I LOVE science museums. If a city has one, I’ll be there. What can I say, I’m an unashamed science fangirl! Before Proof, I was a materials scientist at the National Physical Laboratory, and complex experiments were part of my daily life. Once I got involved in NPL’s award-winning outreach program, I had to find ways to bring that science to the public. And one thing I learned is to never underestimate the power of a hands-on science demo – a good one can be an incredibly powerful tool, no matter who you’re speaking to.
But good science demonstrations are deceptively challenging to develop – they must be fun and engaging, while retaining the core scientific idea at their heart. And science museums have to consider even more than that. Their demos must be safe, durable, self-explanatory and easy-to-use for visitors of all ages, without the need for expert supervision.
On my recent trip to San Francisco, I visited what I now consider the mothership of science museums – The Exploratorium. The brainchild of Frank Oppenheimer (brother of J. Robert), the Exploratorium is a huge museum of “science, art, and human perception”. Frank himself was a bit of a dude – officially a professor and experimental physicist, he also worked as a high school teacher and a cattle rancher during his (clearly varied) career. While teaching at a university, Frank developed a library of experiments to enable his students to explore scientific phenomena at their own pace, driven by their own curiosity. He used the same model to crate the Exploratorium – a place that he hoped would educate and encourage the public (children and adults alike) to be more curious about science.
For Frank, the way to do this was to enable tinkering, playing and experimenting, and today’s Exploratorium still reflects that. It is a must-see for all visitors to San Francisco, stuffed to the rafters with brilliant hands-on experiments. From coloured shadows to a tornado you can run around, the museum encourages visitors to just ‘have a go’. Geology, astronomy and engineering all feature alongside the more physics-heavy experiments. The museum also manages to covey some pretty fundamental mathematical and biological concepts too, along with a whole host of social experiments you can do with other visitors. Even the museum’s lockers play music – their handles act like tuning forks.
The entire place was a mecca to science learning – every demo is designed to help people to learn by doing – something I am passionate about. It was my first visit to the Exploratorium, but I am certain it won’t be my last – four hours simply wasn’t long enough!
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