IEEE Launches Exhibits Program for Science Museums

Symposium in India focused on low-cost science exhibits to inspire the next generation of engineers

4 February 2013

What can science museum exhibits launched little more than a year ago teach knowledgeable science teachers? Why, how to use the exhibits to teach science.

The museum in question is the B.M. Birla Science Centre, in Hyderabad, India. In January 2011, IEEE launched several interactive science exhibits there to teach preuniversity students the fundamentals and applications of physics, computer science, and electrical engineering. Now, IEEE is hoping what it learned from developing those exhibits can be put to use by museums around the world.

To this end, the IEEE Hyderabad Section, IEEE Educational Activities Board, and B.M. Birla Science Centre held a symposium at the center in November that dealt with how to create interactive, relatively low-cost science exhibits. Those at the Birla center averaged about US $10 000 each, compared with the $100 000 or even $1 million typical of what science exhibits can cost.

Nearly 100 educators and museum staff from 12 countries on 5 continents attended the first IEEE International Symposium on Cost-Effective Museum Exhibits in Engineering and Applied Science (or Exhibits 2012, for short). Attendees came from such countries as Austria, England, Germany, the Philippines, South Africa, Sweden, the United States, and Uruguay. 

In his opening remarks, A.P.J. Kalam, president of India from 2002 to 2007 and a professor of aerospace engineering, emphasized the importance of expanding the reach of the exhibits beyond Hyderabad to help inspire future engineers, especially in rural areas.

“The value of science has to be propagated to people at large, and they should be made to realize the role played by science in their day-to-day lives,” said Kalam, who was named an IEEE honorary member in 2011. He praised the interactive, easy-to-understand exhibits at Birla, saying they inspire creativity and help to remove the fear and stigma that “science is hard.” Kalam suggested that creating similar exhibits at other museums “will lead to building a borderless world with the spirit of scientific excellence.”

Two and a half days of presentations on 26 topics by educators, museum exhibit creators, and IEEE volunteers followed. They covered the value of exposing preuniversity students to science and technology in museums and the criteria for creating inexpensive exhibits; they also provided many details about the exhibits at the Birla center and other institutions. In addition to looking at cost, the discussions focused on interactivity, multimedia elements, and creating effective teachers' guides to accompany the exhibits.

A biometrics exhibit was one of the exhibits discussed in detail. As visitors enter, a station prompts them to have their photographs taken and their fingerprints and iris images recorded. Another station uses this information to match them with their photographs. An accompanying multimedia presentation describes the principles behind biometric identification and explains how the system links visitors’ prints with their photos.

Other exhibits held up as suitable models were on robotics, electro-optics, power and energy, and aerospace. All include hands-on activities and short videos, as well as teachers' manuals that prepare educators to answer students’ questions as they pass through the exhibits.

The symposium was well received, said IEEE Life Fellow V. Prasad Kodali, who cochaired the symposium: “There is already interest in duplicating some of these exhibits at other locations.”

Volunteers are preparing the next steps. A new IEEE exhibit covering fiber-optic communication is to open at Birla in March, and the hope is to hold a second symposium in two years. Visit the symposium website for more information on Exhibits 2012 and the  exhibits demonstrated at the event.

The idea for the program was born in 2009 when Moshe Kam, soon to become 2011 IEEE president, visited Hyderabad, the capital and largest city in the southern India state of Andhra Pradeish. He was there in his capacity as a volunteer on the IEEE Educational Activities Board. Among the places he visited was the Birla center, which in addition to an entire floor devoted to the hands-on exhibits, has a planetarium and a dinosaur exhibit. More than 1000 preuniversity students visit the center each week.

Kam saw an opportunity to broaden the reach of the exhibits to cover such topics as electro-optics, modern communications, and robotics. He wondered whether IEEE volunteers could help create the hands-on exhibits. Volunteers from the IEEE Hyderabad Section, the IEEE Educational Activities Board, and Region 10 quickly pitched in. They designed five new exhibits to which the science center in 2010 devoted 5000 square feet of floor space in its newly christened IEEE Exhibit Wing. Eight more interactive exhibits came along in 2011, six designed by undergraduate engineering and high school students who were mentored by science teachers and IEEE volunteers from the Hyderabad Section.

“The exhibits had two objectives,” says Kodali. “One was to inspire precollege students to look at engineering and computer science as a career. The second was to really make the public aware of the context and application of electrical and computer engineering.”

With more than a dozen exhibits under their belts, the volunteers wanted to share their knowledge with others around the world and came up with the idea for the symposium. “We were making good progress, and breaking new ground,” Kodali says. “We felt it was time to exchange views with others who were working on similar programs and see about replicating our exhibits elsewhere.”

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