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Night (of Fun) at the Museum

Lamont Craven seated in front of a two-story Tesla coil

Lamont Craven’s job at the Carnegie Science Center is to make science interesting for adults. Behind him is a two-story Tesla coil that had been housed in Buhl Planetarium before the science center opened in 1991. (Photo by Keith Boyer)

Marketing Science to an Adults-Only Audience

At the risk of stating the obvious, organic chemistry is difficult, even for some undergraduates specializing in science. To this, Lamont Craven, a 2011 graduate of IUP’s Natural Science program, will attest.

“I failed it the first time,” he admitted, if only to make a point about the broader challenge he faces as an educator at the Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh’s preeminent public showcase for science and technology. 

The point, he said, is that people have a tendency to think science is incomprehensible, the stuff of mystics to whom the greatest secrets of the universe have been revealed. 

“The first time I took organic chemistry, I put it on a pedestal. I thought it was super hard and you had to be super smart to pass it,” he said. “I let the nomenclature stand in the way. Hearing new, long, strange words made me immediately put the subject on a pedestal. 

“After I joined a study group, one of my peers explained a problem without using any organic chemistry nomenclature,” he said. “It was then that I noticed how hard I was making the class. The study group helped me realize most of us did the same thing. The second go-round wasn’t as intimidating, because I found a way to demystify the subject.”

That experience is reflected in Craven’s work as the science center’s adult programs manager. In that role, he develops programs that make science understandable. And interesting. But he is also responsible for bringing adults through the door. 
That can be difficult, given that the museum is marketed toward children and families.

“One of the challenges is to break that stigma,” Craven said. “How do you attract people who think this building and the activities in the building are for kids?” 

One way, it turns out, is to set up a cash bar and bring in models to walk around in nothing but painted-on clothing. Another? Schedule some discussions about human sexuality—for example, erotic role-play.

Both were part of the science center’s ongoing series of 21+ Nights, in which the museum opens during evening hours to adults only. Each event is based on a science-oriented theme designed to appeal to a more mature audience. The themes tend to be edgy—things that would typically carry an R rating.

One such event in January focused on body art. The evening included tattoo artists, and participants could make their own temporary tattoos using photosensitive emulsions. The next month’s topic was the science of sex and attraction.

“We’ve been on a roll all year,” Craven said, noting that all the events have sold out, with more than a thousand people showing up for each. While many of the topics may appear suited to young adults, he said adults of all ages are enjoying them.
“We’ve definitely been doing a better job of spreading our reach,” he said.

Craven and the museum also started a traveling program called Two Scientists Walk into a Bar. As the name suggests, the program dispatches pairs of scientists to local establishments, where they quaff a few with the patrons while talking science.

With its many bars and its research institutions that employ plenty of scientists, Pittsburgh may be the ideal city for a program like this. Participating researchers come from universities like Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, and Duquesne, from the Carnegie museums, and from private industry.

Craven said the first time the museum tried it, 30 researchers were deployed to 15 establishments. The event happened to coincide with a Pittsburgh Penguins playoff game, so the bars were packed. And the patrons were loaded—with questions.

And good questions, Craven said. Some focused on what the scientists do and how they got their start.

“That’s when I felt we had something good. They weren’t just random, drunken questions,” he said. “For that to happen during a Pens game in the City of Pittsburgh—for the scientists to have any interaction—is amazing.”

Eventually, he wants to try the program at Indiana establishments, with IUP researchers fielding the questions.

As fun as these events are, Craven said he believes they fulfill a greater purpose—instilling in the audience an interest in science and making it relatable.

“Science is for everybody. We do a good job of focusing on kids and early learners,” he said, “but learning doesn’t stop at 18.”