Most of us take it as a given that "look don't touch" is no way to encourage budding scientists. And every good teacher knows the stay-in-your-seats, nose-in-your-textbooks approach to pedagogy is no way to get anyone interested in the natural world. But when San Francisco's Exploratorium first opened in 1969, it pioneered the practice of hands-on "informal learning" through real life experience.
Today visitors to the Exploratorium know the place as a giant fun-house of sensory stimulation and touch-and-feel scientific experimentation. Over the past 43 years, loads of Bay Area families have made the trek to the Palace of Fine Arts so their kids can tinker to their hearts' delight.
As of Thursday, April 17, 2013, the long schlep is over. From 10:00am until 11:00pm on opening day, the new Exploratorium at Pier 15 will host outdoor exhibits, demonstrations, and activities to celebrate its lovely indoor/outdoor space just a few blocks from the Ferry building and the Embarcadero BART. The museum's increased accessibility means it's not just a locals-only secrete anymore: the bridge-and-ferry crowd, not to mention the tourists are sure to swarm to the museum after a pastry at the Ferry Building.
One of the first things you see at the new facility is a sign that says "You Can't Fail a Museum." And with three times more space and 150 new exhibits to discover, you can't age out of it either. The experience begins even before you enter the museum: the atrium features visitor lockers that become musical notes when you hold the handles. The new site expands on the museum's groundbreaking tradition to offer exhibits that encourage touching, tinkering, and interactive investigating.
George Cogan, the new Chairman of the Exploratorium's Board of Directors, said, "The bigger mission of the Exploratorium is to foster a more perfect democracy." The museum seeks to inspire visitors to think for themselves, rather than accept whatever truth is marketed to them. "Science is too important to leave to politicians," Cogan continued. "We as citizens have a responsibility to learn about these things and ask questions that influence what we do around the world."
When Frank Oppenheimer founded the Exploratorium in 1969, the concept of out-of-the classroom education was novel. After a scientific career in service of the government (in the 1940s he worked with his brother Robert on the Manhattan Project), Frank found himself blacklisted and turned to high school science, building a range of creative teaching methods. He took his students to the dump, scavenging for used abandoned auto parts to teach principles of mechanics, heat, and electricity.
Frank's dedication to pedagogy continues through Exploratorium programming today. Currently the museum's Teacher Institute trains over 500 teachers a year in such exploratory curriculum, improving on -- if it's possible -- classroom field trips to the dump. Additionally, 80% of science centers around the world use a version of Exploratorium exhibits.
The museum is, of course, primarily a place for DIY exploration. And one of the coolest things about the Exploratorium is that it's a place where you can trick kids into learning. Pedaling on a stationary bike shows you how much energy it takes to power a radio, a light bulb, or a fan. The human behavior gallery can teach you how to detect a poker face. In the Seeing & Listening gallery, kids can use their jawbones to listen -- like snakes do. And in the Tinkering Studio, visitors can build, make, hack, create, invent, and experiment.
On the Bay side, the explorations move toward natural science, with a Bay Observatory and exhibits about water, fog, wind, rain, sea life, and tides. Outdoor exhibits include a Fog Bridge, a 150-foot long pedestrian bridge designed by Japanese interdisciplinary artist Fujiko Nakaya. Nakaya warns that the immersive fog can be disorienting. People can lose their balance. Kids can get freaked out. But, she says, "Let them cry. It's only for a few minutes."
The next Exploratorium is bigger and snazzier, but the fundamental principles of its conception remain the same: always question, always seek out new ways of approaching scientific information. As you amble through the exhibits, someone may beckon you to stop at the Explainer's Station. "Can you make your mind stop thinking?" a staff member calls out, ready to engage in conversation.
The Exploratorium opens at Pier 15 on April 17, 2013. For more information visit exploratorium.edu.