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If you’ve ever visited Melbourne Museum, Scienceworks or had a Science workshop conducted through PrimeSci! (formerly the Monash Science Centre) you would have met the creative and lovely Mei Liu – a specialist STEM educator with a passion for innovation, inquiry and student-centred learning. She is in charge of STEM Education Experiences at Scienceworks and shares on the role of Museums creating amazing learning spaces for young and old.

Museum Teaching Staff running a Microbit Worskshop for STEM Teachers, held in the Conference Room at Scienceworks in August 2019.

1. What kind of work are you involved with and why did you choose this career?
My mission is to stoke people’s curiosity about how things work, to help them connect and collaborate with each other and to feel empowered to create and make a difference. In my day job, I lead STEM Education at Scienceworks which is one of Australia’s largest science and technology museums. I also volunteer on the Board of a community makerspace, on the committee of a museum educators’ network and am active in Australia’s partner acrobatic community. I have a myriad of interests and hobbies and am always keen to learn something new. 

I chose my career as a science and technology communicator and museum educator as I’m personally curious about so many different things. I love working with people and seeing their faces light up with excitement or understanding, or their satisfaction with overcoming some difficulty, inspired or wowed by a new concept. I’m fascinated by how science is always changing, new discoveries are being made, theories being reworked, paradigms shifting. I love technology, both high and low tech, how tools enable our work and play and help us create. I’m especially interested as society becomes increasingly high-tech about being conscious as to why and how this technology is used – that is, the ethics and philosophy behind technology. I’ve always been interested in engineering and design. One of my colleagues introduced me to human-centred design which is also closely linked to user experience and user interface – I originally studied psychology, physiology and human behavior so I’m keen to understand who is making these technologies and key decisions about how technologies are used and how are they taking into account all the different needs of their users. 

500,000th visitor to Scienceworks and his twin sister being shown by a presenter how to use a drum to demonstrate the concept of high pressure.

2. What do you love about your work?
I love the people, the ideas, the creativity. I am really inspired by my colleagues at Scienceworks who are all fantasticálly talented and kind people, always ready to collaborate and help. We have the most interesting lunchroom and office conversations about new scientific discoveries and our program and activity brainstorm sessions are always full of puns and laughter. I love working with teachers who I have always admired for their patience and commitment to creating the best learning opportunities possible for their students and it is my honour to assist them with our museum resources. I don’t work with students as much as I used to when I first started at Scienceworks, but when I do I always love hearing their ideas – they don’t have as many hang-ups as adults. I try to learn from them and be more child-like in my creative practice. 

Every day is different, I might wake up with a rough idea of the plan of the day but then some other challenge or pleasant surprise might pop up and then I’m adapting, off on a different adventure. Sometimes I plan to come in for a day of form-filling and meetings and then next thing I’m called to present on television about robotics or to test a giant jumping castle on our arena. 

The NAO humanoid robots!

3. What did you study at tertiary level and does it relate to your work today?
My Bachelor of Science helped me to think critically and analytically. Exposure to the scientific process and the confidence to interpret various claims helped hone my bullshit-o-meter. My post-grad in Science Communication helped me realise that not everyone had the same scientific training or literacy and because I had that, it was now my duty to help people feel engaged and curious about the world around them and not feel alienated from science and tech perspectives. This degree hammered in my consciousness the importance of understanding “audience”. My second post-grad in Teaching was like a 4 year therapy session in my own relationship with learning. I learnt so much about learning. This, combined with my previous experience about “audience” helps me be a more compassionate educator. 

All of these tertiary courses helped me with being able to find and digest a huge range of sources, understand the backgrounds and biases of who has said what, all whilst standing on the shoulders of giants who have come before, to be able to form my own humble opinion. 

I feel like I studied for a really long time and was both really interested in what I was studying and also really anxious to do “well” – whatever that means. If I could give advice to my younger self it would be to take it easy, be swept away by my interest and curiosity in what I was learning rather than some ideal about getting the best mark or whatever. I would have taken many more extracurricular opportunities like joining clubs, taking on more hobbies or going overseas on exchange. 

4. How do you think museums can help students develop STEAM skills in secondary school if they are not interested in traditional maths and science subjects?
Everyone needs to be engaged with the question “why do we have to learn this?” or more simply “why?” I was always that annoying kid who asked why and continue to be that person. The answer “because it’s on the test” or “because it’s in the curriculum” isn’t sufficient because that leads to another “why?” The answer “because society thinks it’s important” also doesn’t really cut it as “who in society decided it was important and why?” And so on!

It is the job of museums to examine and share what society thinks is important enough to preserve, what are significant objects, inventions, photos, ideas etc. This sort of critical thinking, socio-historical context and transdisciplinary vantage point gives students the skills to ask “why” and then empowers them to find out. 

Also, Scienceworks is just really fun. 

The “serious fun” that students have at a science and tech museum means they develop a positive affect towards subjects like maths and science – “this is for me, I can do this”. They discover that subjects are really just different lenses, different languages to view and understand the world.  

Participants at the event – from a series of images captured at WeSTEM: Design Sprint. Held in the Pumping Station, teams of five students and a teacher from different schools participated in a day-long design challenge. The session was run with speakers in the morning, time to learn the prototyping technology, and design sections; culminating in presentations at the end.

5. How have museums evolved over the years to be more interactive and provide a digital experience for young and old?
Museums used to be about ego – demonstrating an individual’s worldliness in a Cabinet of Curiosities collected from his travels or for displaying the might of a nation with treasures captured from conquests and colonies afar. They were and still are today, institutions of research on the natural sciences, physical and chemical sciences, society and culture. Museums range from being entirely privately funded, relying on philanthropic donations or publicly funded institutions which receive grants from government, private and philanthropic sources. More and more, museums are becoming conscious of audience – not only because of who funds us, but in considering ‘who are we for?” and “how do they want to engage with us?” We are adapting to an ever widening range of audience members who all have different interests and needs. Some of the early pioneers in visitor experience and interactivity were Children’s Museums and Science and Technology centres. They discovered that for museums, institutions of lifelong learning, were most engaging when that learning was participatory. Other, more traditional museums followed suit in recent decades to boost their visitation and engagement but many still rely heavily on didactic materials – lengthy physical signage, lectures, audio tours and so on. Scienceworks has always prided itself on being highly participatory and practical. All research pointed to this being the best method for engaging with visitors of all ages but especially our primary target audience of families with 6 – 12 year old children. Then, in 2020 the global pandemic hit. Like everyone else all over the world, we rapidly pivoted to prioritising our digital experiences. We had already been developing digital experiences for many years for regional audiences and education audiences who could not come on site. This was rapid-response however and we made an incredible impact. In the first month of launching Museum at Home, Museums Victoria reached millions of online visitors engaging with our videos, activities, webinars, puzzles, virtual tours, Member’s exclusives and education materials for students learning from home. Museums Victoria’s Education team has adapted our learning experiences to be available online. This is a fantastic development to enrich learning experiences from home for schools shut during the pandemic but will influence how we learn and teach in an ongoing way, with benefits especially for those students in regional areas. 

6. In your experiences with students what has been the barriers to learning STEAM and why do you think this has happened?
I think the main barriers are lack of confidence or positive affect towards STEAM subjects. This usually develops when students have had some negative learning experiences, whether in feeling confused, overwhelmed, bored – all of these things can lead students to think “this is not for me”. They might also lack insight into possible applications of this learning or future careers. This may be solved by engaging in activities that expand their learning ecosystem such as visits to museums or through interactions with industry mentors or seeing role models who come from similar backgrounds to them in the media. I feel fortunate that Scienceworks has such an emphasis on engagement rather than assessment because when curiosity and confidence are fostered then the academic results will follow. I am proud to represent women and people of colour in STEAM and notice when this has an effect on student perceptions of who can be a scientist or engineer. 

Mei Liu making learning fun with students using DASH (smart educational robot)

7. If you could have a superpower what would it be and why?
This is a fun question! My superpower of choice would be to spread an aura of joy wherever I go and perhaps to be able to speak many languages to better communicate with others. These are really ‘super’ powers because they are realistic and something I can work towards. Another superpower I’d be keen to have would be the magical ability to be able to fix anything. I’m also working on developing this at the makerspace!

Thank you Mei Liu for the interview and igniting a passion in learning through your work with Museums Victoria! It felt like a virtual tour of Scienceworks with all the interesting programs you have supported and led! We love it when museums make their exhibits children friendly and encourage curious minds to touch, play and experiment.

Discovering without Borders is sparking interest in STEAM education all over the world and we love it when children have “why” questions! We believe our STEAM education resources are inspiring children to be curious learners and are specifically supporting developing nations and disadvantaged communities to access our online resources.
For more information visit: www.d-w-b.org or contact@d-w-b.org