Interacting but don’t expect to explore systems thinking

Posted on July 30, 2008


Exploratorium museum interactiveThe Exploratorium in San Fransico is a truly amazing place. I lost count of the interactive exhibits that were doing a fantastic job of engaging kids (and their adults) in science (click on image for slideshow of interactive exhibits).

What surprised me though, is the almost complete lack of complex systems. With about five exceptions, these interactions focus entirely on reductionist science – single principles. While single principles are useful for learning, a science museum should also consider systems approaches.

Sustainability requires a systems approach. People need to have awareness that their actions will have impacts. These impacts may be intended and unintended, across scales: temporal, spatial, social, and have positive and negative effects. They need to understand forms of relationships (hierarchies, partnerships, feedback) and that humans form part of a complex web. This kind of awareness is not going to come from push-button-watch-predictable-ooutcome interactions.

So, what exhibits did manage to approach systems thinking?

Exploratorium systems concepts
1. Sand tilt. (see also). This ball is half filled with sand. The floor between the two halves has about 15 holes, the sizes of which are controlled by taps. The tilt of the ball is controllable. All these controls add up to a quite unpredictable system with small catalytic events causing large changes. As the sand flows through the holes, complex landscapes are formed.

Exploratorium systems concepts

2. Searching for meaning. The visitor tumbles the drum, removing words one by one – attempting to make sense of the emerging sentences. Sentence construction is aided by the colours. As more words are added, the complexity of the sentences and their meaning changes.

Exploratorium systems concepts

3. While a simple construct, the multiple possible connections between wheels and rods means that visitors can build complex systems. With multiple visitors building side-by-side attempts to connect their constructions lead to unexpected outcomes.

Exploratorium systems concepts

4. These robot legs pedalling a bicycle require the visitor to press buttons corresponding with muscle groups. Despite only having three buttons, the coordination required to make this system work is surprisingly difficult.
Exploratorium computer-based

5. The visitor is asked for a random set of gene letters. The computer then finds this sequence on the human genome and reports the enormous number of roles that the sequence contributes to and describes some of them. While not immediately part of the exhibit, both sets of visitors I saw interacting here had really good dicusssions about the size and complexity of the genome and how this is expressed.