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On a recent evening, hundreds of children and their families arrived at a science center in the historic Old Town neighborhood. The event, known as Family Science Night, offered a unique experience for families from two high-poverty public schools. The science center, called Explora, was a perfect venue for this event as it provided hands-on, interactive exhibits for families to explore.
The children eagerly immersed themselves in the various exhibits. They had the chance to experiment with water-based displays in the Water of Life, Life of Water section, feeling the objects in the water with their own hands. In the Shapes of Sound area, they pressed keys on a keyboard that produced deep vibrations felt through the benches they were sitting on. Over in the Moving Air section, they observed how different sizes and shapes of paper cups reacted when placed on a barrel with a fan blowing air towards the ceiling.
A young boy excitedly called out to his father as he watched his paper creation in the Cup Copter exhibit soar through the air. The atmosphere was filled with enthusiasm and curiosity as families engaged with the exhibits and activities.
Recognizing the importance of preparing young people with a strong foundation in science and related fields, there is a growing movement to utilize science-rich institutions across the United States. Science centers, museums, botanical gardens, zoos, and natural-history museums all play a crucial role in promoting scientific knowledge and inspiring a passion for science. These institutions have a broad reach, with a majority of Americans having visited at least one informal science institution in the past year.
The number of science centers and museums has significantly increased over the past few decades. They can now be found in nearly every major metropolitan area and many smaller communities across the country. The growth of these institutions has been remarkable, with over 350 science centers, museums, and related institutions nationwide. This rapid development highlights the importance placed on creating cultural and educational spaces dedicated to science.
While these institutions share a common mission of educating the public, they differ from traditional schools in several ways. Visitors have the freedom to choose whether or not to engage with the exhibits, and they decide how much time to spend on each activity. Most visitors only have the opportunity to visit sporadically, making it crucial that these institutions offer engaging and interactive experiences that capture their interest.
Explora, with its mission of fostering inspirational discovery and lifelong learning through interactive experiences in science, technology, and art, was established in 1995. It was formed through the merger of a science center and children’s museum, and it receives support from various sources, including earned income, public funding, and grants from corporations and foundations.
Explora offers a diverse range of exhibits and activities for visitors to enjoy, providing a unique learning experience for children and families.
Explora, a science center located in Albuquerque, offers a unique and intimate experience with its 20,000 square feet of exhibit space. While it may be smaller in size compared to other renowned science centers and museums like the California Science Center and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Explora’s focus is on providing hands-on learning activities rather than maintaining large collections or traditional exhibits.
Paul Tatter, the associate director, describes Explora’s exhibits as clusters of small, interactive activities that can be easily observed and explored. The emphasis is on visitor engagement through touch and investigation, rather than lengthy text explanations. In fact, one kindergarten teacher expressed her enthusiasm for the center, noting how her students were encouraged to touch and explore everything.
One exhibit called Cup Copter allows visitors to experiment with variables such as wing length, angle, and weight to observe how they affect the floating and spinning of paper cups. Betsy Adamson, the exhibits director, highlights that the main objective is to provide visitors with an investigative experience and exposure to scientific concepts, even if they don’t remember the specific terms.
Explora doesn’t aim to teach specific content or dictate the visitors’ experience. Instead, the center focuses on creating an environment conducive to meaningful exploration and learning. The staff plays a vital role in facilitating this experience, with Kristin W. Leigh, the director of educational services, expressing that they are an integral part of the exhibition.
By encouraging families to spend more time and engaging on-floor staff who ask questions rather than providing direct answers, Explora stands out as an innovative and forward-thinking science center. Experts in the field, like Mr. Friedman, who now consults with similar facilities nationwide, applaud Explora’s physical arrangement and staff approach.
In addition to the exhibit floor, Explora offers a wide range of educational programs and activities, including after-school clubs, summer camps, professional development for teachers, and an extensive youth intern program. High school students receive support and training to assist with educational programs and interact with visitors.
Ensuring accessibility is a priority for Explora. To engage a diverse audience, including minority and low-income families, the center offers free family memberships and hosts Family Science Nights in collaboration with Albuquerque public schools. These efforts are funded through the Title I aid for disadvantaged students.
With a commitment to hands-on learning, engaging exhibits, and a dedication to accessibility, Explora has gained national recognition for its work in the science center community.
Kirsten Ellenbogen, the senior director of lifelong learning at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, emphasized that museums are no longer confined to their physical spaces. They are actively seeking ways to integrate themselves into their communities and serve as valuable resources. Nancy J. Stueber, the president and CEO of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, also shared this sentiment, stating that the goal is to go beyond being seen as "nice" and become an essential part of advancing STEM learning.
Explora, unlike many other science centers and museums, has a unique approach. It lacks extravagant features like an IMAX theater or popular traveling exhibits. However, it has garnered praise for its exhibitions. For instance, the Race: Are We So Different? exhibition, created by the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota, has received support from the National Science Foundation. It explores the science, history, and everyday experiences of race in America through interactive displays, historical artifacts, photographs, and multimedia presentations. Another noteworthy exhibition is Charlie and Kiwi’s Evolutionary Adventure, which debuted at the New York Hall of Science in 2009. It uses a child-friendly narrative to help young people understand the connection between dinosaurs and modern birds.
One of the challenges faced by science museums is finding a balance between their educational mission and generating revenue. Many museums rely heavily on earned income, making it difficult to prioritize educational goals. According to recent survey data from the Association of Science-Technology Centers, only 17% of operating revenue for U.S. science centers and museums comes from public funds, while approximately 50% comes from earned income. The recent recession has further exacerbated this issue, with some museums receiving fewer public dollars and experiencing a decline in visitors, especially school groups on field trips.
While there is nothing wrong with science centers offering engaging activities to attract visitors and generate ticket sales, some experts, such as Kirsten Ellenbogen, are concerned that certain blockbuster exhibits, often sponsored by private companies, may prioritize entertainment over educational value. For example, the Harry Potter: The Exhibition, featured in several major science museums, is not designed to be a science learning experience.
David A. Ucko, a former senior official at the National Science Foundation, suggests that there is a larger public-policy question at play. Should informal science institutions receive more funding from the nation’s education budget? To support this argument, research is being conducted to measure the impact of museum exhibits and activities. Institutions like the Oregon and Minnesota science museums, as well as the Exploratorium, have dedicated in-house research teams to assess their offerings and contribute to the field of informal science learning.
Another ongoing challenge is finding effective ways to connect museums and other informal learning institutions with formal education settings. While there are examples of successful partnerships, there is still difficulty in institutionalizing these collaborations. Experts caution that aligning informal learning with the standards, curricula, and assessments of schools can be challenging. There is a need to measure aspects that matter outside of the classroom, such as students’ interest in science and whether it improves over time.
In conclusion, science museums are actively seeking to integrate into their communities and become valuable resources. They aim to go beyond being seen as a nice place to visit and instead be regarded as essential for advancing STEM learning. However, they face challenges related to generating revenue, striking a balance between entertainment and education, and forging connections with formal education systems. Ongoing research on the impact of museum exhibits and activities may help support the case for increased public financing.