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How to teach science

We love San Francisco’s Exploratorium. For kids who love science, or just love to mess around, the Exploratorium has it all. You’ve got fun stuff, and weird stuff, and gross stuff, and fascinating stuff. You’ve got physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and other disciplines I can’t think of right now. You’ve got fog and noisemakers and lightning and beetles eating dead things.

What else could you want?

Well, one thing you can want from any museum is depth. The Exploratorium achieves this in a few ways. First of all, there are exhibits that can take you in deeper. These are largely the ones where you actually get in and interact. The ones where a large number of kids can walk up and interrupt are less conducive to real experimentation. Secondly, the Exploratorium offers classes that allow real interaction with scientists and with the scientific process. Third, some of the exhibits actually have the ability to teach concepts in a hard science sort of way.

Another thing you want from a museum is enough variety for repeat visits. Yes, we’ve all been tourists and enjoyed a visit to a museum in another town, but tourists should not be the focus of a museum like the Exploratorium. In its present incarnation, I’m sure tourists can have fun, but locals love it, too, over and over. The last time I went to the Exploratorium I discovered a whole area I hadn’t ventured into yet, and was enticed into an interactive exhibit run by a young museum employee who was doing a great job of teaching kids just a little bit about the cells in their bodies.

So if fun and attraction (see paragraph 1!), depth, and variety are the marks of a good museum, the Exploratorium is doing great.

But there are clouds on the horizon. As you may have heard, the Exploratorium has to move. The Palace of Fine Arts is perhaps the weirdest and coolest place they could have started, but the building is unsafe and can’t easily be retrofitted. Also, tourists have a hell of a time getting to it. So they’re off to Pier 15. You got it: soon to be neighbors of Fisherman’s Wharf, overpriced snow globes, and the best place in San Francisco to have your wallet stolen.

Here’s the vision they present on their website:

Learning will happen everywhere. With room inside and out, Pier 15 doubles the exhibition space, doubles the number of classrooms and triples the Exploratorium’s capacity for teacher development. The Learning Commons, Learning Studio and theater provide additional places for the general community and educational professionals to gather and learn. Today, two out of three teachers are turned away from the Exploratorium’s nationally recognized Teacher Institute — considered one of the premier professional training opportunities for K-12 science and math teachers in the Bay Area and beyond. The new Exploratorium will almost triple the number of teachers who come to learn.

Here’s my fear: Yet another overpriced, overdesigned museum where they treasure the air space more highly than the space between your ears. Yet another place where they try to please everyone and fail to please anyone.

On my last visit to the Exploratorium, an employee nabbed me and asked if I’d take part in a little research they were doing. She had me play with an exhibit and then asked me questions. The exhibit in question had no signs, no symbols, nothing that would tell me what to do or what it was about. It was moderately fun to play with, but I wasn’t sure of the science behind what was happening enough to be able to answer my daughter’s questions.

After the employee had asked me her questions, I posed mine:

Why doesn’t this exhibit have any explanations of the science behind it?

“We’re trying to move away from explicit telling people facts and toward allowing them to intuitively explore scientific principles.”


What would you expect me to get from this? There wasn’t even an arrow to tell me how to use the darn thing.

“Well, we want people to use their intuition.”

And if intuition fails me?

Americans are presently the deer in the headlights of scientific advancement. We see that science is the key to the future, and we’re wondering, are we going to miss this train? So frantically, our politicians, educators, and museum curators are trying to figure it out. How can we teach a reluctant population to value science?

The thing is: Americans in general never did much value science, except as it increased the speed of their automobiles or improved the taste of their sodas. Our scientists have always been outsiders: losers, weirdos, outcasts, immigrants. Think I’m exaggerating? Read a little bit about Ben Franklin. Meet my scientist friends. Some of them didn’t come from families that valued science, but they were drawn in because they wanted to get in and get their hands dirty, not because they wanted to be entertained.

A museum that tries to attract the tourist crowd is going to succeed in entertainment, another easily digestible stop before you’re off to the next sight. But it will fail in inspiration and teaching and hard work. And that’s what we need.

I have a deep fear that when the new Exploratorium opens, we’ll see the Academy of Sciences all over again. Ooh, ah, look at that amazing building! Hey, look, they have this great curriculum on their website. Then you go to the amazing building, you ooh and ah about all the space and light, and then find out that science, like natural history, is being taught as either received wisdom or something not worth putting into words.

Sorry, folks. If you want kids to learn science they’re just going to have to read. They’re going to have to write. They’re going to have to (gasp) deal with numbers. Yes, it might be nice to reach them through intuition, but you can’t stop there. You have to impress upon them the fact that they will have to use their brains. And it will hurt. And it will be complicated. And it will be frustrating.

And it will be worth it. That’s how to teach science. But if you design a museum to entertain all, it will enlighten no one.

Posted in Culture, Education.

2 Responses

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  1. Heddi Craft says

    We went to the Exploratorium today and I specifically went to the office and asked them what was going to happen when they moved! They assured me that they would be keeping all the same exhibits and adding more. I complained quite openly of my disappointment in the Academy of Sciences and they said they were not planning to make the same “mistake”. I felt reassured, but I may write them a letter anyway. Perhaps we should start a letter campaign!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. How [not] to teach science – Avant Parenting linked to this post on April 17, 2011

    […] To be continued: My hopes and fears for the new Exploratorium. […]

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