What is a science centre?
A science centre is an interactive educational institution, in which visitors can carry out with their own hands, see with their own eyes, touch and feel experiments on many different science phenomena.
I have heard and I have forgotten. I have seen and I remember. I have done and I understood. (Chinese proverb)
A science centre is a place where touching all exhibits is „strictly allowed“ and where by doing things and experimenting everyone can understand how the wonderful world around us works.
History of the science centre phenomenon
Science centres are a phenomenon born in the 70' in USA and becoming more and more popular all over the world (around 200 in 1990, more then 2000 nowadays).
The idea of an institution providing an informal environment for playful exploration of science phenomena had existed a long time before but only after a few very successful projects such as the Exploratorium of Frank Oppenheimer in San Francisco or the Ontario Science Centre in Canada a functioning model was created which sparked the movement that gradually spread to other continents.
In Europe science centres spread in the 90' and many where also build in the UK thanks to the state funded Millenium lottery. Successful examples are also the Danish Experimentarium, Finish Heureka or French Cité des Sciences.
The science centre idea is still very much live as can be seen on new projects such as the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw which opened in 2010 and is one of the largest in Europe.
Science centres in the Czech republic
There still isn't a widely accepted translation of the term „science centre“ into Czech since the straight forward translation runs into problems of a slightly different meaning of the word „science“. While in English „science“ encompasses both natural sciences such as physics, chemistry, astronomy or biology together with the actual process of carrying out research and accumulating the body of knowledge, in Czech the first meaning is reduced and so „vědecké centrum“ which is the direct translation is understood by most as „research centre“. That is why we use a half translation „science centrum“. Future will show if this is lucky.
Until now two science centres have come into being in the Czech republic. The first one is IQ park in Liberec that was gradually developed from 2004, the second is Techmánia in Pilsen open in autumn 2008.
Because most Czech inhabitants lack a personal experience with science centres it might be useful to look at similarities and differences with commonly known institutions:
As well as classical museums science centres use exhibits, not because of their historical value, but for their ability to communicate understanding of a subject. This is possible due to the potential of provoking thought by direct interaction with the phenomena. The staff of SC doesn't guard the exhibits from visitors but instead motivates them to get physically involved and helps them in carrying out experiments. Expositions are unlike classical museum collections constantly renewed and together with temporary and traveling exhibits enable each visit to be a unique experience. It is important to note that many of the trends in science centres leak into classical museums and vice versa and in the future it is likely that both streams will mix indistinguishably as has happened in many western museums.
As in school also in a science centre there is the effort to educate the visitor, to enable him or her to learn something new or to better understand those things that were sensed intuitively. Science centres use informal methods, they balance elements of game and education. Similarly as in a school the interpersonal contact between the student and a teacher is important the science centre is also a place of encounter, however more then an unequal relationship between the one being lectured and the one lecturing people are here in a more partner role of more or less experienced explorers.
Even though people come to the SC as into an entertainment park, entertainment itself doesn't have to be their ultimate goal. It is a motivation element and a key to understanding. When something goes well we start to have fun, and when we have fun we are in a state when we can absorb knowledge and gain skills much faster, this leads to the point that in the future we will be able to do these things much better and so a positive feedback emerges.
Entertainment multiplex / Shopping mall
Many people spend their time in entertainment multiplexes and shopping malls by going around and enjoying all the colorful and attractive things everywhere around. Similarly a SC offers a way how to spend your free time and displays different subjects in a tempting and attractive fashion, visitors will however bring home most probably not a physical object or experience based on the passive consumption of something ready-made but intangible knowledge, facts and skills gained by active experimenting. A science centre is not aimed at generating profit in the first place but usually in the form of a subsidiary organization uses all its profit to ensure its own operation and continuous improvement and renewal of all exhibits, programs and services.