Informal Learning is Connection

[Mediators] spark conversations, draw out the connections and feelings that each spectator brings in their visit, and prompt them to engage with the art in ways that make sense for them.
Ellie Louson

By Ellie Louson

This is the second post in the Informal Learning at State blog series that explores the spaces for informal learning at MSU. While several definitions of informal learning exist, this series will include learning experiences that are non-curricular and accessible to the public. In other words, these are spaces for learning that admit everyone and that don’t require enrollment in courses. In the series’ first post, Ellie hung out at the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden.

Mediator and visitor exploring a piece at the Science Gallery

Mediator Shanmin beside DEPTH exhibit Great Lakes Algae Organ, photo by Mark Sullivan

A giant jellyfish made of plastic bags. Lasers that track the paths of hustling ants. Performances by hip-hop dancers, slam poets, comedians, filmmakers, and activists from Detroit and around the world. Fog. Robots. Recreating Detroit’s specific smellscape. All this and more is Science Gallery Detroit, a science-art initiative connecting Michigan State and the city of Detroit. The project is in its third year after two successful summer exhibitions: HUSTLE (2018) and DEPTH (2019). Science Gallery Detroit’s yearly exhibitions and programming events are free and open to all but are especially aimed at young people (15 to 25-year olds in particular). It’s the first member of the Science Gallery Network network in the Americas, making it part of a global web of university-city partnerships. Each gallery creates exhibitions through an online open call process and features cutting-edge science-art public programming in the belief that young people have the ability to solve the world’s problems. Science Gallery Detroit is a fascinating setting within which to explore our understanding of informal learning.

I spoke about informal learning with two members of Science Gallery Detroit: Caroline White, Education and Learning Manager; and Antajuan Scott, Head of Programming. They told me that Science Gallery’s purpose is to inspire young people to engage with science and technology through art and culture, not only as spectators but at every stage of the exhibition development process. What stood out for me in our conversation was that their descriptions of informal learning at the Gallery kept circling back not to the creativity and innovation of the exhibits, but to the Mediators, a group of young people employed at every Science Gallery. The Mediators are a key part of what makes these exhibitions distinct from how informal learning operates in other museum spaces.

Mediator and visitor experiencing the tears exhibit at Science Gallery.

SGD Mediator Allyssa during HUSTLE, beside Blood, Sweat and Tears exhibit, photo by Mark Sullivan

Mediators (typically age 18-25) are the public face of informal learning at Science Gallery Detroit. They help visitors connect to and participate in the exhibits and offer near-peer interactions to Science Gallery’s goal audience of young people. Unlike a conventional museum docent, however, they do not do this by telling spectators facts about a piece. Instead, they are trained to spark conversations, draw out the connections and feelings that each spectator brings in their visit, and prompt them to engage with the art in ways that make sense for them. This can mean encouraging them to touch, play, speak, draw, build, move, or tinker with the pieces (following the artists’ vision of their works, of course). They can answer the same types of questions from curious visitors as a typical docent could, but are meant to create open-ended conversations and creative interactions that contribute to Science Gallery’s uniqueness as a museum experience.

The Mediator program has many benefits in addition to enhancing visitors’ informal learning experiences. Science Gallery Detroit creates summer jobs in the Detroit area (some for MSU students), provides training, mentorship, and professional development opportunities, and even the opportunity to create their own science-art exhibits. One such example is Maris Polanco, an artist and former Mediator whose impressive jellyfish sculpture hung above the entrance to last summer’s DEPTH exhibit and is now on display in the atrium of the National Academy of Sciences Building in Washington, D.C. Research suggests that working as a Mediator benefits not only a young person’s self-confidence and interpersonal skills, but also helps them develop empathy, civic engagement, and an interest in social justice. Antajuan and Caroline described what a difference Mediators have made to their exhibitions so far, and how artists have told them “how much more you can do with Mediators” in terms of engaging the public with their art through facilitated conversation. Science Gallery Detroit aims to involve Mediators even more intentionally in the design of future exhibitions, and in interactions with artists during exhibit development. Lastly, Mediators contribute to the deep connection between MSU and Detroit that has been essential to Science Gallery’s success as a catalyst for informal learning.

Antajuan described how, during last year’s brainstorming session prior to what would eventually be the open call for DEPTH, one of the community organizers pointed out that many Detroiters had a negative relationship with water, in terms of its safety, accessibility, cost, or even their children’s’ ability to play in water. This made him rethink their planned framework for the exhibition and show another side to our connection to water. If Science Gallery wants to be the “porous membrane” between the university and the city, exhibition design needs to reflect real community participation and not only what we think makes sense for those communities. This move, from designing ABOUT or FOR a community to designing WITH and ALONGSIDE them, has made a huge difference in other artistic/factual modes of production like documentary film and reminds us that good design depends on genuine conversations and actual listening (see Jay Ruby’s exploration of these tensions in anthropological filmmaking).

The deadline for proposing exhibits for the next fall’s exhibition, FUTURE PRESENT: DESIGN IN A TIME OF URGENCY is Jan 31st. For more information, check out their online open call. Artists, scientists, designers, and all creative hybrids are invited to apply. Information about Mediators and the potential to work as a Mediator on the next exhibit will be available on the website later this year.

Got a suggestion for the next Informal Learning @ State post? Send me an email or connect on twitter @elouson.