A certain teacher, just starting a visit to the Copernicus Science Centre, once asked one of the animators a difficult question: “Excuse me, but how long does the break between classes last here?” While initially surprising, the question was a perfectly natural one and demands an answer which addresses seriously and respectfully the doubts frequently expressed by visitors – not only by teachers, but also by parents and tutors.
Being more accustomed to formal, organised hierarchy of school space makes it hard for us to see what we traditionally think of as ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ amidst the hustle and bustle of the Copernicus Science Centre… So what does this mean? When is “break time” over at Copernicus? In fact, the right answer is never! As with all paradoxes, this one is an invitation to a deeper contemplation of the purpose of science centres in general.
Different ways of teaching and learning
At the root of the paradox lies our being accustomed to the kind of traditional teaching methods that are used in schools. Meanwhile, at Copernicus, teaching and learning take on a completely new form!
Let’s use the Cosmic Trash-Heap exhibit from the World in Motion gallery as an example. At first glance it appears to be an arcade game, with the youngest visitors attracted to its funky graphic display and technologically-advanced control system. In fact, the exhibit is an effective way of teaching Newton’s laws of motion – and, what’s more, kids learn them in an enduring way.
Even though no formulas or definitions are displayed near the exhibit, the laws of physics have been programmed into the computer driving the game. Players need to quickly develop an instinct for translational motion, the relationship between force and acceleration, and the principles of actions and reactions – otherwise they won’t be able to make any progress in the game!
Where is knowledge stored?
Where does the new information acquired by visitors go? If asked, they wouldn’t be able to quote textbook formulas… And yet their muscle memory has recorded a set of instincts and reflexes which can be recalled at an instant when necessary – frequently on a subconscious level!
That’s because there is no more effective way of learning than connecting new facts with our own body’s reflexes. Other exhibits at the Centre also work by linking scientific knowledge (such as laws of physics) with deep motion reflexes, using what is technically known as kinaesthetic memory.
For the youngest guests…
Children are especially adept at learning about the world with their entire bodies and by recreating situations where they first encounter a given phenomenon. Unfortunately schools rarely make the most of this, since kids are expected to spend their time sitting patiently at desks. This means that visiting Copernicus is even more valuable as a way of expanding everyday school learning.
And motor memory is just the beginning of the fascinating adventures awaiting at the Centre! The careful, thoughtful arrangement of interior space, the distribution of exhibits, and the use of sounds, colours and textures are all ways of creating powerful mental associations with observations of natural phenomena. All this means that the educational component gets written in children’s minds more powerfully and permanently than through conventional teaching.
But if you think that Copernicus is just a great big playground for children, you would be very much mistaken. The educational space for teenagers and adults is also extensive. Many exhibits comprise several layers: on the simplest, most superficial level they are just toys to be played with making simple references to school education; however, placed in the right context, they immediately gain cognitive qualities suitable for older visitors.
This doesn’t just apply to RE: generation – a gallery with an actual minimum age requirement – but also to a wide range of exhibits from the Roots of Civilisation, Light Zone and Humans and the Environment exhibitions. Articles presented in the Guide also mean that older guests can expand their knowledge on a wide range of subjects, which means that parents and carers get as much out of the visit as the kids they bring.