What are science centers and what is public engagement in science?

Science centers connect people with science. Science centers give science a presence in the community and offer people of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to ask questions, discuss, and explore. Visit a science center, and you’ll encounter hands-on exhibits like giant levers, wave tanks, and walk-in kaleidoscopes. While you are there, you may go to a demonstration, watch a skyshow or big-screen film, participate in a workshop, or even take part in a debate about a current issue like bioethics. In the process, you’ll experience the pleasure of lifelong learning, whether with family, friends, or on your own. At science centers, everyone is welcome.

Science centers provide firsthand experience and an opportunity to develop intuitions about the natural world. In science centers, visitors can feel infrared radiation and experience angular momentum—so when people encounter these concepts in other settings, they are more likely to understand them. That’s why schools rely on science centers for memorable field trips and auditorium programs, hands-on curriculum, science kits, and even training for teachers.

Science centers encourage curiosity. Exhibits that are beautiful or surprising—or even funny—can encourage visitors to approach new phenomena and ideas. In the words of Frank Oppenheimer, founder of San Francisco’s Exploratorium, “No one ever failed a museum.” For some, the interests awakened by science center experiences have turned into a passion for science, and the beginning of a lifetime devoted to teaching or research.

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