
The first major difference between commercial leisure time programs and
science-technology centers is in the relationship they assume between education
and entertainment. Both enterprises contain both education and entertainment.
But in the edutainment industry, education and entertainment are viewed
as opposite ends of a single continuum. Every experience must be somewhere
along the continuum. The more education you have, by necessity the less
entertainment. Edutainments believe they must be much closer to the entertainment
end of the chart in order to be successful. If there is to be any education
content, it must be sugar coated, diluted with lots of entertainment.
In a science center like ours, we do not regard education and entertainment
as opposing qualities. The field of play is of two dimensions, not one.
If we are clever enough, we can create an experience that's completely educational
and completely entertaining.
Visitors at the New York Hall of Science get fully engaged with our exhibits
- whether learning how to build an arch bridge they can walk over, creating
giant bubbles, or hunting for a pink microbe. They are learning a skill,
learning how the laws of nature or the rules of technology operate. But
they also find their engagement entertaining. They frown and smile and laugh,
and they will tell their friends and neighbors what they achieve. Our basic
belief is that learning itself can be entertaining.
A second major distinction is the intended relationship between the exhibit
and the visitor. For science centers, the visitor manipulates the exhibit.
For theme parks and most edutainment media, the exhibit manipulates the
In a typical successful theme park exhibit, such as EPCOT's "The World
of Motion" in the General Motors Pavilion, visitors are literally on
a ride. They sit down on moving chairs, or before a moving stage, and the
exhibit controls what they see and hear, and in what order. There are cues
when to laugh, when to smile, and when to be surprised.
At the New York Hall of Science and other science-technology centers, visitors
usually (if not always) determine what they are going to do, in what order,
and for how long. Nobody tells you which microscope to look in or how long
The theme park strategy guarantees crowd control and a uniform experience
for all visitors. By contrast, the science center offers the visitor a wider
range of experiences at each exhibit, and some of those experiences will
be more satisfactory than others. Our advantage, however, is the possibility
of a sense of individual accomplishment when the visitor is finished. One
can boast, "I made that arch stand up!" or "Hey come here,
let me show you how to do this!"
The bottom line for evaluating commercial enterprises is straightforward:
money. A satisfactory return on investment, over both the short and long
term, is the critical evaluation tool.
For the New York Hall of Science, the financial bottom line may well determine
whether we can survive, but finances do not justify that survival. Providing
authentic experiences with science and technology; evaluating how much learning
and what kind occurs; and being accountable for the learning promised to
visitors (especially school groups and teachers) -those goals are the bottom
lines for us.
Theme parks, edutainment products, and science centers are all valuable
enterprises, but the basic differences are fundamental. We can cohabitate
only if we understand and articulate these significant.
Hall of Science Homepage