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Science in Focus: Andrew Morrison


MythBusters: The Explosive Exhibition, Part 2

Please DO try this at home!

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The TV show The Mythbusters has been a favorite of mine ever since the first episode. The show's explorations into the plausibility of urban legends and common-sense explanations of phenomena have had me hooked for the past nine years. When the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) in Chicago announced "Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition" I made arrangements to take one of my physics classes to the opening to see the Mythbusters in person.

On TV, the hosts have turned what could have been just a boilerplate legal disclaimer at the start of the show into a trademark catch phrase: "Don't try this at home," they warn viewers throughout each episode. Posters and banners throughout the museum carry the same tagline, with the added suggestion to "Try it here at MSI" instead.

As a science educator, I am disappointed the museum marketing would in any form discourage visitors, especially children, from trying to ask scientific questions. I don't believe that was the intent of the poster; rather it was an attempt to play off the show's familiar warning. Of course, the Mythbusters have always been quick to point out that they are not scientists but that they employ scientific methods to test the myths in each episode. The exhibit clearly is not trying to discourage anyone from engaging with scientific exploration.

Since the debut of Mythbusters on TV, there has been a renaissance in DIY science around the world. Many of these science projects have come out of the makerspace (or hackerspace) movement and have been featured in publications like Make Magazine. Adam Savage, one of the show's hosts, has written for Make Magazine, been featured on the cover, and appeared at Maker Faire events. And the Makerspace movement actively encourages people to ask scientific questions and design scientific experiments to conduct at home.

Makerspaces are located all around the world. Chicago has a makerspace, Pumping Station: One, and I belong to a makerspace, Workshop 88, which serves the suburbs to the west of Chicago. Both of these organizations have as a part of their mission the goal to provide a place for people to come together to explore science, technology, art, and the connections between them.

Through my interactions with Workshop 88, I have been exposed to new ways of working with technology to explore the physical world. I have learned how to program microcontrollers and work with 3-D printers. These technologies are still young, but they bring extraordinary potential to delve into scientific explorations at an extremely low cost. The costs are so low that some kids have worked with these technologies at home with their parents. I won't be surprised if in the near future I encounter students in my physics classes with more expertise in these technologies than I have!

My experience with Workshop 88 has also led me to become a volunteer at the Museum of Science and Industry's Fab Lab. The Fab Lab is a place inside the museum where visitors learn the process of designing, prototyping, and building whatever they can dream up. The programs run in the Fab Lab take more time than most interactions patrons have with a typical museum exhibit. A workshop where you learn to design a personalized keychain fabricated on a laser cutter is 45 minutes long. Some of the programs for high school students at the Fab Lab run over the course of several weeks. It's a large time investment, for sure, but with a richer learning experience for participants.

Which brings me back to the Mythbusters exhibition: it was fun to interact with the hands-on stations and test whether or not toast lands butter-side up and whether it is better to run or walk through rain. For me, the airplane on a treadmill interactive display was, by itself, worth the price of admission. And as a fan of the show, I loved seeing the real experimental devices built to test myths on television. But, as I watched the families interacting with the exhibits, I realized that some children were getting more of an education in how to wait their turn and let others have a turn with the experiment rather than learning about the scientific phenomena being tested. The hands-on interactivity which today's museums use is clearly a better way for visitors to be engaged with science than passively looking at a static display. I hope the next step that museums take will be to find a way to slow down the pace at which visitors move from one station to another so that they build their curiosity and ability to not only do science at the museum, but to do science at home as well.

Andrew Morrison is assistant professor of physics at Joliet Junior College.

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