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‘Make Science Sexy’ - November 2016

Adding maker activities helped the Pavilion of Knowledge in Portugal change with the times

by Juliana Gilling

Step inside the Pavilion of Knowledge (Pavilhão do Conhecimento)—part of Ciência Viva’s network of 20 science centers in Portugal—and you’re likely to find visitors building robots, printing 3-D creations, textile hacking, and making fun runs for marbles.

The Lisbon science center, which opened in 1999, is one of a growing number of European science centers and museums that are bringing the maker movement into their spaces. The aim is to establish communal places where people can experiment, create, share, learn, and collaborate.

Seeds of Change

In Lisbon, the seeds were already there for the maker movement to take root. First, the Pavilion of Knowledge team had always focused on “finding ways to bring people in and to make science sexy,” says Inês Oliveira, director of education at the Pavilion of Knowledge-Ciência Viva. The facility has five exhibition rooms (each spanning 500 square meters), two of which change annually to attract new and repeat visitors. There’s a rich range of educational, cultural, and entertainment programs. The combined offerings attract around 800 visitors a day, evenly split between families with children and school groups.

Second, the science center frequently connected experts with guests and forged strong links with the scientific community. “It’s very common for visitors who come to the Pavilion of Knowledge to speak directly to researchers. We try to deconstruct their knowledge and present it in a way that can be understood by the layperson,” says Oliveira.

Third, Portugal has a long and illustrious hands-on tradition, even if the maker movement concept is not widely known. “The reality of Portugal is that there has never been enough money,” says Oliveira. “Portuguese people are very talented with their hands. We create a lot with minimal resources, which is also the basis of the maker movement. The skills already existed in our culture and we felt that we should highlight them. We needed to know more about what we could do and learn from each other.”

The Rise of DIY Science

Ciência Viva’s educators first started looking at the maker movement almost four years ago. The trend emerged at a time when operators of science centers and museums like the Pavilion of Knowledge were grappling with their role in a changing world. Historically, science museums had sprung up as showcases for the achievements of the Industrial Revolution. Later, institutions shifted their focus from exhibiting objects to exploring scientific phenomena. In the 21st century, a new revolution is underway.

“Society is changing,” says Oliveira. “People want to participate more and share more. They actively want to explore different materials and technologies. They’re open to new challenges and opportunities. All over the world, people have easy access to information. They want to work together. Technology is more accessible and consumables are cheaper. In the maker movement, people have gone from asking, ‘How do I buy it?’ to ‘How do I make it?’ The question is, ‘Are we, as science centers, ready to work with this new society?’”

Oliveira and her team looked at the pioneering work being done by the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California, especially “The Tinkering Studio.” With the Exploratorium’s help, the Lisbon team built their own workshop dedicated to making and tinkering inside the Pavilion of Knowledge. “Dòing,” a 500-square-meter makerspace, opened in 2014.

Learning by ‘Dòing’

Like the activities it promotes, “Dòing” was a challenge. Oliveira remembers how difficult it was to figure out “Dòing’s” place in the maker movement: “We are not a FabLab [the global network of community-based digital fabrication workshops] and we are not just a place for children,” she says. “Dòing” is for children and adults, for those who see themselves as makers and those who don’t, for the nerds and the nervous, and those who are simply curious. It’s a place where trial and error meet in a fun and inspiring way.”

Visitors might find themselves taking paper airplanes for a test flight, creating electrical circuits with conductive ink, experimenting with e-textiles (electronic textiles), or assembling scribbling machines.

“I really love the weekends because that’s when you see the greatest variety of people in the ‘Dòing’ area,” says Oliveira. “You’ll see parents and grandparents with their kids trying to figure out how something works, or attempting a new challenge. The parents and the grandparents start to become the explainers in these spaces. You can see that people are engaged, not only with each other, but also with the experiment itself. That’s when I feel that this is working well.”

Operators have to be willing to embrace the unpredictability of makerspaces, however. “It takes a lot of courage, because we are so used to controlling things in science centers. With tinkering, you are not able to control things anymore,” says Oliveira. “People are not just pushing a button, or learning what you want them to learn. They are beyond that. They are learning things that you never expected them to learn by doing a challenge. They are learning what they want to learn, based on the method they choose to use.

“The experience is different for every visitor and this is the hardest part. You have to be secure enough, know enough, and not be afraid of showing there are some things you’ve never thought about before.”

Staff selection and training are crucial to the success of these areas, believes Oliveira. “Explainers cannot be explainers there,” she says. Makerspace facilitators need a special set of skills to encourage people to dream up and realize their own challenges. “It is a human resources investment, it’s true,” she says.

Makerspaces also represent a considerable financial investment. Although materials and technologies have dropped in price, they can still add up. “But these spaces really work,” insists Oliveira. “Just try it, don’t be afraid, and trust your gut.”

The reward can be far higher levels of engagement. This past summer, the Pavilion of Knowledge launched a new, 25-hour, maker-inspired course aimed at 16- to 25-year-olds. Open to 90 students, it sold out within a week. The team has also noticed rising demand for teacher training courses in making and tinkering.

Grand Ambitions

Oliveira hopes to see the maker movement spirit spread throughout her science center. The team plans to give a behind-the-scenes look at exhibit prototyping, for example. “We are not afraid anymore to show things that are not finished. We want to work with the public to improve them,” says Oliveira. She’d also like to see more makers involved in reshaping the science museum, much like artists in residence: “It’s something I would love to do, but it’s very difficult.”

What’s happening in Portugal reflects what’s going on in the rest of Europe. Maker Faire events are attracting thousands of visitors from Lisbon to Newcastle upon Tyne, Berlin to Rome. Science centers and museums are increasingly investing in makerspaces like “Dòing.” It’s a revolution in motion: “We are moving from a science phenomenon-based space to a let’s-try-it-out tinkering-and-making space,” says Oliveira.

Institutions are having to do their own tinkering, experimenting, problem solving, and tweaking to create spaces that can accommodate this new direction, and capitalize on the learning possibilities. The result could be a more flexible, creative, confident, and energized generation of European science centers—and guests—ready to face the challenges ahead. 

Maker Faire Lisbon: By the Numbers

Hosting a Maker Faire seemed like a natural extension of the Pavilion of Knowledge’s activities. The science center partnered with the municipality and Lisbon-based company Bright Pixel to launch a three-day Maker Faire in September 2014. “We thought we would have 50-70 makers and maybe 3,000 visitors. But the truth is we had about 100 maker projects and 10,000 people,” says Pavilion of Knowledge’s
Inês Oliveira. In 2015, those numbers grew to around 120 projects, with 250 makers and 15,000 visitors.

This year, organizers anticipated a drop in attendance because the event was temporarily moved to July (when many people take their vacation) and ran for two days. “We still had 130 projects, 480 makers, and 10,000-12,000 visitors,” says Oliveira. Also, the lineup of maker projects was much broader, with a larger showing of arts and crafts alongside technologies.

Oliveira is delighted with the way the Maker Faire has drawn makers out of their shells—and their garages and studios—and into the public domain. “The event has evolved and the makers are much more open to sharing their ideas with the public,” she says. “Despite the lower visitor numbers this year, the level of engagement was great. Our workshops worked very well. I think it was the best Lisbon Maker Faire event ever.”