One year, the faculty at my elementary school decided to take everyone-it was a small school-to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. We had our worksheets, we divided into small groups, and we were allowed to wander about and look at whatever struck our fancy. I remember being somewhat reluctant at first to actually touch the exhibits, having been told at every other museum that touching was absolutely not allowed, but I was soon persuaded to get get my hands in there with everyone else. And in my case, at least, the experience was an unqualified success: I remember more science from that one visit than I do from an entire quarter of astronomy in college. I remember standing in an exhibit of mirrors and seeing myself replicated too many times to count; I can still feel the intriguing non-pain pain of pressing my hands and face into a pin screen. Science came alive for me in a way that it never had before, and gave me a new sense of possibility-maybe science was fun, after all!
When I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Rob Semper, Executive Associate Director of the Exploratorium, my first order of business was to ask if that pin screen is still there (it is). Dr. Semper has been with the Exploratorium for more than 20 years, and he enjoys watching students and adults become engaged with the museum’s exhibits. The goal of the Exploratorium, and other science centers like it, Semper says, is to stimulate visitors to become active participants in their own learning. “Places like the Exploratorium are, in a sense, collections of ideas and points of view about nature as much as they are collections of objects,” he says. “In a way, they are collections of experiences. The visitor is really in charge of their visit, and what interests them is what drives their visit.”
Windows of Perception
The Exploratorium was started in 1969 at around the same time as other science centers were opening across the country. The premise behind these centers-there are now more than 200 of them-is to encourage visitors to explore nature on their own. When the Exploratorium first opened, its exhibits were mainly related to human perception, such as seeing, hearing, and touching. As it grew, the exhibits expanded to include more of the underlying science concepts involved with perception, including light, color, and sound waves. There are now more than 500 exhibits that cover nature and science, and 20 to 25 new exhibits are built each year to add to the collection. Ideas for these exhibits come from the Exploratorium’s staff of scientists and artists, but also from visiting teachers and other interested members of the public. “We’re a place not only of exhibits but of constant exploration in new ideas in science, and visitors are invited to come along with us on these journeys of exploration,” Semper says.
Each year, the Exploratorium welcomes more than 600,000 visitors, and some of the most popular exhibits with students, Semper notes, seem to be those that deal with light and color. Sample exhibits on images and light deal with the nature of light and creating images, how light gets perceived, and some aspects of animal vision. “The perceptual exhibits are big favorites because they can tell you a lot about yourself as well as what you are seeing,” he explains. “For example, not everyone sees the same thing; there is a great variation in how people see color or color differences.” One way students can physically experiment with light and color is to shine a light through a prism and different color filters and observe how the light is spread out in a colored spectrum.
This tactile interaction with the exhibits is a key element in giving students a good grasp of what goes on in science and nature. The Exploratorium is not a museum where visitors stroll past interesting objects and admire them with their hands clasped behind their backs; no, here they are expected to actively explore and work with the materials in front of them. “Our exhibits really require the visitor to do something,” says Semper. “You have to be an active participant-you manipulate things and try them out for yourself to really satisfy your own questions.” At one exhibit, for example, students can see how nerve cells work by stimulating actual nerve cells and watching the electrical response. At another, they learn about DNA by manipulating models that illustrate the double-helix construction. A staff of Explainers, mostly high school students from San Francisco, is on hand to help people interact with the exhibits, asking and answering questions. Interestingly, most of these Explainers, Semper notes, are not necessarily exemplary science students, yet after working for several months at the Exploratorium they have gained a wealth of knowledge about science and their own learning process.
Role Models of Inquiry
“The most important thing is not so much learning a particular fact or idea, but rather stimulating in students the notion of questioning, of even being interested in the first place,” Semper says. He encourages teachers to bring their classes in at the beginning of the year rather than the end because it can generate an interest and a curiosity that can help drive discussions all year long. Hands-on interaction with science and nature can give children a visible and visceral understanding that can serve as the foundation for what they learn in the more formal classroom settings.
One way teachers can help make a trip to the Exploratorium successful is to come ahead of time and visit the museum without their students to get a sense of what is there. That way, the teacher has personalized the museum to an extent and is able to offer students a base of common knowledge to familiarize them with it as well. Some teachers have even developed worksheets based on the exhibits that they can have their students use while there. When at the museum with their students, teachers should participate with them as learners, even if that means not always knowing the answers to questions. “It’s important for students to see teachers modeling the process of exploration,” Semper explains
Another possible preparatory activity is to have students make one of the exhibits in The Exploratorium Science Snackbook: Teacher-Created Versions of Exploratorium Exhibits, which is a compendium of modified exhibits that have been adapted to be less expensive and easier to create. After building some of the exhibits in the book, the students come to the museum and examine the exhibit after which their creations are modeled.
The Exploratorium offers more formal training and professional development for teachers at the K-5 level and the 6-12 level. Teachers from beyond the San Francisco Bay Area are encouraged to participate alongside local teachers in three-week-long summer workshops and follow-up activities. The K-5 program, called Institute for Inquiry, is designed primarily for professional developers and helps participants develop their skills in providing inquiry-based science professional development in their home districts. The Exploratorium Teacher Institute works with 6-12 grade teachers to develop teaching skills for science that are specific to the exhibit content at the museum.
“The exciting thing about informal education is that it can happen at almost any time, at places that are available to families, to students, and to teachers,” Semper says. “Science centers and museums are places people come to all the time; they are part of the community educational enterprise that can be used in many different ways. People come here with a well-developed base of knowledge and ideas. But it is often the opportunities of surprise that become the key educational events.”