11 April 2011


DISORDER & DISCRIMINATION. A fascinating set of studies has revealed that chaotic environments (whether dirty, cluttered, or fraught with uncertainty) provoke stereotypes and discriminatory behavior, far more so than clean, ordered environments. The setting might be a railway station, a neighborhood, an office space with bookshelves, an experiment with flashcards, or the arrangement of shapes on a page -- the results are consistent. The working hypothesis for these studies is that "stereotypes, being a set of simplified categories and judgments, can help people to cope with chaos. They are a 'mental cleaning device in the face of disorder'. When our surroundings are full of chaos -- be it dirt or uncertainty -- we react by seeking order, structure, and predictability. Stereotypes, for all their problems, satisfy that need."

Thus might Muslims become unfairly stereotyped as being violent, Poles as less intelligent, blacks as aggressive, Jews as avaricious, women as passive, ad nauseam. Understanding the roots of stereotypes does not justify indulging in them, of course. They remain simplistic thinking which misleads us, forming a world view which does not accurately reflect complex reality, and leading to xenophobic and discriminatory behavior which the recipient does not deserve. As the report concludes -- "The message for policy makers is clear: One way to fight unwanted stereotyping and discrimination is to diagnose enviromental disorder early and to intervene immediately by cleaning up and creating physical order. Signs of disorder such as broken windows, graffiti, and scattered litter will not only increase antisocial behavior, they will also automatically lead to stereotyping and discrimination. Investing in repair and renovation, and preventing neighborhoods [and public facilities] from falling into disarray, may be relatively inexpensive and effective ways to reduce stereotyping and discrimination."

Footnote -- It is also useful to recognize that the higher one's tolerance for ambiguity and diversity, the more adaptable one becomes in varying, diverse settings. Just a thought.

SCIENCE MUSEUMS. I was pleased beyond words to come across the article Surveys Confirm Enormous Value of Science Museums, "Free Choice" Learning. It is an unfortunate myth that schools and formal education form the best, or even the only, source of information for inquisitive minds of any age, particularly when the subject is science. Classrooms have their place, but direct experience in laboratories, on field trips, and in interdisciplinary teaching provide the most vivid and memorable learning tools.

The study focused on the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Extensive surveys of thousands of visitors over a ten-year period revealed that --

~ More than half the residents of Los Angeles County, over one million a year, have visited the Science Center since it opened in 1998, and say it strongly improved their understanding of science issues.

~ Residents who visited the Science Center were among the most knowledgeable Los Angeles residents about science and technology, and their visit significantly contributed to this.

~ the makeup of visitors was broadly representative of the general population, including all races, ethnicities, ages, education and income levels.

~ More than a quarter of visitors were Hispanic, and some of the strongest beliefs about positive impact were expressed by minority and low-income individuals.

~ While other leisure activities were decreasing in the past decade, adult use of the Internet, watching educational programs on television, and listening to educational programs in other formats increased.

~ Nearly all adults who said their children had visited the Science Center reported an increase in their children's knowledge of science and technology, and large majorities said the visit increased their long-term interest levels.

~ The attraction of the museum was amazingly broad -- no one zip code accounted for more than 2 percent of the visitation.

These results dovetail nicely with both my experiences growing up, and with my experiences as a teacher. The most vivid memories are imprinted in non-ordinary settings -- on vacation, on a field trip, during a visit to a richly varied and artfully presented environment like a science museum. Even if one does not exist where you live, a special trip to the nearest science museum will repay you many times over, in new knowledge and in a revitalized sense of awe and wonder at all that we know (and are still learning) about the world around us. Hands-on exhibits, along with both static and animated displays, in fields ranging from physics, biology and chemistry to time, space and the cosmos will keep you happily engaged for hours on end.

Toward that end, here is a list of major science museums in the U.S. I particularly recommend those (like the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia) which incorporate or are close to an IMAX theater. The signature seven-story tall, wrap-around screen and state of the art sound system are guaranteed to take your breath away. Here is a list of IMAX venues, located around the world. Enjoy.

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